Sunday, December 29, 2013

The tweet that roared:
Justine Sacco’s digital object lesson

IF YOU made it a movie, the sudden saga of Justine Sacco would be the stealth disaster movie on a plane, the one where the heroine can’t see what’s coming because the coming calamity is happening all around her, in real time, and she’s in no position to change what she started, accidentally on purpose.

With a thoughtless tweet, Sacco, the now-former senior director of corporate communications of InterActive Corp., the Internet behemoth, learned the hard object lessons of communicating in the digital age. The combination of an instantaneous global platform and no margin for error by its users made Sacco herself an object lesson in How to Talk Today, and how not to.

Before boarding a London flight heading for Johannesburg, South Africa, Sacco assumed the role of an attitude-rich trip diarist when she posted a travel tweet on Dec. 20: "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!"

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When she landed almost 11 hours later, on a flight with no wi-fi (and therefore no chance to delete what she’s posted) Sacco was the anti-toast of the Internet. In the time it took for her to take her trip, the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet achieved Internet critical mass, achieving top trending status. Her arrival was noted when she landed:

IAC management assumed a damage-control crouch that was dizzyingly swift and uncompromising. On Dec. 20, IAC issued the following statement: “This is an outrageous, offensive comment that does not reflect the views and values of IAC. Unfortunately, the employee in question is unreachable on an international flight, but this is a very serious matter and we are taking appropriate action.”

IAC, the conglomerate run by Barry Diller (chairman and senior executive), includes such top-flight media brands as,, Vimeo,, Tinder, UrbanSpoon, OKCupid and The Daily Beast.

“The offensive comment does not reflect the views and values of IAC. We take this issue very seriously, and we have parted ways with the employee in question," the company said in an e-mail the next day.

"There is no excuse for the hateful statements that have been made and we condemn them unequivocally. We hope, however, that time and action, and the forgiving human spirit, will not result in the wholesale condemnation of an individual who we have otherwise known to be a decent person at core," the statement said.

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SACCO, REALIZING the damage done, quickly deleted her Twitter account, and her Facebook account as well. Then she went into damage-control mode, issuing an apology in the South African newspaper The Star:

“Words cannot express how sorry I am, and how necessary it is for me to apologize to the people of South Africa, who I have offended due to a needless and careless tweet," Sacco said in the statement. "There is an AIDS crisis taking place in this country, that we read about in America, but do not live with or face on a continuous basis. Unfortunately, it is terribly easy to be cavalier about an epidemic that one has never witnessed firsthand.

“For being insensitive to this crisis -- which does not discriminate by race, gender or sexual orientation, but which terrifies us all uniformly -- and to the millions of people living with the virus, I am ashamed.”

But the outrage kept trickling in, day after day. Nsenga Burton, writing in The Huffington Post, holding Sacco to account for gross insensitivity:

“Nearly 15 percent of South Africa's population is HIV positive, that's almost 6 million people. Her tweet demonstrates that she knows very little about the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa. Since she clearly doesn't understand, I'll make it plain for her with an example she can understand; imagine that 75 percent of the people living in the city of London were HIV positive. Would that be funny?”

And as it often happens online these days, outrage preceded outrageousness. That opening crack about this being a disaster movie may have some traction. If you’ve got any doubt that the myriad voices in the blogosphere — from the CAPS LOCK cognoscenti to the people who actually know how to write — are out in front of this whole thing, consider the parody film poster already making the rounds, announcing a vote for casting the inevitable major motion picture that’s sure to come.

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Justin Sacco learned the hard way that there’s a new alignment to the media playing field, a new threshold, a very different event horizon than she thought there was when she was the senior director of corporate communications of a serious internet player. In the context of social media commentary, the idea of a signal/noise ratio — the proportion of insightful commentary to that of overcapitalized vitriol —goes out the window in an environment in which too many people think other people’s signals are noise.

It’s a free-for-all. And nobody knows free-for-alls like the folks on Wall Street. Stock in the microblogging phenomenon called Twitter has soared and dipped, just like the blue bird that is the company’s logo. But mostly soared.

But Wall Street clipped the blue bird’s wings on Friday, when shares were downgraded on concerns of overvaluation. Shares closed down Friday at $63.75, down 13 percent, in the biggest one-day decline since Twitter went public in November, at the IPO price of $26.

“The people who rode it up over the past few days all of a sudden got pretty nervous,” said Robert Pavlik, chief market strategist at Banyan Partners, a New York investment adviser, to The Wall Street Journal. “People are always looking for a quick way to make a buck. Twitter was the bet until it wasn't, and it ran out of steam.”

Michael Pagan, commenting over at MarketWatch, was flat-out downbeat: “It looks like the Twitter bubble has burst. As the saying goes, the bull comes up the stairs, the bear jumps out the window... Anyone care to bet on a 50% decline in Twitter's value by next Friday?”

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MANY ANALYSTS have focused on the raw traffic numbers, already impressive year over year. But in some ways they’re missing the overall, the number that really matters: the long-term rate of growth. Year over year over year, Twitter has been a winner. True, its rate of growth has slowed somewhat recently. Mike Isaac at All Things D reported on Oct. 15 that “In the third quarter of this year, Twitter’s active user base grew by 39 percent over Q3 2012. In Q2, Twitter’s year-over-year growth rate had been 44 percent.”

Overlooking for now the thoroughly unreasonable notion that consistent YOY growth of 40 percent is somehow lackluster performance, offset that figure against the company’s status in March 2011: “For the past month, the average daily sign-up rate has been 460,000 new accounts, and Twitter has also marked a 182% increase” in mobile users in the previous year, Catharine Smith of The Huffington Post reported.

Contrast that with Twitter’s phenomenal rate of growth in March 2009. Adam Ostrow at Mashable reported: “The latest numbers from Nielsen Online indicate that Twitter grew 1,382% year-over-year in February.”

Other, more current metrics tell the same story. At Forbes, Chuck Jones reported that “U.S. advertising revenue was $165 million in the first half of 2013, an increase of 89% year over year.

“Twitter generated $121 million in advertising revenue in the June quarter, an increase of 104% year over year and 87% of its total revenue,” Jones reported in October, in a story that forecast profitability for Twitter in 2015.

