Thursday, August 1, 2013

An Open Letter to Huma: Sooner, Not Later

Rockville, Maryland: I was here on July 24, 2013

Dear Huma,

I’m writing to you as a Mom, and as the former wife of a troubled person. I am aware of the conventional propriety and feminist wisdom that is being invoked in regard to your current…domestic Situation. I suspect that this is a tough time but I hope you consider a few points of admittedly unsolicited advice:

 — Anthony Weiner is not likely to give up sexting. If you’re OK with that, then OK.

His career path to date, though, is in conflict with that particular kind of personal expression, as it upsets much of the public, which in turn raises legitimate questions about Anthony’s judgement.

Compartmentalization is acceptable only within limits, where elected officials are concerned.

 — Your child is on the cusp of seriously bonding with Anthony Weiner. Absolutely, it is sad in many ways that your (shared) child has a father who is apparently experiencing impulse control challenges. And true, it is doubly sad that you, the Mom, are in the position of being the primary caretaker/protector of your child. But — if you intend to stay married to Anthony it will probably be to your benefit as family unit if Anthony doesn’t remain in any race for an elected position. And if you do not intend to remain with Anthony, I respectfully suggest that you separate relatively soon from Anthony, as it will be significantly more difficult to do so in the future.

 — Anyone who “blames” you if you decide to pull the plug on your marriage at this point is full of shit.

 — Anyone who advises you to consider “your own career” above your child’s needs is full of shit.

— Should you pull the plug now or in the near-future, you can still be friends with Anthony Weiner, and indeed, your child should remain in limited contact with him,the better to healthily know him as a Good Dude. Finally: I am completely aware that I do not know the first thing about the intimate details of your marriage, your love for and friendship with Anthony Weiner, or your vision and values, in regard to a romantic partnership. I am writing this based on my own experience, which admittedly is not at all comparable to yours’, in terms of the high-profile aspect or specific familial shadings.

 My 11 year-long marriage went on for a few years longer than it should have largely owing to MY desire to hold onto the “optics” of a “successful postmodern marriage,” and my ideals about the importance of having a two parent-home for our two African-American children. I also quite unconsciously willed away what were in hindsight (now crystal clear) signs of major disconnect in my then husband’s behavior: a deep chasm between his public persona, pro position, stated goals and values…and his private conduct.

And in the aftermath of my divorce — six years on, now — I am here to report that being divorced from a…Narcissist with whom you share offspring is really, really hard. It is especially hard if the child or children you share retain memories of a bygone era in which “Dad” lived with them as a member of an intact family.

Based purely on what I’ve read in the media, it appears that you have a solid family. You also have close, caring friends and network of supportive colleagues. Please intake their observations carefully — not lightly or unduly heavily; please measure the input of those who’s opinions you TRUST against your own heart, mind and spirit. In the end, you do have the power, no matter which direction you take. I’m writing this because I spent a long time with someone who — in much less spectacular fashion — made choices that were wickedly destructive to himself, to his family and to his career. I looked away from the signs for a long time, then made excuses.

But there is no ‘do-over’ for your child’s formative years. A child’s perception of herself is linked, for better or worse, to the earliest intimate role models that she will encounter daily.

That is no small thing.

All things considered, I wish you and your family the best.

Yours Truly, Amy

(Cross-posted at Medium)

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

So Much for Sisterhood: On Liberal White Lesbians, Entitlement and Benign Racism

It was only a matter of time.

Michelle Obama is tall, intelligent, and is a graduate from two of America's best private universities. She is a black woman from a working-class home.

She is also the First Lady of the United States of America.

But you know?

She owes  a lot to a lot of different factors and constituencies, right?

I mean, she has admitted as much.

How her parents were tough, fair, and loving.  How her father, even after being stricken with a debilitating illness, always maintained his work ethic, not just for practical reasons but also because he wanted his children to understand that one should endeavor to power through difficulties and overcome challenges.

She owes the people of Chicago, too, those who supported her husband during his community organizing and later his political career as a young Senator from Illinois.

