Sunday, July 21, 2013

Trayvon as symbol


WE’VE SEEN it for more than a year already, and never more often than right now: what’s become the single most iconic image of Trayvon Benjamin Martin: the teenager in a closeup, his head under a hoodie; a face in the act of observing; an adolescent on the verge of becoming a man; his eyes wide and questioning, but somehow already assuming the armor that he would need to survive an antithetical world.

In the 17 months since he was taken from us by George Zimmerman, this image of Trayvon has become the visual meme, the optical symbol of a nascent movement taking shape. This image at numerous rallies in the previous months, and found throughout the 100-plus rallies organized and executed this weekend by Rev. Al Sharpton and the National Action Network — is the rallying point for something powerful, provocative and infused with history.

TV One's Roland Martin, speaking late last week to "The Young Turks" host Cenk Uygur on Current TV, said “[t]his case, the death of Trayvon Martin, I believe, can potentially serve as the Emmett Till of this generation. There are thousands of young people who are ready to mobilize and organize. I think there's a moment here where we can actually have a 21st-century social justice movement that will be beneficial to the rest of this country.”

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Martin’s reference to the 14-year-old black boy whose murder in Mississippi in August 1955 catalyzed the civil rights movement has an historical symmetry. Till’s killers were acquitted of the crime, just like happened last week with the cypher who took Trayvon’s life in Florida. But the movement that Roland Martin suggested was possible last week is already under way.

Last week in the Florida state capitol building in Tallahassee, dozens of people protesting the July 13 acquittal of Zimmerman for killing Trayvon, staged a benign occupation of the space outside the office of Gov. Rick Scott, demanding a meeting with the governor over the state’s Stand Your Ground law (a meeting they eventually got).

Back in the day, you’d have called this what it was: a sit-in, a benign confrontation with authority not unlike the strategy used at lunch counters and bus stations and other public places in the heyday of what (now) might be fairly called the first civil rights movement.

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FOR BETTER or worse, for millions of African Americans in the 1950’s and ‘60’s, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was the physical embodiment of the civil rights movement. For millions of others, Malcolm X was seen as that movement’s spokesman and avatar. So it was problematic that, when both men were assassinated three years and two months apart, the movement was seen as suddenly rudderless, without the defining intellects and visions that marked them as leaders, and which codified the movement in the national culture.

Trayvon Martin didn’t live long enough to find his place in the conversation of our time, about race or anything else. But the manner of his passing — at the hands of a loser with a gun — is emblematic to millions of African Americans, and their supporters in the wider American community. Every movement needs a symbol. Trayvon Martin has become, by tragic accident, the symbol for a younger generation.

Canonizations like that have a kind of upside; tributes come from unlikely places. At the Nancy’s Baby Names Web site, the site managers in March 2012 predicted an uptick in Trayvon as a first name for boys. Sure enough, between 2012 and this year, the choice of Trayvon as a boy’s name jumped 128 places, to No. 331 in popularity, according to BabyCenter and the Social Security Administration.

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But of course it's bigger than that. At the Trayvon Martin rally in Manhattan on Saturday, Sharpton led the crowd in a chant whose historical resonance is inescapable. “I AM TRAYVON MARTIN!” Sharpton shouted. Beyond the pure catharsis of the moment was a hookup with the past. You couldn’t hear that without thinking of Jesse Jackson’s legendary PUSH-era existential call to arms, “I AM SOMEBODY!” And going further back, you had to remember the signs (regrettably gender-specific but still effective) held by striking sanitation workers in Memphis in 1968, signs announcing “I AM A MAN.”

You can debate the universalizing of experience implicit in the “I AM’ metaphor, and a lot of people already have. There’s been pushback, thoughtful, sincere, but regrettably myopic. Maya, at Feministing, writes this in a short-sighted July 15 piece entitled “I am not Trayvon Martin”:

I, for one, am definitely not Trayvon Martin.

I’m a young, white cis woman. I’m quite sure I’ve never been seen as a threat to anyone in my life and couldn’t look “suspicious” if I tried. On the contrary, I’m often patronizingly viewed as in need of far more protection than I would like. I am a white woman, like the five who sat on the jury and whose potential fear of young black men Zimmerman’s defense seemed to have been banking on. As a white woman in this culture, that’s a fear that I’ve actively worked to unlearn. I am a young, white cis woman, which means I probably won’t be arrested for smoking pot, and I definitely won’t be stopped-and-frisked. It means I can (usually) trust the police, and if someone hurts me – especially if they happen to look like Trayvon Martin – the criminal legal system (mostly) works for me.