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BUT IN other, powerful ways that elude the analysts, Twitter has assumed that irrefutable position in the media culture. The blue bird has become digital lingua franca, the word for its foundational transmission form — the tweet — now part of the language of our time. For its 220 million active users, more this year than last, Twitter has reordered the modern conversation, for better and worse.

More immediate than Facebook, Twitter facilitates the way we talk and think rightnow. The tweet that roars does so at the lightning speed the Internet has entitled us to expect. We’re consequently quicker to draw conclusions, render snap judgments, substitute snark for substance. To make irreversible mistakes.

Justine Sacco will walk the modern media trail of tears. It’s already started with her apology in a high place. A TV mea culpa may be next (calling David Letterman!). The All Apologies Tour is just beginning.

To some extent, what’s also started is a kind of survey class on the power and breadth of social media, and an object lesson for anyone who underestimates that power and breadth. It’s because of events-turned-processes-turned-events like this that anyone who thinks Twitter hasn’t permeated into the bedrock of the American digital era isn’t paying attention. They’re not paying attention to the millions of people, more year after year, who pay close attention to things on Twitter every minute of every single day of our rapid-fire lives. Paying attention when nobody thinks they are.

There’s one former senior director of corporate communications who can testify to that.

Image credits: Justine Sacco: Justine Sacco via Facebook. Sacco in Johannesburg: Zac via Twitter. IAC logo: © 2013 IAC. Parody movie poster: Via Zimbio. Twitter page views graph: From Twitter S-1 filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission, via Forbes. Twitter logos: © 2013 Twitter.

The Year in JibJab 2013

Maybe the triskadekaphobes got it right after all. By pretty close to acclimation, 2013 — with disasters political, social, cultural, meteorological and economic — is one year to get in the rear-view mirror, and fast.

The good folks at JibJab Media said as much with the 2013 edition of their annual parting shot at the year soon to be over, with a nod to everything from a government that didn’t need to be shut down to various and sundry public figures who wouldn’t shut up.

To the tune of “Give My Regards to Broadway,” JibJab puts paid to the year of twerking, the apotheosis of Kanye and Kim, the impact of the drone on our war footing, the passing of people we’ll miss (and not), and the revelations of one Edward Snowden.

You’ve lived through the year; here’s the sendoff it probably deserves:

Image credit: JibJab logo: © 2013 JibJab Media.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Stonewall bridge: Governor Christie
gets caught in traffic

THERE MAY be another toll taken over the George Washington Bridge in the near future, and it’s got nothing to do with any of the 276,000 vehicles that cross that span between New York and New Jersey every day.

Chris Christie, the mercurial New Jersey Republican governor at least contemplating a run for the White House in 2016, is under growing fire for what may or may not be his role in a traffic nightmare that briefly snarled the lives of citizens in a New Jersey town, catching them up in a still-unresolved gridlock mystery possibly motivated as much by political mischief as anything else.

The ensuing fallout has reached Washington; as the matter unravels, the governor may find any planned route from New Jersey to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue could be a lot more complicated than he thinks.

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The background: For four days (Sept. 9-13), drivers trying to get into Manhattan by the George Washington Bridge on any of three access lanes in Fort Lee, N.J., discovered that two of the three lanes were inexplicably closed with no advance warning. Because of the closure, traffic leading onto the bridge — no doubt sclerotic enough on a good day — clogged up Fort Lee's local roads, backing up for many blocks and outraging commuters.

The lane closures happened a few weeks after Mark Sokolich, the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, refused to join the wave of endorsers for Christie’s re-election as governor — a race Christie won handily, as widely expected.

The closures were ordered by David Wildstein, director of interstate capital projects for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and a former Christie high school friend. Wildstein was paid $150,000 per year.

Wildstein’s supervisor was Bill Baroni, the Port Authority deputy executive director, pulling down a handsome $291,000 a year, according to the Washington Post.

Both have since resigned their positions. Curious.

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Before he resigned, Baroni, a former state senator, said the lane closures were part of a traffic study. This was apparently big news to Patrick Foye, the Port Authority executive director, who said he had no knowledge of any spot study of traffic on the lanes leading to the busiest vehicle bridge on the planet.


In a press conference, Christie said he accepted the explanations of the two officials who quit their jobs on his behalf. Christie said that, while he admitted his two former roadway lieutenants may have exceeded their (port) authority, it didn’t mean there were any malign political motivations behind what they did.

“I can only tell you what Sen. Baroni has said publicly and to everybody in this office, which is they believed the traffic study was necessary and that they ordered it, but the way they did it was mistaken and they didn't follow protocols,” Christie said.

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NONE OF which has satisfied Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the West Virginia Democrat who heads the Senate Commerce Committee. In a letter to the Port Authority, which runs the GWB, Rockefeller expressed concern “about the larger federal implications of what appears to be political appointees abusing their power to hamper interstate commerce and safety without public notice.”

Rockefeller sent another letter Monday, calling for the U.S. Department of Transportation to expand its role in overseeing the Port Authority. “I ask that you review the events of this incident and examine the Department's authority to ensure oversight of the agency to prevent future disruptions,” the senator wrote to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

“We’re accustomed to port authorities who don’t think that accountability is part of their job, or that they have to report to anybody in the world, even though we have complete oversight over them,” Rockefeller told the New York Daily News on Tuesday. “And this appears to be another one of those examples.”

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All this emerging traffic may not amount to much, but there’s a regionalism behind this that ironically works for and against Christie. Rightly or wrongly, despite the status of the 4,760-foot George Washington Bridge as a major artery for commerce in the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area — and its status as the busiest bridge in the world, moving 102 million personal and commercial vehicles a year — this may not resonate for people across the country, as they weigh potential contenders for the presidency.

Depending, of course, on where Rockefeller’s call for a wider investigation leads, this may not have traction for voters much beyond the east coast.

And that’s the problem for Christie: He may not have traction beyond the east coast, either. Despite the moving images of Christie with President Obama surveying the damage of Hurricane Sandy last year (on the eve of the 2012 election), and his face gracing the cover of Time magazine twice in one year, not that much about Christie as a presidential hopeful — his policy prescriptions, what he brings to the table besides Joisey attitude — has really resonated across the nation.