Of course she owes women, also, especially women who have supported her healthy food and her exercising initiatives. As for any constituencies -- blacks, women, union workers, and gays and lesbians -- that have written big checks for President Obama's two presidential election bids?  Well, yeah of course, Michelle Obama is obliged to them,  right?

What I am doing here is attempting to put myself into the brain of Ellen Sturtz, the 56 year-old California resident who landed in D.C. recently. She is part of an organization known as GetEQUAL, which is affiliated with a human rights organization known as Code Pink. Sturtz turned up at a fancy Democratic fundraiser in the bucolic Northwest neighborhood,Kalorama, on Tuesday night, and reportedly paid $500 to attend. Sturtz is advocating for a change to Federal workforce laws that would protect lesbians and gays against discrimination.  She wanted President Obama to support the effort.  Of course, President Obama was not at that fancy fundraiser in Northwest D.C., on Tuesday evening....but Michelle Obama was. Close enough, right?  And also, Michelle Obama owes Sturtz, get it?

An Iraqi Man Threw His Shoe at Dubya: The Worst Presidential-level Heckling Ever!

I really, honestly, want to understand why Ellen Sturtz felt it was A-OK to shout out demands to Michelle Obama. For the record,  I engaged in this same thought-experiment a few years ago, when that guy threw the shoe at George Bush, remember that?  Admittedly, I undertook that exercise in that instance in an amused vein: Me, as the Shoe-thrower: "I wonder how much time I will have to set my AIM before I fling this shoe at President George Bush of America, and also, how much time I will have to drop and roll before the Secret Service comes and kicks my ass?"
 I also watched with mild bemusement two weeks ago when Madea Benjamin of the advocacy group Code Pink heckled President Obama. In that instance, I took to the Twitter to observe that the President handled Benjamin with strategic calm, and TV-ready aplomb.  My colleague Jeff Winbush later exposed Benjamin as a publicity-seeking crackpot-cum-gadfly but I demurred.

What I noted in the few comments that I shared during that Beltway story du jour was that the President, weighted with his Office and history, very wisely "tolerated" the woman who interrupted his address on terrorism and national security not once, twice, but three times. He is after all The President of the United States of America, so it is a big deal that he actually acknowledged that Benjamin raised a topic that was worth debating (drone strikes, secret prisons and the like.)

But I am talking about nuances of gender and culture here with this recent heckling of Michelle Obama. And I am drawing your attention to a fraught contemporary history of tone deaf white women who Mean Well but who really, deep down, either resent, fear, or are deeply flummoxed by successful, confident, well-spoken black women.

Yes, it is personal -- also, political.

It is personal because I am familiar with the Ellen Sturtz types,  having grown up in San Francisco, and worked in media for many years. Without irony, I say that many of my closest friends are white, and few of them are lesbians.  I know this demographic to be as diverse as any other.

But I am not trying to give cover to any partisans in the Left or Right wing of media when I say this: The shops that I've worked in since the mid-1980s have always had at least a handful of women like Ellen Sturtz in them -- self-righteous, Messianic zealots. Women who are so PC that that they made me want to go buy a gun, a Ford F-350 pickup and hightail it to my Mother's ancestral home in Rock Springs, Wyoming to hunt elk and complain about uppity Native Americans.

But really, this is no laughing matter. Politics on the ground impact politics in the voting booth, which in turn affect policy. These twin towers of realpolitik in turn affect economics, for all of us. I am an expert in my field, Communicating. Mrs. Obama is an expert in her field -- public service and yes, organizational governance. And yet neither of us are immune from the hoary stereotypes that many white people still hold about blacks in America in general, and about black women in particular. We are not immune from the attempts to dominate, "alpha," or otherwise diminish our validity by individuals or institutions that view us as expendable or unworthy of respect or serious consideration.  
It is not a "one day" or a "single news cycle" story, it is constant.