Shit happens, and people do awful things, and tragedies befall folks of all races, but at the end of the day some people can go out for Skittles wearing a hoodie, and some can’t. Some people have half a chance at justice, while others do not.

And true solidarity requires recognizing both our shared humanity and the differences that seek to divide us.


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BUT MAYA overlooks the other ways in which bias and discrimination doesn’t answer to the comfortable visual distinctives of race. Some important parts of the social structure and culture evolving at the state level, and already locked in the amber of national habit and tradition, made the Trayvon Martin tragedy possible.

It’s the same social structure that has, over generations, made rock-solid certain that women now earn 77 cents for every dollar a man earns to do the same work.

It’s the same culture that locks women out of the boardrooms and executive suites. Only 15 percent of women are on the boards of the largest U.S. corporations, despite being half the population of the United States.

It’s the same social structure that is, right now, state by state, despite the federal protection of Roe v. Wade, doing all it can to roll back abortion services and reproductive counseling rights for women across this country, working hard to drive women seeking those necessary options back into the shadows.

No, Maya, in the wider picture — you’re wrong. You couldn’t be more wrong. Shit happening is an equal opportunity experience, even when you think it’s not. Especially when you think it’s not. True solidarity requires recognizing that when it comes to what’s fair, what’s right and what’s truly just, you, white American woman, have more in solidarity with Trayvon Martin than you think.

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That’s the power of the emerging Trayvon I AM meme. It inherently recognizes both the specifics of the pointless tragedy that bears his name, and the victims of the other, wider imbalances of our society, those that affect more than just African Americans, or even racial minorities generally.

Trayvon’s hoodie portrait, ghostly in its immediate iconography, reaches us all. One brilliant artist, Nikkolas Smith, borrowed from it for a brilliant speculation, one that truly connects with history — the history that every meaningful newsgathering org on the planet will observe on August 28, the 50th anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C.

Summers in D.C. are reliably hot, high-humidity affairs, and this August should be no exception. But despite the weather, you’ll see them: hoodies on the National Mall, by the tens of thousands at the Lincoln Memorial.

And you’ll see this Nikkolas Smith image of a hoodied Dr. King on that day in Washington. This  inspired Photoshop conflation of images symbolizes the conflation of our destinies. All of us. Whether we think so or not.

Also at Medium.com. Image credits: Trayvon: The Martin Family. Emmett Till: public domain. Feministing logo: © 2013 Feministing. MLK Hoodie: Photo illustration © 2013 Nikkolas Smith.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Barack's frank talk


IT'S A MEASURE of how far we’ve come and how far we have to go on race relations in America that the quotidian protective strategies of the life of an African American man, the everyday stuff of his existence, qualified today as BREAKING NEWS.

In some ways, yeah, it makes sense that when the president of the United States speaks at a news conference, suddenly and in the middle of the day and with no TelePrompTer in sight, it deserves that breathless phrase, which we’ve almost gotten inured to.

But today, in a news conference that caught the White House press corps completely unprepared, President Obama spoke for 17 minutes in the White House Briefing Room, and ventured to reset the terms for national dialogue on race in America, universalizing the source of the solution — it’s about all of us — even as he personalized, in a powerful and galvanizing way, what it means right now to be black in America. Post-Trayvon Martin America. For much of America, it seems, it was breaking news indeed.

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In the six days since the George Zimmerman verdict exonerated him of Martin’s killing and effectively revived the ballistic ethos of the Wild West within the lethal confines of the Sunshine State, African Americans have been stunned, saddened and deeply hurt by this latest act of attempted existential marginalization.

The pain ran longer and deeper than that, of course, even in the short term. You could trace it back to just after the Boston Marathon bombings, when CNN’s John King breathlessly reported the suspect was “a dark-skinned male,” in a brainless catch-all description that managed to be both premature and poisonously wrong at the same time.

The new African American malaise could certainly be traced back to June 25, when the United States Supreme Court dismantled the Voting Rights Act, the most robust, productive guarantor of voting rights in generations.

We can thank Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas for voting to invalidate Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, and sending to Congress the responsibility for updating the act’s foundational formula of application, at a time when Congress, predictably deadlocked on even the idea of performing its basic legislative functions, couldn’t order lunch without a committee hearing.