He’s been optically characterized as a moderate Republican, but that’s only in contrast with those more extreme members of his party, the ones on Capitol Hill howling for red meat every chance they get. Christie’s still something of an unknown quantity. This traffic tie-up won’t help.

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TO THE degree that he is known nationally, there’s a sense that Christie can be something of a bully, wantonly pugnacious, confrontational by default even when he’s in the right. It’s a style of rule that might play when he’s hard by the New Jersey Turnpike. Other places in America? Not so much.

That perception didn’t come out of nowhere. The New York Daily News reported in March 2012 how Christie laid into William Brown, a former Navy SEAL, calling the veteran an “idiot” at a New Jersey town hall meeting. The two had reportedly clashed over Christie’s plans to merge two public universities.

Brown, a law school student at Rutgers-Camden, and someone who opposed the proposed merger of his school with Rowan University, expressed concerns that Christie’s plan would damage the value of his degree. Christie began an explanation and Brown — a little rudely, it must be said — interrupted the governor. Christie went off.

"Let me tell you something, after you graduate from law school, you conduct yourself like that in a courtroom, your rear end is going to be thrown in jail, idiot," Christie shouted as Brown left — led away by police. “I had two cops holding my arms,” he said later. “I served my country, I am a combat veteran and they escorted me out like I was a criminal. I couldn’t believe this is America.”

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Maybe Wildstein acted unilaterally when he ordered the lane closures in September; let’s assume for the sake of argument that he did not. You still have to consider how an action like that reflects on Wildstein’s ultimate boss. A style of leadership moves from the head down; at the state level,  the governor sets the tone, establishes the style of governance for any administration.

New Jersey state Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg said as much Monday to The Washington Post. “Do I think Governor Christie called the Port Authority and said, ‘Close lanes!’? No,” Weinberg said. “But do I think he’s helped to create an atmosphere where his political operatives think they’re free to use the biggest bridge in the world for punitive action against somebody? I have to believe that it has to do with politics, because there is no other rational explanation for it.”

If Wildstein acted on orders from Christie directly or indirectly, the problem for the governor is obvious. But even if Wildstein didn’t, by implication it’s a bad reflection on Christie’s managerial style. It would point to a chief executive in the dark about the actions of his subordinates, maybe even willfully blind to what those subordinates are doing at any given time. Not exactly the captain-at-the-helm persona that a possible presidential contender wants to put before the public.

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HOWEVER IT turns out, the bridge episode tarnishes the Christie narrative. “It undercuts his key argument that he’s a straight shooter,” said Democratic National Committee spokesman Michael Czin, to The Washington Post. “It highlights the worst about his bombast and his condescension.”

Mo Elleithee, the Democratic National Committee communications director, agrees.

“Governor Christie’s condescension and swagger might be amusing to the late night talk show crowd, but now that he’s looking to play on the national stage, he needs to realize that the rest of us don’t find it charming,” Elleithee said in a Dec. 9 statement, as reported by The Record. “These are serious questions about the Christie Administration’s actions and conduct – insulting those asking questions won’t make them go away.”

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Even Christie’s reaction to the Fort Lee incident suggests that he didn’t take it seriously. After it was first revealed, Christie made light of the whole thing. “Unbeknownst to everybody, I was actually the guy out there,” the governor joked at a news conference on Dec. 2. “I was the guy working the cones.”

For anyone trying to get from Fort Lee into Manhattan on any of the four gridlocked days in September — doctors, lawyers, EMTs, students, people with heart conditions, anyone with something important to do — it certainly wasn’t a laughing matter.

It’s not a laugher to John Wisnieswki, either. The New Jersey Assemblyman has subpoenaed all correspondence between Christie, Foye, Wildstein and Baroni — the better, apparently, to get answers to the Watergate-era question of what the principal parties knew and when they knew it. The officials have until Thursday to respond, according to, reporting on Monday.

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SOME REPUBLICAN strategists think the whole thing is being deliberately overplayed by Democrats, many of whom consider Christie the strongest likely challenger to a presidential run by Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state.

Those strategists need to look somewhere else. Right now they should be more concerned with the man who would be president. Already regarded as a governor with a reputation for bare-knuckled rhetoric and a short fuse with the press, Christie’s now susceptible to the perception that he’s prone to Nixonian machinations.

Irony dead ahead: The damage they think will be done to Christie by the Democrats is well on the way to being done by Christie himself.

Image credits: Anti-Christie ad: Correct the Record (arm of American Bridge SuperPAC). Baroni: Trentonian/Gregg Slaboda. Rockefeller: public domain. George Washington Bridge: via Wikipedia. Christie Time cover: © 2013 Time Inc. George Washington Bridge lane closure: Jen Brown/The Star-Ledger.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

‘Saturday Night Live’ comes back to the 21st century

THE NEWS was just short of jaw-dropping when it arrived on Thursday. After years without a black female cast member, “Saturday Night Live” announced it was adding one to its cast sometime early next year. The sun reportedly did not rise in the west that day.

The New York Times and The Washington Post broke the news of the long-running show’s plans to make the casting addition, and the news that the show’s producers had held secret auditions reserved for black female comedians. “Bresha Webb (Love that Girl), Simone Shepherd, Tiffany Haddish, Beth Payne, Darmirra Brunson, and Gabrielle Dennis (The Game) were among those invited to perform,” The Post reported, using the names of comedians invited to one showcase.

The show, just short of 40 years in production, has had issues consistently making diversity a factor in its cast. Thursday’s news was a cause for celebration that didn’t need to be one. Jay Anderson, commenting at The Post, said it plain: “If black women are good enough to run Ivy League Universities and Fortune 500 companies, I'm guessing there are a few of them ‘qualified’ enough to read cue cards on a sketch comedy show. Everyone chill out, the world isn't crumbling here.”

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True enough. But this moment in pop-cultural acknowledgement of American reality was in part brought to you by Color of Change, the 501(c)(4) nonprofit grassroots civil rights advocacy organization that played a big role in bringing down Glenn Beck from his perch at Fox News, and getting Pat Buchanan cashiered from MSNBC for irretrievably racist comments.