For example, in the very fiscal quarter when Sheryl Sanberg made her courageous stand for women in the corporate workforce, I was in touch with a close friend who was having run-ins with her own cut-rate Ellen Sturtz on the job. My friend was daily being described as "aggressive" by a white woman lesbian who considered herself to be a good, staunch liberal.  This person said to my friend that my friend was was "loud-mouthed," "aggressive," "confrontational" -- all in the context of what should have been professional discussions involving work.  In short order, it became evident to my friend that this individual was blind to her own entitlement.

My friend's "boss" is an individual who did not compete for the executive position she held. She was given the job thanks to a family connection. Her position arrived courtesy of what Rutgers professor Nancy DiTomaso forcefully describes in her book, "The American Non-Dilemma: Racial Inequality Without Racism." In shorthand, Professor DiTomaso describes the "hook up factor" that many wealthy white people enjoy, the closed networks of family members and friends that sure comes in handy when the economy contracts.

This Ellen Sturtz doppleganger that my friend dealt with is, according to my African-American friend, acutely unqualified in several core competencies required in the particular position that she held. Moreover, this individual is also culturally tone-deaf. How did my friend arrive at that conclusion? In a series of meetings, this "boss" admitted that she knew nothing about the Unitarian Church, or the African-Methodist Episcopal Church or -- God help her -- the details of the Healthcare Reform Act.

And yet, this person (who, my friend assured me, is of an age at which one should by rights be aware of such cultural, economic and political touchstones), regularly and with a degree of alpha-entitlement bordering on testosterone-driven aggression, insisted that my friend was out of line for sharing her professional counsel on key aspects of the work...assignments that called for my friend's expertise in areas for which the "boss" had zero competency.

"I am Looking For Equality Before I Die!" (While Some of Us Have Ancestors Who Literally Died.)

Yet, owing to the power differential of the arrangement, this particular woman boss, a self-described "liberal," and "lesbian," felt comfortable remarking regularly that my friend's attempts to press for high quality standards, clearly-defined ethical guidelines, and technical innovations in regard to the work -- all delivered by my friend calmly and with good humor, my friend says -- stemmed not from my friend's professional expertise, but from what the white woman boss viewed as scary "aggression" on my friend's part. Were my friend not as experienced as she is within her field, she might have been upended by those exchanges. As I received this information, I had no trouble relating: in the past, similar workplace encounters have throw me for loops of self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy.

But by now, my friend has thick skin, and a finely-attuned radar to this dynamic (which is not to say that I am hyper-sensitive or spoiling for fight,  nor prone to "playing the race card.") We're not perfect but women like me and my friend are self-aware and pragmatic. And speaking only for myself,  any white woman in a workplace who feels threatened by me is very likely insecure, incompetent, culturally ignorant or a combination thereof.

Ellen Sturtz -- who described as "aggressive" Mrs. Obama's action, after Mrs. O walked over and spoke to Sturtz after Sturtz had rudely interrupted the First Lady's address --  seems to have a lot in common with that "liberal" lesbian I described above. Mrs. Obama did not yell or scream or grab Sturtz around the neck. But she did make herself clear....which apparently led Sturtz to feel "taken aback."  Coded words  are now being deployed by Sturtz and her ilk to distract from Sturtz's coded behavior, that moment when she attempted to make an unacceptable intrusion on Michelle Obama at the fundraiser.

Yes, Well....

More important: There is a sense of entitlement that drives these kinds of interactions between black and white women, particularly women of a certain vintage. In the minds of these white women, it is a case of, "Hey 'Sista Friend,' I know what's best -- and aren't you grateful for my insight?" Their enthusiasm for their own righteousness is an assault, a bullying tactic. But Michelle Obama is, as Sturtz learned, the ultimate Alpha Woman at this time -- she doesn't owe Sturtz a single thing, least of all her own dignity.

I am not grateful. Nor will I remain silent when confronted with such self-righteous, pseudo-liberalism and cultural and professional incompetence.  It appears that in that garden fundraiser in Kalorama on Tuesday night, Mrs. Obama didn't either.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Want a Real Washington Scandal? The Establishment Is the Cuckoo's Nest

 Much of what doesn't work in America can be traced to our antiquated views on mental illness.