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BUT THE verdict on July 13 was, in some ways, the ultimate slap in the face, not just for African Americans generally, but especially for young black males. It was maybe the ultimate ratification of the idea that black lives, and especially black male lives, had a fractional value in the life of America. 3/5th? Maybe. Maybe less than that.

That’s what President Obama was responding to today. The president was the stand-in for all of black America; some of this speech was clearly painful for him; the halts and hesitations in his delivery mirrored the difficulty black Americans have in reconciling the oppositional aspects of our place in the national identity.



There was some of the raw rhetorical power and authority of previous Obama speeches about the national third-rail: his 2008 race speech in Philadelphia, for example, or his speech at Morehouse College. But the president went further today, doing the ultimate stand-in role in a stunningly frank admission in an already frank talk.

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“You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African American community at least, there's a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it's important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn't go away.

“There are very few African American men in this country who haven't had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African American men who haven't had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me -- at least before I was a senator. There are very few African Americans who haven't had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath, until she had a chance to get off. That happens ... often.”

Chyron graphic on MSNBC:

BREAKING NEWS
PRES.: I’VE HEARD CAR DOORS LOCK WHEN I WALKED BY

“And I don't want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it's inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear.”

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SOME THOUGHT leaders and cocktail-party conversationalists have made great use of an empty question intended as hypothetical speculation of the president’s fidelity to matters important to black people. “Is Barack Obama a black president,” the question goes, “or a president who happens to be black?” It’s sophistry that doesn’t deserve the attention it gets.

In our identity-driven, brand-besotted culture, the fact that no one in America just “happens” to be anything means the question dignifies a distinction without a difference. No president just “happens” into his identity, any more than his predecessors’ or his constituents’ identities happen to them.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Zimmerman verdict:
What led to it and what’s next


TONIGHT IN the Sunshine State, the sun set on justice in America.

George Zimmerman’s role as judge, jury and executioner in the matter of the death of Trayvon Benjamin Martin was fully ratified at 10 p.m. eastern time, when a six-woman jury acquitted him of all charges in the shooting death of Martin on Feb. 26, 2012, in Sanford, Fla. Andy Riveria, commenting in The Huffington Post, was one who put it best: “open season on people of color in the state of florida.”

Joy-Ann Reid, managing editor of TheGrio and an MSNBC analyst, expanded on that, powerfully and accurately, minutes after the verdict: “There has been a sense of demoralization, and really depression, about this case from the very beginning. The notion that a young black man’s life really isn’t worth very much in America was tied up in this case — and the notion that this boy just walking home was out of place just by being there, just by being dressed the way he was, just his existence was almost illegal ...

“For a lot of African Americans, this is a moment when the country sends them a message. And the message is sent is, ‘you know what? It’s OK to shoot and kill one of your sons because it just really doesn’t matter that much.”

And Marc Lamont Hill got the drift of the situation, in a post-verdict tweet: “We live in a country where it is not only illegal but lethal to be young and Black and outside. Trayvon is our nation’s metaphor.”

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For all the rain of blame that will come down on certain people central to the trial — on the prosecution, for presenting a case that meandered from the procedural to the passionate without a narrative throughline; on the defense attorneys whose obvious racism was almost brandished with pride; on the jurors, for ignoring the option of a manslaughter conviction and going straight to absolving Zimmerman of responsibility for that which he already admitted — there are other actors whose earlier actions led to this latest sad chapter in American life.

“We wouldn’t be here were it not for the laws ... the laws that are really predicated on this sense of fear of criminals and, especially, of black and brown people,” said Jelani Cobb of the University of Connecticut, Wednesday on MSNBC. “In much the same way that Newtown was a product of liberalizing gun laws, we don’t get to this situation with Trayvon Martin without Stand Your Ground. It’s a natural byproduct of having laws that really make proactive self-defense.”

And for the laws in Florida, we can thank John Ellis (Jeb) Bush, the former governor, and Marion P. Hammer, a top lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, which worked legislators hard to get Florida’s Stand Your Ground law through the State Senate and onto the governor’s desk. That’s where Bush signed Florida Statute 776-012 into law on Oct. 1, 2005. With Hammer standing literally at his right hand.

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ZIMMERMAN MAY be through with this court, but his days in other courts have yet to begin. A wrongful-death civil suit against him is probably in the works. And the NAACP is already weighing in. “We are outraged and heartbroken over today’s verdict,” said Ben Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP, in a statement. “We stand with Trayvon’s family and we are called to act. We will pursue civil rights charges with the Department of Justice, we will continue to fight for the removal of Stand Your Ground laws in every state, and we will not rest until racial profiling in all its forms is outlawed.”