Color of Change jumped in after the long-running NBC weekend comedy franchise, engaged in a rare act of self-deprecation, the kind of thing that could make viewers think they were kidding and serious at the same time.

Leave it to Kerry Washington, one of Hollywood’s best and brightest, to speak truth to some kinda power. In the skit that opened the Nov. 2 show, Washington, the star of ABC’s hit show “Scandal,” began by playing Michelle Obama, opposite the show’s standing President Obama (Jay Pharoah). Michelle’s visiting the president in the Oval Office when an advisor comes in to say that Oprah Winfrey’s waiting outside.

Washington/Michelle Obama dashes off the set and returns moments later ... as Oprah.

Moments later, another interruption from the same aide, who tells the president that, lo and behold, Beyoncé is waiting to meet him.

You guessed it: Washington/Michelle/Oprah runs off the set and comes back as ... Beyoncé.

If you didn’t get it at that point, an announcement scrolled up over the screen:

“The producers at Saturday Night Live would like to apologize to Kerry Washington for the number of black women she will be asked to play. We make these requests because Ms. Washington is an actress of considerable range and talent -- and also because SNL does not currently have a black woman on the cast. Mostly the latter. We agree this is not an ideal situation and look forward to rectifying it in the near future, unless, of course, we fall in love with another white guy first.”

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SNL” AND the show’s über jefe, Lorne Michaels, got some short-term points for that tongue-embedded-in-cheek self-awareness of something that’s been an on-again, off-again problem for the show from the beginning in October 1975. Since then, the big question was: What’s next?

Michaels addressed the criticism the following week, telling The Associated Press he was sure there would be a black woman on the cast again soon. “It's not like it's not a priority for us,” Michaels told the AP. “It will happen. I'm sure it will happen.”

For Color of Change, that generalized assurance just wasn’t enough. The organization’s director, Rashad Robinson, called on Michaels to address the issue. Seriously.

“Since Maya Rudolph's departure in 2007, SNL has failed to cast even one Black woman -- yet still manages to traffic in dehumanizing portrayals that make race and gender the butt of the joke," executive director Rashad Robinson said in a letter to Michaels and the show’s producers at NBC. The letter was obtained and published by The Hollywood Reporter.

“SNL seems committed to aggressively continuing to push images of Black women as incompetent, rude, hypersexual and financially dependent. Frankly, we're tired of this disrespect.”

More: “[I]t's critical to note that the callous, monolithic representations of Black people peddled by SNL and others have alarming real-world impacts. Media depictions of Black individuals, families and communities irrefutably shape how we're perceived in society. ... Given the substantial real-life consequences of your ability to evolve casting practices at SNL, we are demanding to know what you will do to ensure Black women are no longer excluded from the show.”

To make sure Michaels doesn’t put this on a deep backburner, Robinson called for a phone meeting with Michaels later in November to address the situation. Whenever that phone meeting happened, it yielded some meaningful results on Thursday.

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It’ll be a huge and welcome break from the past for ‘SNL,’ whose track record on finding and retaining black talent of either gender has always been troublesome, but never as concerning as it was vis-à-vis black actresses.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Gun control in America: The new war

“Nobody knows, from sea to shining sea, why we are having all this trouble with our republic.”

                 — Thomas McGuane, “Ninety-Two in the Shade”

ONE YEAR AGO on Saturday, someone with a gun got loose in an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., and killed 20 schoolchildren and six adults. Two days ago, another someone with a gun got loose in a high school in Centennial, Colo., and killed himself after critically wounding a student.

Between the two dates — one day short of a year — an estimated 33,373 people in the United States have died by gun violence, according to estimates by the Centers for Disease Control.

Between the two locations — and beyond them, elsewhere in the country — is a tragic story of how conflict resolution or the resolution of personal, private trauma is a matter of picking up a gun. Of taking one’s own life or someone else’s with a firearm. It's the story of life during another wartime.

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An interactive project jointly undertaken last year by and @GunDeaths, a wonderfully ambitious Twitter user, both reveals the depths of the problem, and fails to do so, through no fault of its own. It’s a sad irony that, in spite of their efforts to be exact about the tally, absolute precision is impossible.

“As time goes on, our count gets further and further away from the likely actual number of gun deaths in America — because roughly 60 percent of deaths by gun are due to suicides, which are very rarely reported,” said Dan Kois, a Slate senior editor, in June of this year.

The gun violence that haunts this country is often (and rightly) focused on violence against others; the Newtown tragedy, which follows that cruel pattern of behavior, has scarred that community and this nation in irreparable ways. But Kois’ disclosure that 60 percent of gun deaths are suicides is something else again. That statistic points to something else loose in the American dynamic: a fugue state of hopelessness; a viral strain of despair; a rampant climate of internal surrender that’s as frightening as it is apparently pervasive.

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IT MAY BE more than a coincidence that the Centers for Disease Control is apparently one of the prime sources of information on gun violence in America. It suggests that gun violence is, and deserves to be studied as, a matter of public health, something whose manifestation is consistent with disease.

At a January forum on gun violence as a public health issue, sponsored by the Harvard School of Public Health and Reuters, Harvard Medical School professor of child psychiatry Felton Earls observed: “Violent behavior is learned behavior. It is reflected in the brain but is not carried by genes. We have done a good job of changing social norms with respect to child abuse. Now we need to broaden this to include exposure to violence.”

In October, members of the Pennsylvania Medical Society recommended that more research be done into gun violence as a public health concern, and called for an increase in government funding for that purpose.

“With more information, particularly from a public health point of view, we might be able to reduce deaths and injury caused by gun violence without disrupting the rights of gun owners and the intent of the Second Amendment," said Bruce A. MacLeod, the society’s president and a practicing emergency medicine physician in Pittsburgh.

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Part of the disease of gun violence stems from a conflict among Americans whose views on gun control are at odds with themselves. A new poll by YouGov and The Huffington Post points to this curious disconnect: Public support for more stringent gun laws has declined after the Newtown shootings, despite the occurrence of other mass-casualty events since Newtown, the poll finds.