I know a bit about the wide, destructive ripple effect of mental illness across our nation. That's why I am intrigued by the new White House initiative to raise awareness about mental illness, and to improve services and treatment.

I observed the Conference that was held at the White House today, and didn't even mind that it was somewhat predictable and staid. By my estimation, the Scale of Urgency on this topic calls for fire and brimstone but then again, I am not a government functionary or a member of the Establishment.  Still, I agreed with the general thrust of the pitch: America requires strong Executive Leadership on Mental Health. And so I was moved by President Obama's address that led off the Conference this
morning:  At the same time, having spent far too long in D.C.'s media fishbowl by now -- eight years this month, aka, FAR TOO LONG -- it is not surprising that the news-cycle today barely marked this launch. Mental health is not "sexy," not even when a spate of high-profile gun-related deaths caused by individuals with untreated mental illnesses, or umpteen studies and lawsuits prove that our prison systems are filled with inmates who suffer from mental illness; not even when a growing body of economic research piles up showing that our ability to compete on the global stage, too, is being negatively affected by our piss poor healthcare and mental healthcare systems;  not even a surfeit of such data convinces those with true power to drive genuine change to take action by funding bills to increase access, raise awareness and generally open the gateway to mental health parity. And I mean hedge fund CEOs, who are now the publishers of our news outlets, and leaders of tech companies, who increasingly are operators of our news outlets.

No, having spent many years researching, writing about, and promoting this topic -- specifically the deplorable absence of culturally competent mental health services -- I'm not surprised that today's White House press event failed to penetrate the news cycle. There was no Showbiz treatment from my colleagues in the press...and I mean primarily the TV wing. The Washington Post, and a few other legacy outlets dutifully covered it today but there was no fire and brimstone flaming from the Internet or the TV, the two platforms most likely to catch the attention of the largest audiences.  Most of the Beltway gang jumped right on the death of Senator Frank Lautenberg.

The death of Senator Lautenberg was important -- but more important than the long-tail problem of underfunded mental health programs in the U.S.? 

The answer is "Yes," if you are inclined to play the horse race, Inside-the-Beltway BS game of "Who Will Replace the Venerable Old Senator?" sweepstakes game. For anyone outside of Sen. Lautenberg's district, though, I am pretty sure that such inside baseball prognosticating doesn't matter. Given the events of the past few years (Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Newtown, to name but a few), I honestly don't know how much more evidence people need to understand the connection between untreated mental illness and tragedies on mass scale.

That millions of Americans are experiencing tiny tragedies, too, in private that result directly from untreated or poorly treated mental illness of family members doesn't seem to move the political needle very strongly in a positive direction. Nor has it convinced whoever holds the purse strings at news organizations to make coverage of mental health enough of a priority to fund a full-time beat. (The last of the reputable print and broadcast news organizations, including The New York Times and NPR, do have full-time healthcare beat reporters, and science too. Yet somehow, mental health is not to my knowledge broken out into its own category worthy of a separate full-time staff allocation.) 

I am reminded of the classic definition of mental illness: "Doing the same action repeatedly and expecting a different outcome."

Thirteen years ago I wrote a book describing why America needs to view mental health as a serious issue. I remain invested in the effort to find solutions. But I'm wary of "doing the same action repeatedly," hoping somehow that the press or the Establishment will react differently. I can't afford to court that kind of insanity.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Journalists Learn They're for Sale on eBay: Teeth-Gnashing, Hand-Wringing, Pearls-Clutching Commences!