The civil rights organization posted a petition at its Web site. According to Business Insider, it had almost 100,000 signatures in the three hours after the verdict was read. The site reportedly crashed briefly because of the flood of signatures.

The signatures of everyday people whose ethnicities span our seemingly unbridgeable racial divide. People repelled by the verdict itself and by the thought that young male African Americans are presumptively criminal. People resisting the deeply corrosive suggestion that a black male teenager is a prima facie existential threat.

Tonight in the Sunshine State, the sun set on justice in America. But count on it: it’s coming back. Trayvon would have wanted nothing less. We have to work for nothing less.

Image credits: Zimmerman: Pool: Stephen M. Dowell/Getty Images. Trayvon Martin: The Martin Family. 

Friday, July 12, 2013

In the courtroom of the streets:
Egypt rewrites the rewrite



IN EGYPT on Monday, at least 51 people — supporters of Mohammed Morsi, elected president of Egypt and since apparently deposed — were killed, and more than 400 wounded, by the same armed forces that were once under his control. The Egyptian military leadership has installed a temporary civilian government and suspended the constitution. Interim president Adly Mansour struggled to keep order, announcing plans to amend the constitution and calling for parliamentary and presidential elections in early 2014.

In the days since, rival factions — Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and the pro-opposition National Salvation Front — have been squaring off for a clash some believe could still usher in civil war. The United States has warned against the government arresting pro-Morsi supporters; but as the chaos gets wider still, it was reported on Wednesday that the U.S. intends to go through with a commitment to deliver four F-16 fighter jets to Egypt.

More protests, largely peaceful, were held on Friday, but more demonstrations are expected deeper into the weekend.

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Even by the yardstick of the reliably chaotic, heads-is-tails politics common to the Middle East, what’s happening now in Egypt is something else again: a nation of more than 82 million people, indispensable as a moderate buffer between the belligerence of other Arab states and the tense caution of Israel, caught up for the third time in two years in a vast revolution.

But this time with a twist. On July 3, the Egypt Independent newspaper tweeted: “This may be the first time in history that an army has told its people it plans to launch a coup d’etat.”

This is what democracy looks like? Maybe. Maybe not even close.


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THE DAY before the United States of America observed another anniversary of the declaration of its independence, the Republic of Egypt did the same thing in a way that couldn’t be less ceremonial, or more of a real-world, real-time illustration of just how messy the process of declaring independence from the past can be.

Almost a year to the day after taking office as the president of Egypt, the first democratically-chosen president in the modern history of the nation of 83 million people, Morsi was deposed in an action that has pundits and analysts scratching their heads in search of terminology. The populist call for the Egyptian military to effectively run Morsi out of office on behalf of the Egyptian people resulted in ... what, a coup d’etat? Certainly, not in the point-of-a-gun, tanks-on-Main-Street, “Seven Days in May” sense of the phrase.

Samer Shehata, a professor at the University of Oklahoma, simplified things on MSNBC: “Here we have a paradox: We have a supposedly democratic movement calling for the military to intervene to oust a democratically elected president.”

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I noted last June 24: “How well President Morsi navigates that middle ground between satisfying both the demands of the Islamic traditionalists that helped him attain power and the demands of a secular Muslim nation with a shattered economy and a citizen median age of 24 years old may reveal whether Morsi is a transformational figure in Egyptian politics or merely a caretaker on a tightrope.”

We have an answer to that. Morsi fell from the tightrope, but it was a tightrope he never really tried to walk in the first place. The presumed champion of democracy who ruled Egypt for the past year made democratic noises with a distinctly autocratic accent. In November, Morsi’s naked grab for power — he tweaked the constitution to add amendments that put his decisions above any judicial review — suggested that any campaign overtures toward an attempt at legislative balance between constituencies was a fiction at best.

“Having won the election very narrowly, President Morsi found himself unable [or] unwilling to be the president of all Egyptians,” said James Rubin, former assistant secretary of state, on July 4 on MSNBC. “He represented a narrow faction; he rammed through constitutional changes that were designed to appeal ... only to his faction, the Muslim Brotherhood ... and he had no success in reviving Egypt’s economy or its well being.”

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THE CURRENT chaos of Egyptian politics had a notable antecedent. Morsi won election after a runoff with Ahmed Shafiq, a former prime minister under Hosni Mubarak, the pharaoh manqué ousted from power in 2011. Then, Morsi was seen as preferable to Shafiq for reasons that now abound in irony.