“According to the poll, support for stricter gun laws is as high or higher among Democrats as it was at the height of the post-Newtown bump in support,” HuffPost reported on Dec. 10. “Eighty-five percent of Democrats now say that they want stricter gun laws, while 78 percent said so in the early January poll that represented the post-Newtown high for support overall.

“Among both independents and Republicans, though, that support has fallen. Thirty-four percent of independents and 20 percent of Republicans now say they want stricter gun laws, compared with 56 percent of independents and 40 percent of Republicans who supported it when post-Newtown concern was at its peak.”

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AT THE SAME time, the poll finds, backing for the still-controversial idea of universal background checks for all gun purchasers, “remains near its peak since the [Newtown] shooting.” According to the survey, “[s]eventy-seven percent of poll respondents said they favored such a requirement, while 16 percent were opposed.”

It might just be a matter of misinformation. The HuffPost/YouGov survey found that “nearly one-third of Americans, or 31 percent, said they think everyone who buys a gun at a gun show is already required to first undergo a background check, while 53 percent correctly said that's not true. That perception was highest among Democrats, 37 percent of whom said they think that's already a requirement.

“And 17 percent of Americans think that Congress has already passed new gun laws since the Newtown shooting, although a much higher percentage (63 percent) said correctly that it has not. The belief that Congress has already passed stricter gun laws was most common among Republicans, 25 percent of whom said they believe it has.”

Friday, December 13, 2013

‘Mad Men’: The end of a love affair?

IT WAS widely reported on Thursday: “Mad Men,” the celebrated AMC series on life, ego and passion at a New York ad agency in the ‘60’s, had failed to secure a Golden Globes nomination for Best Drama for the second straight year.

The Matthew Weiner series, which debuted in 2007, is one of television’s best written and acted series in decades, and was once a lock in the Emmy Awards Best Drama category, winning four years in a row. This year the show’s creators and stars had to watch as other series – including CBS’s “The Good Wife,” PBS’s "Downton Abbey,” Netflix’s “House Of Cards,” and AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” won Globe nods.

The Hollywood Reporter’s Tim Goodman observes that “there's certainly something in the zeitgeist about knocking Mad Men down a few pegs after its sixth season.” In his Bastard Machine column, Goodman calls the decision to omit “Mad Men” from the Golden Globes derby “inconceivable and ridiculous,” but he says that after warning readers that “[t]he first rule of the Golden Globes is always ‘prepare yourself for the crazy’ ... because it's impossible to know what's going on inside the personal globes of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.”

What may be going on could be nothing more than HFPA members suffering from TV attention deficit disorder; with so many new and powerful dramas to choose from, the omission of “Mad Men” may be as much about being wooed by other, newer series this year as making a conscious decision to dis “Mad Men.”

But it’s possible that the HFPA may have thought that a recent AMC programming decision tried their patience once too often, and that — consistent with the feelings of many viewers — it was time to pre-emptively say out loud what some have thought in private: “Mad Men,” we’re just not that into you anymore.

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In September, AMC announced that “Mad Men” would end the series with a bifurcated seventh season: seven episodes in the spring of 2014 (dubbed “The Beginning”) and seven in 2015 (to be called “The End of An Era”), following the programming examples of other shows such as HBO’s “The Sopranos” and “Breaking Bad.”

“This approach has worked well for many programs across multiple networks, and, most recently for us with ‘Breaking Bad,’ which attracted nearly double the number of viewers to its second-half premiere than had watched any previous episode,” said AMC President Charlie Collier, in a statement. “We are determined to bring 'Mad Men' a similar showcase.”

Weiner said that the decision, while not his to make, means that the show “can resonate a little bit longer in the minds of our audience.”

Coinciding with the finale of Season 6, in June, Weiner did an interview with Jace Lacob of The Daily Beast: “If you’d told me that I would have 78 episodes of this show when I started, I would have run away. I would have never thought that it could happen, or been scared of even trying to make it happen. To me, this whole thing is just a dream. We’re really thrilled that, this deep into the show we can continue to surprise and interest people, and the level of interest this season has been so positive. I hope that they’ve enjoyed the journey.”

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BUT THAT’S the thing about journeys: Sooner or later, on a long one, you get tired of traveling. You don’t want to get somewhere, you want to be somewhere. That’s the thrust of the reactions from many “Mad Men” loyalists, a wave of consternation you could call the wisdom of crowds.

MrsCoach, commenting at Vulture: “The point is that they're filming it all as one season (now) but locking half of it up in a closet somewhere until 2015. It's not like they're extending the actors' contracts for another year. What I'm wondering is how they're going to get [series lead Jon] Hamm et al. to promote the second half — they'll all have moved on to bigger projects and none of them is going to want to talk about something they filmed two years in the past.”

Hollowaynotharris, Vulture: “It's agony to wait 9-10 months for 13 episodes. Now we have to wait 9-10 months for seven and then another 9-10 for the last seven? Will this show end with a bang a la Breaking Bad or with a devastating whimper due to overstaying its welcome? I hope it's not the latter.”

◊ ◊ ◊

The gist of these reactions, and others, speaks to what was once “Mad Men’s” greatest appeal and, the loss of which, now threatens to be its undoing: its place in the national life.

For the first four seasons of “Mad Men,” there was a powerful, indelible connection between the show and its audience. Watching it was a common American experience: After the show was broadcast on Sundays, the foibles and quirks of the characters in any given episode were the stuff of office talk the next day. The show that aired the night before was all anyone could talk about: Do you believe what Don did last night? What's Joan up to? What was Roger thinking? What’s Peggy’s next move? “Mad Men” was an absolutely indispensable component of the wider cultural conversation.

That role in the national chatter was naturally endangered anyway, as newer shows emerged from AMC and other networks. Now, with the decision to stretch the final season over two years, “Mad Men” may well be losing its place in the watercooler zeitgeist, if it hasn’t happened already. People aren’t talking about it like they used to. For better or worse, there’s simply too much else to pay attention to that’s reliably right in front of us every week.

◊ ◊ ◊

Mark P., commenting at The Huffington Post, understands this: “Before Breaking Bad, Mad Men was my favorite show on the tube. The problem with Mad Men is it has an EIGHT show season then it's on hiatus for MONTHS at a time ... you end up losing interest after a while as other new shows are introduced that are pretty good.”