At the time of the runoff, in May 2012, Shafiq, a former head of the Egyptian air force under Mubarak, was widely seen as being a politician in his boss’ style, and therefore unacceptable to Egyptians. The thinking was that Egyptians would reject electing a new president who followed in the footsteps of the old.

“We have carried out the revolution against the authoritarian regime, which was run by Hosni Mubarak,” said columnist Ibrahim Mansour, writing in the May 28, 2012, edition of the Al-Tahrir newspaper. “And without doubt, Ahmed Shafiq is a natural extension of Hosni Mubarak.”

What a difference one year makes.

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The collapse of Morsi’s autocratic improvisation has obvious repercussions for an Egypt already reeling from a staggering unemployment rate and one of the youngest populations in the Middle East.

Nina Easton wrote in Fortune in January: “By putting his decisions above judicial review, Morsi has effectively blunted that emerging American enthusiasm for commercial engagement with the Arab region's second-largest economy. [Arizona Sen. John] McCain is among those in Congress warning that Morsi's authoritarian bent is jeopardizing not only its $1.5 billion in U.S. military assistance, but also its future economic aid.”

Morsi’s rash action last year scuttled a $4.8 billion International Monetary Fund loan that would have gone a long way to mollify nervous foreign investors and shore up an economy.

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AND IT gets worse. The Wall Street Journal reported July 4 that more than just the IMF loan was on the table. “Other international donors have vowed another $9.7 billion for the country once the IMF program is in place,” the Journal said in conditionally hopeful language that is, now, pretty much unnecessary.

Fortunately, Egypt has friends that‘ll carry the country for a few rounds. The United Arab Emirates, a leading critic of the Morsi government, has promised $3 billion in loans and grants to the new government, Al Jazeera reported on July 10.

And Saudi Arabia stepped in to OK $5 billion in aid, including $2 billion in central bank deposits and $1 billion in cash, Al Jazeera said. All of that’s fine in the temporary short-term, of course, but it’s not likely to stanch the bleeding of an Egyptian economy in free-fall, or move that economy toward sustaining itself in a fundamentally organic way.

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For one Middle East watcher, it’s no surprise. P.J. Crowley, former United States Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, told Current TV on July 3 that “two years ago when we saw the Arab Spring, we understood that as Egypt moved forward toward democracy, it was not going to be a straight line. There were going to be steps forward, steps backwards.”

How much like every democracy in the history of the world. Including the American experiment in democracy.

The bigger questions, the ones singular to Egypt, are obvious: What now? Can the Egyptian military be trusted not to meddle in electoral poltics? When so much of the Egyptian public called for the armed forces to remove the democratically elected Morsi, who replaces him permanently? How does Morsi’s apparent removal from power undermine the drive to build confidence with foreign investors — and with the tourists who’ve long played a role in the Egyptian economy?

And what does this say about the future prospects for demotheocracy in Egypt? Morsi’s apparent overthrow after a national election generally seen as free and fair raises questions about the risk of a similar upheaval in the future — when another leader doesn’t fulfill campaign promises quickly enough and gets bounced not as part of an orderly constitutional process, but as a result of the call for a spasmodic popular revolt, in a courtroom of the streets.

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AS REPORTED by USA Today, Karam Sharawy, speaking at a pro-Morsi rally earlier this week, understands what’s required, and what’s at stake. There shouldn’t be a distinction between the legitimacy of the government and the legitimacy of the process by which the government is decided. “We already had an election. We already elected our president. Democracy means to elect someone and to give him his four years in government, then have another election.” That’s what the Egyptian people are wrestling with right now.

“Things have not changed at all. It is as if the revolution never happened,” Ayat Maher, a 28-year-old mother of three, told The AP in Cairo, in June 2012. “The same people are running the country,” she said. “The same oppression and the same sense of enslavement. They still hold the keys to everything.”

Maher’s disillusionment came despite her voting for Morsi last year. With Morsi gone at least for now, the armed forces back in charge (however nominally) and Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood group calling for a national uprising, the stage is set in Egypt for the past to be prologue. Again.

Image credits: Unrest: AFP via Al Jazeera. Morsi supporters: Reuters. Shafiq: Khaled Elfiq via msnbc.com. McCain: The Associated Press.