It would be one thing if the last season had to be dragged out to accommodate reality — if the show had to do it because of actors’ conflicting schedules with other projects, or because of protracted contract negotiations (which is what took it off the air for 17 months, all of 2011 and part of 2012). That’s not the case now: the final season is already shot and in the can, the stars moving on to other projects, like ads for Mercedes-Benz and Johnnie Walker Scotch.

Islandia, Vulture: “What irks me about the idea of a Mad Men split season is that it seems like a blatant mimicry of the Breaking Bad split season. BB pulled the format off successfully, so AMC thinks that Mad Men — a show with a very different atmosphere and momentum — can do the same. Rather than treating Mad Men as the separate artistic entity that it is and letting the story unfold from the inside out, it's being awkwardly packaged and distributed per the AMC ‘brand’.”

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WITH ITS snub of “Mad Men” for the Golden Globes, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association may have tapped not just into its’ members own feelings but also a sentiment shared by the public at large: It’s hard to matter if you’re not in the conversation. And you likely won’t be in the conversation if you go away for too long.

The show’s opening sequence, one of TV’s most memorable series identifiers, depicts a male figure (Don Draper?), falling out of control through a cityscape crowded with advertising images, an abyss of his own creation. For many “Mad Men” addicts, the prospect of that figure free-falling over the next 18 months or so is bad enough.

No fault of their own, but the builders of one of TV’s truly groundbreaking shows may have to contend with something once unthinkable: When that falling man hits the metaphorical sidewalk of the end of an era, and a series ... people might not care very much.

Image credits: “Mad Men” title card, production stills and motion graphic still (Falling Man): © 2013 Weiner Bros./Lionsgate, AMC. AMC logo: © 2013 AMC.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Quasi-Kum Ba Yah on Capitol Hill

THANKS TO a bipartisan budget agreement reached on Tuesday, one that just might result in the first U.S. budget since April 2009, the schism within the Republican Party only hinted at before — name-calling, spats and relatively minor squabbles — has finally jumped the shark into outright internal warfare.

With rank-and-file Republicans willing to support the deal (holding their noses if necessary) and various deep-pocketed outside agitators more than willing to oppose it, heads is truly tails in the 113th Congress, as rock-ribbed members of the GOP have been castigated for daring to actually do the people’s business. Steve Schmidt observed on MSNBC: “Now Paul Ryan is a RINO all of a sudden.”

The agreement reached by Republican House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Democrat Patty Murray of Washington state, Ryan’s equal member in the Senate, sets government spending at $1.012 trillion for the current fiscal year, which runs through September, and $1.014 trillion for the next year. The deal is a bid to prevent another government shutdown; the last one, in October, lasted 16 days and was a fat, noisy embarrassment to the Republicans who brought it on.

The Ryan-Murray agreement would eliminate about $45 billion from planned sequestration cuts set to take effect in January, and trim the deficit by about $23 billion. But nowhere in the deal is there any provision for extending unemployment benefits for about 1.3 million Americans — the long-term unemployed.

Cue the Rolling Stones: “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

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It’s a solid-waste sandwich for all concerned, and everyone gets to take a bite. That’s the takeaway from the measure, with something to like and dislike for all concerned. That's a working definition of compromise.

Introducing the measure alongside Murray on C-SPAN, Ryan described it as “a budget agreement that reduces spending without raising taxes” at the same time it blunts the impact of the sequester’s “arbitrary, across-the-board” cuts.

“This agreement makes sure that we don't have a shutdown scenario in January, it makes sure that we don't have a shutdown scenario in October. It makes sure that we don’t lurch from crisis to crisis,” he said. “This also shows that we can work together to get our government functioning at its very basic levels.”

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MURRAY AGREED. “For far too long here in Washington, D.C., compromise has been a dirty word when it comes to the budget,” Murray said. “We have broken through the partisanship and gridlock and reached a bipartisan agreement that will prevent a government shutdown in January [...] and roll back sequestration cuts." Murray said the agreement enforces the idea that "sequestration cuts shouldn't be replaced by spending cuts alone."

On “The Daily Show,” Jon Stewart riffed brilliantly on the physical space between Ryan (6-foot-1) and Murray (5-feet even). “These two members of Congress who did the deal are literal visual analogues for how the two sides cannot see eye to eye!” he said. “They are a life-size bar graph of the fiscal distance between the parties!”

The appearance of Ryan and Murray, optically speaking, was a turning point in itself. Regardless of their physical height, you had to do a double take, seeing a Democrat and a Republican at the same podium at the same time in this Congress. Progress comes in all shapes and sizes.

◊ ◊ ◊

The deal found a champion in House Speaker John Boehner, who revealed on Wednesday that the scales had fallen from his eyes.

Like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who expressed his own exasperation with conservative outlier troublemakers last week, Boehner stepped to the microphone and took dead aim at big-money organizations — Americans for Prosperity, Club for Growth, Freedom Works, Heritage Action — that are using Gestapo-spank pressure tactics to threaten House Republicans on budget matters.

Witness the exchange between Boehner and CBS News congressional correspondent Nancy Cordes:

Cordes: Mr. Speaker, most major conservative groups have put out statements blasting this deal. Are you worried that —

Boehner: You mean the groups that came out and opposed it before they ever saw it?

Cordes: Yes, those groups. Are you worried that —

Boehner: They’re using our members and they’re using the American people for their own goals. This is ridiculous.

This morning, Ryan said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that naysayers’ press releases “came flying out” opposing the deal “before Patty and I even reached an agreement.”

C-SPAN reported that the House is expected to begin debate on the measure today; House Democrats are said to uncommitted until the sensitive matter of unemployment benefits gets a hearing; the early betting line is that 1.3 million Americans won’t have much of a Christmas this year. Cue the Rolling Stones again.

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IT’S POSSIBLE that after this quasi-Kum Ba Yah moment passes on Capitol Hill, the new year will begin with new dark threats of scoring Republican votes from the professional obstructionists led by the Koch Brothers and Jim DeMint, the Heritage Foundation chieftain ... and a return to the interparty gridlock we’ve gotten used to.

Case in point: Marco Rubio, the Florida GOP senator making presidential noises, released a statement that was down on the deal almost the moment it was released (and maybe before). “We need a government with less debt and an economy with more good paying jobs, and this budget fails to accomplish both goals, making it harder for more Americans to achieve the American Dream,” he said in a statement reported by Talking Points Memo.

“Instead, this budget continues Washington’s irresponsible budgeting decisions by spending more money than the government takes in and placing additional financial burdens on everyday Americans.”

For now, for the moment, and Rubio’s indignation aside, the lion breaks bread with the lamb, or something like that. There’s a glimmer of bipartisan hope on the Hill. We’ll see where this goes. And where it doesn’t. Democrats have found some common ground with Republicans; now we'll see if Republicans can find common ground with Republicans.

Image credits: Ryan and Murray: © 2013 Comedy Partners/Comedy Central. Club for Growth logo: © 2013 Club for Growth. Rubio: CPAC via You Tube.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The sound of one handshake: Yapping

DEAR GOD, AMERICA! SWEET JESUS! WE’RE GOING TO DEFCON ONE!” This, dear readers was pretty much the heart of the right wing’s reaction to something that happened on Tuesday in Soweto at the memorial for Nelson Mandela. Oh, it wasn’t a reaction to the tribute itself; some of them had already gone on the record calling Mandela a Communist, a terrorist, a Soviet dupe, a Communist and a Communist. That much we expected from some of them.

No, the American conservative hair collectively caught fire when — in the spirit of Mandela’s example of reconciliation and in keeping with the uplifting, pacifist tone of the memorial — the president of the United States shook hands with ... the president of Cuba! Oh the humanity!

Yes, on his way to the podium to address the crowd of more than 60,000 people and dignitaries, President Obama stopped in the meet & greet line to briefly and perfunctorily shake hands with Cuban president Raúl Castro. As the Twitter blue bird exploded, Washington conservatives and right-wing media went predictably ape.

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Never mind the precedent already set (President Clinton shook hands with Fidel Castro in 2000 at the United Nations). For conservatives and their media mouthpieces, Obama’s handshake in Soweto was a chance to wave the bloodiest shirt they could find.

“I worry that the Raúl Castro regime will use it as a propaganda coup, and what message does that to the dissidents?” Florida GOP Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said to Fox News. The Cuban born congresswoman said much the same at a congressional hearing. “Sometimes a handshake is just a handshake, but when the leader of the free world shakes the bloody hand of a ruthless dictator like Raúl Castro, it becomes a propaganda coup for the tyrant," Ros-Lehtinen said to Secretary of State John Kerry.

And not to be outdone, or overlooked, talk-radio Doberman and former recreational pharmaceutical enthusiast Rush Limbaugh weighed in. ““Even in death, Mandela is uniting the Communist World,” Limbaugh said. “Obama’s got no business shakin’ the guy’s hand. Castro’s a dumpy little guy that runs a cheap little Communist nation.”

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AND it wouldn’t be a non-controversy without Arizona Maverick® Sen. John McCain jumping in the game with just the right historical overview. “It gives Raul some propaganda to continue to prop up his dictatorial, brutal regime, that's all," McCain said Tuesday on the Takeaway talk-radio show, echoing Ros-Lehtinen. “Why should you shake hands with somebody who's keeping Americans in prison? I mean, what's the point?”

“Neville Chamberlain shook hands with Hitler,” said the senator, whose memory elevator apparently stops before it reaches the floor marked “August 2009,” when he himself shook hands with Muammar Qaddafi, the late Libyan dictator, on a trip to Libya — even appearing to bow before the cartoon tinpot.

Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio let fly, too. “If the president was going to shake his hand, he should have asked him about those basic freedoms Mandela was associated with that are denied in Cuba,” he said.

Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, might have paid as much attention to what Obama said in Soweto as to what he did there. If the senator’d been listening, he’d have heard the president speak — and rather pointedly — to the same human-rights concerns Rubio has with Castro.

“There are too many of us who happily embrace Madiba's legacy of racial reconciliation, but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality,” Obama said, invoking Mandela’s clan name. “There are too many who claim solidarity with Madiba's struggle for freedom but do not tolerate dissent from their own people.”

◊ ◊ ◊

White House officials tried to put things in perspective, if that was possible. “Nothing was planned in terms of the president's role other than his remarks,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told Reuters and other media reps traveling with the president. “He really didn't do more than exchange greetings with those leaders on his way to speak, it wasn't a substantive discussion.”

Rhodes told the reporters that, to be sure, there are still real differences between Washington and Havana, even though the United States has taken steps to end the chill between the two countries, including relaxation of travel restrictions and enhanced cultural outreach.

“We continue to have the same grave concerns about both the human rights situation in Cuba and Alan Gross," Rhodes said, referring to the U.S. Agency for International Development government contractor jailed in December 2009 and convicted in March 2011 for bringing satellite phones and computer equipment to Cuban Jews. He was sentenced to 15 years.

◊ ◊ ◊

IT’S OF course regrettable that more than 50 years have passed since the Kennedy-era existential embargo was put in place, in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis. Other Obama presidential handshakes — with Putin of Russia and Xi Jinping of China — have taken place with a lot less conservative foaming at the mouth.

But context is everything. The fact of one incidental handshake on a receiving line, at an event intended to honor the memory of a revered world leader, shouldn’t have aroused the furor that ensued. The hue and cry says more about the people complaining than anyone else.

A lot’s been made by conservatives about the “optics” of the handshake in South Africa. It’s a sad commentary on our politics that so many people who oughta know better have such bad geopolitical eyesight.

Image credits: Obama and Castro: SABC via Reuters. McCain and Qaddafi: Associated Press. Gross: Obama and Putin: AP/Carolyn Kaster.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Hersh: Obama misled public on sarin gas attack in Syria

THE REPEATING history of concealment and distortion in high places is a common fact of American intelligence gathering and military intervention — not an automatic fact, but a fact often enough to have been somewhat predictable in our lifetimes.