Monday, July 8, 2013

MSNBC: The devil’s in the downtime between elections


MSNBC temporarily blew up its schedule and took it on the road. On Friday, the fiercely progressive news channel began a weekend hookup with the 2013 edition of the Essence Music Festival, started by Essence Magazine in 1995, and a major arts event in its own right, something that’s become an economic mainstay for the still-beleaguered city of New Orleans. All the channel’s heavy hitters broadcast live from the festival, all weekend; MSNBC branding was interlaced with the festival’s own for a week before that.

But blowing up the schedule? It’s hardly the first time MSNBC’s done that.

The channel launched its new weekend news analysis program, “Disrupt With Karen Finney,” on June 8. Finney, a former spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee and longtime commentator on the network, is the network’s latest move to revitalize its weekend schedule, and the latest effort by MSNBC president Phil Griffin to recapture the bottled lightning his network had at the end of last year and into the spring. What a difference a year after a presidential election year makes.

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Last year around this time, and in the buildup to the 2012 vote, MSNBC could do no wrong. Making changes in a weekend schedule defined by the “Lockup” series of repurposed prison-life docs, the channel in early 2012 launched new weekend programs intended to bring in some of its best and brightest commentators to deliver news and analysis to the Siberia of Saturday and Sunday mornings on cable TV.

MSNBC was in the process of laying the groundwork for its own brashly opinionated ecosystem of news and commentary, one whose tagline — “Lean Forward” — doubled as a progressivist mantra in the runup to a transformative presidential election. The channel’s commitment to thoughtful, expansive analysis on weekend shows of two-hour duration (Chris Hayes and Melissa Harris-Perry as your wonkish, whip-smart hosts) signaled a willingness to shake up the news-show model.

Now, the channel’s all-in identification with a major African American culture event points to a populist reinvention of a major cable television property, something as rare as it is refreshing.

The devil, of course, is in the details. And the ratings.

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MSNBC DOUBLED down on its previous changes earlier this year ... and the head-scratching began. Hayes, host of “Up With Chris Hayes,” was moved from Saturday and Sunday mornings (when people were just getting used to it being there) to a five-night-a week schedule in the USDA-prime time slot of 8 p.m. Monday through Friday.

To accommodate the Hayes move, MSNBC announced on April 25 that “The Ed Show,” hosted by progressive talk-radio bulldog Ed Schultz, would be moved to Saturdays and Sundays from 5 to 6 p.m., eastern, effective May 11. The show is set to expand to two hours sometime this summer.

Since Schultz joined MSNBC’s branded lineup in April 2009, and especially since he went to prime-time in October 2011, his program has gradually raised its profile with an unapologetically liberal perspective that dovetailed with the country’s electoral shift to the left (after the 2008 election) and championed the continuation of that shift (pretty much confirmed in the 2012 vote).

So for a lot of “Ed Show” viewers, the move to weekends was hardly welcome. “The Ed Show” made the move on May 11. And that’s about when the roof fell in.

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The week of May 13-17 — when all hell was breaking loose with the IRS 501(c)(4) scandalette and the Justice Department’s surveillance of The Associated Press — MSNBC cratered with its lowest ratings in seven years, with 350,000 average viewers and only 94,000 viewers among the coveted 25-54 demographic. “That’s a 17 percent and 22 percent decrease, respectively, since the comparable week last year,” reported Mediaite.

Was the Schultz move the reason for this, or even a reason? Maybe. Since 2009 and this year, Schultz was easy to find in the MSNBC schedule, in a perfect lead-in position to “The Rachel Maddow Show.”

But with Schultz’s May move to the relative hinterlands of the weekends, eyebrows have been raised among the program’s faithful, who got used to seeing Big Ed raise hell in prime-time.

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AND VIEWERS took their time warming up to “All In With Chris Hayes,” the Hayes show rebranded for its prime-time spot. Hayes’ more cerebral, explanatory on-air style has been a big contrast from Schultz’s rhetorical red-meat populism, and a lot of viewers were slow to make that leap.

Jordan Charlton wrote in Mediaite on May 30: “Disregarding whether you love or hate ‘Big Eddie,’ from a network ratings point of view, Schultz was delivering the goods while occupying the anchor chair for only a year and a half. For the third quarter of 2012, he fell slightly short of a million total viewers per night, and had even occasionally beat network superstar Rachel Maddow and the rest of his MSNBC colleagues in primetime. ...

“[A]fter a decade-long network identity crisis, Schultz’s fiery barn-burning style helped MSNBC find its brand as the cable voice for the progressive movement, more specifically as the champions for a middle class under attack.

“You had an anchor occupying the [prime-time] chair for less than two years, garnering solid ratings, with the presumable chance to make even more gains with 2014 midterm coverage right around the corner, and of course presidential election coverage starting earlier and earlier each cycle,” Charlton said. “Bigger picture, looking at the results of the 2012 election, you have a country moving considerably more left of center, with the most popular liberal radio host in the country manning your most important hour.”

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MSNBC faces a challenge that’s a consequence of the company’s basic, organic identity — what MSNBC network programming is. According to the Pew Research Center's annual "State of the Media" study, released in March, on MSNBC, “opinion fills a full 85% of the channel’s airtime.”

A separate Pew examination of programs, whose findings were included in the “State of the Media” report, found that MSNBC was “by far the most opinionated of the three networks, with [85 percent] of its primetime coverage coming in the form of opinion or commentary. And that remains the case with many of its packaged segments. Host Rachel Maddow, for example, often begins her show with a lengthy segment combining a monologue with video clips that can last for seven minutes or longer.”

The Huffington Post reported on July 2 that MSNBC was in third place, behind Fox News and CNN, in primetime eyeballs for the second quarter of 2013, and had dropped to fourth place in viewers for all dayparts. The channel also hit third place in the important 25-54 demographic. But overall, going back to the birth of the Lean Forward tagline in October 2010, MSNBC had maintained a tenuous-to-solid hold on second place, behind only Fox News.

The fly on the lens? Much of that second-place showing was a result of a variety of special events: the takeout of Osama bin Laden, the London Olympics, the runup to the primaries, in late 2011, and the 2012 debate schedule and the presidential election. Which raises the question of how well MSNBC can do when presidential politics doesn’t figure as much in viewers’ lives, and when pundits’ opinions on politics don’t resonate as much.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Paula Deen, the N-word and America


PAULA ANN Hiers Deen fired her agent on Thursday, ending a 10-year relationship. It’s OK if you thought you heard that before; the last two weeks have seen the slow unraveling of a gastronomic dynasty. Day by day, endorsement by endorsement, the cook and homemaker who transformed a friendly, plain-spoken style and a thoroughly unapologetic televised evangelism of the high-caloric cuisines of the American South into a multimillion-dollar cooking-show, food and product empire, is making her way through a very rough patch.

Deen, bless her heart, is body & soul a child of the American woods she comes from, a fact that once made her salt-, sugar- and fat-laden recipes the toast of overweight America. But Deen is facing social blowback for revealing, in presumably private moments, her embrace of a more toxic American ingredient, something that’s a product of where she hails from. Regionally and nationally.

Like the accidental open-mike missteps of Lonesome Rhodes, the media-savvy megalomaniac of Elia Kazan’s “A Face in the Crowd,” Paula Deen’s revelations, her true feelings about some of those in her vast audience, say as much about us as about her. This is an American story.

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Deen, of course, was recently sued by a former employee of Uncle Bubba’s Seafood and Oyster House, one of the restaurants Deen owned with her husband. Lisa T. Jackson, a manager at Uncle Bubba’s, sued Deen for allegedly engaging in racial and sexual discrimination.

On June 25, the Huffington Post reported that Jackson “contends that she was the victim of a persistent pattern of racial discrimination in the workplace during her five-year stint. And despite being white, Jackson says derogatory remarks regarding African-Americans are even more personally offensive than they would be to another white citizen, because her nieces are bi-racial with an African-American father.”

In a May 12 court deposition, Deen admitted using racial slurs in the past, especially the N-word. Once word of that got out —in a June 19 story in the National Enquirer claiming video evidence of Deen using racial epithets — Deen took the initiative to short-circuit the controversy. The Deen All Apologies Tour began.

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SHE rush-released a self-produced mea culpa video, followed by two more less polished productions, and conducted an emotional interview on the "Today" show. The short-term outcome of these serial apologies has been sadly predictable, if professionally necessary.

Like an artichoke of financial collapse, the days since the news broke have seen Paula Deen sponsors bailing out, one after another. First the Food Network decided not to renew her contract, ending a 14-year relationship. Then Smithfield Foods bailed on its business dealings with the queen of Southern chow. Then Wal-Mart and Target and Novo Nordisk, Home Depot and QVC.

Walgreens has announced plans to “phase out” her products. Kmart and Sears have adopted a similar stance. Caesars Entertainment is “rebranding” her four casino buffet restaurants around the country.