A report written by veteran journalist Seymour M. Hersh and published Sunday in The London Review of Books presumes to draw a direct line from that history to near-current events of the Obama administration — and a more indirect connection between this nation’s contemplation of war in Syria and what Hersh says was the “manipulation of intelligence” that nearly got us into a third major international conflict in less than 15 years.

In Hersh’s exhaustive, provocative reporting, the Obama administration is blamed for extracting U.S. intelligence on the horrific sarin gas attack on civilians in a suburb of Damascus on August 21, and doing it in a way that suited the political objective of either launching a U.S. attack against the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad or establishing the pretext for doing so at some time in the future, this in response to a chemical weapons attack that claimed perhaps 1,429 lives — an attack that Hersh maintains may not have originated with the Assad regime at all.

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Excerpts from Hersh’s reporting follow, with its British-style punctuation and spelling intact:

Barack Obama did not tell the whole story this autumn when he tried to make the case that Bashar al-Assad was responsible for the chemical weapons attack near Damascus on 21 August. In some instances, he omitted important intelligence, and in others he presented assumptions as facts. Most significant, he failed to acknowledge something known to the US intelligence community: that the Syrian army is not the only party in the country’s civil war with access to sarin, the nerve agent that a UN study concluded – without assessing responsibility – had been used in the rocket attack.”

In his nationally televised speech about Syria on 10 September, Obama laid the blame for the nerve gas attack on the rebel-held suburb of Eastern Ghouta firmly on Assad’s government, and made it clear he was prepared to back up his earlier public warnings that any use of chemical weapons would cross a ‘red line’: ‘Assad’s government gassed to death over a thousand people,’ he said. ‘We know the Assad regime was responsible … And that is why, after careful deliberation, I determined that it is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike.’ Obama was going to war to back up a public threat, but he was doing so without knowing for sure who did what in the early morning of 21 August.

He cited a list of what appeared to be hard-won evidence of Assad’s culpability: ‘In the days leading up to August 21st, we know that Assad’s chemical weapons personnel prepared for an attack near an area where they mix sarin gas. They distributed gas masks to their troops. Then they fired rockets from a regime-controlled area into 11 neighbourhoods that the regime has been trying to wipe clear of opposition forces.’ Obama’s certainty was echoed at the time by Denis McDonough, his chief of staff, who told the New York Times: ‘No one with whom I’ve spoken doubts the intelligence’ directly linking Assad and his regime to the sarin attacks.

But Hersh, a journalist of generally impeccable reputation, reports that some in the U.S. intelligence community registered “intense concern, and on occasion anger, over what was repeatedly seen as the deliberate manipulation of intelligence.”

Hersh reports:

A former senior intelligence official told me that the Obama administration had altered the available information – in terms of its timing and sequence – to enable the president and his advisers to make intelligence retrieved days after the attack look as if it had been picked up and analysed in real time, as the attack was happening. The distortion, he said, reminded him of the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, when the Johnson administration reversed the sequence of National Security Agency intercepts to justify one of the early bombings of North Vietnam.

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HERSH SUGGESTS that, at best, the Obama administration was behind the curve on events in Syria. Some of his assertions center on the Morning Report, a daily digest of big global military events (and whatever intel is available about them) regularly sent to the secretary of defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the national security adviser and the director of national intelligence. During the events in August, then, those docs would have been delivered to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, national security adviser Susan Rice and Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr.

Hersh reports:

A senior intelligence consultant told me that some time after the attack he reviewed the reports for 20 August through 23 August. For two days – 20 and 21 August – there was no mention of Syria. On 22 August the lead item in the Morning Report dealt with Egypt; a subsequent item discussed an internal change in the command structure of one of the rebel groups in Syria. Nothing was noted about the use of nerve gas in Damascus that day. It was not until 23 August that the use of sarin became a dominant issue, although hundreds of photographs and videos of the massacre had gone viral within hours on YouTube, Facebook and other social media sites. At this point, the administration knew no more than the public. ...

The absence of immediate alarm inside the American intelligence community demonstrates that there was no intelligence about Syrian intentions in the days before the attack.

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One of Hersh’s assertions, reinforced by a former “senior intelligence official” he interviewed, undercuts the widely reported notion that the Assad regime spent up to three days before the chemical attack preparing to launch rockets with the deadly gas. “A chemical warhead, once loaded with sarin, has a shelf life of a few days or less — the nerve agent begins eroding the rocket almost immediately: it’s a use-it-or-lose-it mass killer,” he reported.

Equally provocative is Hersh’s assessment that the Obama administration was constructing a scenario against the Assad regime that was grounded in other than fact:

The White House needed nine days to assemble its case against the Syrian government. On 30 August it invited a select group of Washington journalists (at least one often critical reporter, Jonathan Landay, the national security correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers, was not invited), and handed them a document carefully labelled as a ‘government assessment’, rather than as an assessment by the intelligence community. The document laid out what was essentially a political argument to bolster the administration’s case against the Assad government.

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SO WHO launched the attack in August? Hersh’s report made other claims, some directly contradicting the widely reported story that certain design specifications of the rockets used in the gas attack could only have come from the Syrian government. One of his sources, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “concluded that the large calibre rocket was an improvised munition that was very likely manufactured locally. He told me that it was ‘something you could produce in a modestly capable machine shop.’”

“The White House’s misrepresentation of what it knew about the attack, and when, was matched by its readiness to ignore intelligence that could undermine the narrative. That information concerned al-Nusra, the Islamist rebel group designated by the US and the UN as a terrorist organisation.”

Hersh writes:

In the months before the attack, the American intelligence agencies produced a series of highly classified reports, culminating in a formal Operations Order – a planning document that precedes a ground invasion – citing evidence that the al-Nusra Front, a jihadi group affiliated with al-Qaida, had mastered the mechanics of creating sarin and was capable of manufacturing it in quantity. When the attack occurred al-Nusra should have been a suspect, but the administration cherry-picked intelligence to justify a strike against Assad.

Hersh reported that the former senior intel official had told him that, as far back as May — months before the August incident — “the CIA had briefed the Obama administration on al-Nusra and its work with sarin, and had sent alarming reports that another Sunni fundamentalist group active in Syria, al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI), also understood the science of producing sarin. ...
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