Some are standing with her. Her latest cookbook took off big on Amazon after the scandal broke. At this writing, she’s still booked to appear at the Metropolitan Cooking and Entertaining Show’s various venues in Washington, Dallas and Houston, later this year. Landies Candies, Epicurean Butter and Springer Mountain Farms are hanging tough, too. But these are regional entities whose financial commitments never came close to the big-ticket, deep-pocketed endorsers and clients Deen enjoyed before everything, uh, boiled over late last month.

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She might have ridden this thing out, of course, except for the fact that the root to Deen’s declining fortunes was her touching the third rail of American life, the one that risk-averse advertisers are loath to get anywhere near: Race.

"From a business angle, a business will never risk being associated, even short term, with having the label of being racist," said Mike Paul, president of MGP & Associates PR, to USA Today. "They will cut you loose first to save their own reputation."

Paula Deen, a product of the South, is a curious case in the annals of race and redemption according to America. That she crossed the line and actually said what she’s accused of saying doesn’t seem to be in doubt. But her attempts to situationally contextualize the racist comments of her past — in the three-hour deposition, she said she used the N-word once when she told her husband about “when a black man burst into the bank that I was working at and put a gun to my head. I didn't feel real favorable towards him” — have only made things worse.

They come across as shrill and defensive. And they’re only made worse by more comments from the deposition, one of which makes context utterly irrelevant.

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ACCORDING TO the National Enquirer, when asked in the deposition if she’d ever used the N-word, Deen said, “Yes, of course.”

Yes, of course. There’s a very good chance that upon discovering that corrosive little testimonial, the Food Network and Novo Nordisk, Sears and Caesars, Smithfield and Walmart and all the rest may well have decided they didn’t need to hear any more.

Implied in that single sentence is the crux of our deepest American problem. It’s not the admission contained in the word “yes.” That was bad enough. What makes things worse is that poison grace note, “of course.” That phrase embodies the presumption of normality, as if this is the way people are supposed to behave, as if that word is de rigeur for the national conversation.

And to the extent that Paula Deen is a product of America — not just Georgia, where she was born and raised and first discovered, or the South in general — the widespread revulsion toward her and her comments ought to be a wake-up call for the nation to check itself.

In ways we’re not comfortable talking about, Deen’s tragically anodyne view of the place the N-word has at the table of everyday discourse is one shared by others, in the use of the word and the discriminatory behavior that the word approves. In the use of a variation of the word and the malign cultural self-identification which that variation validates.

The fault isn’t just in our celebrity chefs, but also in ourselves.

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There’s already talk of Deen rehabbing herself in the public eye. There have been rumors afoot that she may join ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” for the show’s 17th season. There needs to be some way to stop the bleeding. Her quasi-full disclosure didn’t have immediate traction.

Sometimes going the full hangout route works. David Letterman, hobbled in October 2009 by his own admission that he had his worldwide pants down with a number of young female staffers, rode that out mainly by coming clean with the affair, getting in front of it, and doing it on his terms, in the friendly confines of his late-night arena.

Sometimes it doesn’t. Michael Richards, the “Seinfeld” star whose N-word-laden meltdown onstage at a West Hollywood comedy club in November 2006 was followed by an emotional apology (on Letterman’s show), has been largely sidelined in the teleculture ever since.

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BUT FOR Deen, the DWTS rehab option is hardly appealing. To even consider it is frankly sad: The 66-year-old self-described “fat girl” out on the tiles, hoofing it on network television with more athletic dancers half her age, the tight smile of imposed contrition plastered on her face ... all in the name of moving more Paula Deen Southern Grillin’ Butter.

Whatever road she takes back to redemption, Deen is learning the hard American way that there’s not gonna be any way to rush this. Rehabilitation equals disappearance plus time, and the disappearance part gets tricky when you’re at the helm of an empire upon an empire.

Despite the hair-on-fire dimensions of her current situation, she’s in a position to take the best advice of her recipes: Don’t skimp on the cooking time. Be ready, for a while, to spend some time in conditions of an elevated temperature. And hunker down. Think. Preparation and honesty are everything.

Of course.

Also published at Medium.com. Image credits: Deen: "Today" Show/NBC News. Deposition image: via The Huffington Post. Food Network logo: © 2013 Television Food Network, G.P. Roasted turkey: via pauladeen.com. Walgreens logo: © 2013 Walgreens.
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