 Early in this Memorial Day Weekend, I was confronted with a uniquely 21st Century "First World" development: I learned that I am up for auction on eBay. Well, my 30 year-old self is, in the form of my official staff photos from my years at The Miami Herald. Opening bid price: $32.88. The McClatchy Company, owner of The Miami Herald, had made a deal with a third party company to sell most of the photo archives. Part of the deal included the acquiring company agreeing to digitize much of the photos, and, apparently the right to offer up the newspaper's historic photos for auction. Since those of us who worked at The Herald in Editorial had semi-regular photographs made (for press passes or columns that appeared in the newspages) there are presumably hundreds of these photos now up for sale by the group that purchased the images from McClatchy. After learning of this development from a friend and former Herald staffer who phoned me Friday night (she was moderately upset, two clicks below "outraged"), I didn't immediately give it much thought. But after she'd sent me the link to the location at eBay where our photos are being auctioned under the rather tacky banner of the ROGERS PHOTO ARCHIVE (sic), I took a look.

Journalist's Photos for Sale on eBay -- What Am I Bid?

Honestly, it is creepy to see my long-ago self in this location, and in such a context.


Not only is my first press pass photo on auction but so is the second staff photo that was made during my years at the Herald ('93-'97), a picture from '95. In both, I have expressions of youthful optimism, though I was 30 years old when I joined The Miami Herald staff. In the first, from '93, my hair is braided, and pulled up into a top-knot. I am wearing a light-weight checkered blazer, and smiling rather fetchingly, if I may say so. In the second photo, my hair is shoulder-length, loose, and I appear to have picked up a few pounds in the two years since the '93 image was made. I am smiling there, too, though it seems there are fresh lines around my eyes.

After gawking for a few moments at those long-ago versions of me, I went from that eBay page directly to Facebook, and checked in at The Miami Herald Alumni group. Yep. A robust conversation has been boiling away there for several weeks now about the auctioning of staff photos. Considering the high public profiles that many of the Miami Herald alumni now have -- Herald alumni occupy leading positions in academe>, nonprofits and media -- no wonder. And in these wacky times of Internet-enabled identity theft, "catfishing," and Lord knows how many other digital scams that unfold by the second, I don't think it is unreasonable for some of us with former staff photos now up for auction on eBay to be "concerned." All the same, I do also recognize the irony -- if not hypocrisy -- of this sentiment.

Who Are We to Protest?

In the 20 years since I first joined the staff at The Herald, many journalists have embraced (however reluctantly) the nascent yet wide-spread theory that news people have to "brand" themselves. This means that, whether one practices the trade independently or on the part- or full-time payroll of a news or news-ish organization, one must endeavor to craft a "public persona" that includes distinctive photo portraits in various social media channels. One is also now expected to score as many television appearances as one can, along with maintaining a personal or company blog or author books and/or magazine articles, and, assuming one has not dropped dead from exhaustion or pissed off any remaining loved ones who wonder if you've become a totally self-absorbed asshole, one is also expected to score as many speaking engagements, broadcast radio appearances, and ribbon-cuttings as one can reasonably handle.

This frenzy of self-promotion has accelerated in recent years, distinct from an era (not very long ago!) when journalists existed pretty much behind a "fourth wall:" Unless you wrote a weekly column, news reporters' images were rarely published in the outlets where they worked. At The Herald, the local news section where I was first assigned (in the Fort Lauderdale bureau), had a regular feature called "Target" in which beat reporters were provided a regularly-scheduled front-of-section report (which jumped inside to a full 'double-truck" two page spread) in which to publish a deep-dive report on a topic from their beat.

These "Target" pages were devised in part by the Herald's marketing team, and their publishing schedule and locations in the various local sections were designed to gin-up reader and advertiser loyalty. The photo I've posted at the top of this column is my first press photo, but it also doubled as the photo that published with my "Target" reports. In the days after the first appearance of this photo in The Herald, I vividly remember an uptick in mail addressed to me in the Fort Lauderdale newsroom, and phone calls at my desk (our street address and phone numbers were also posted in these "Target" reports, a precursor to the point of contact information that reporters and columnists offer today -- email addresses, links to past work, AND direct phone numbers.) I began receiving letters at my desk from local readers in Broward, which actually was a boon.

Readers seemed to appreciate having a face to go along with my byline, a form of "personalizing" that did, sometimes, lead to fresh ideas for stories or even actionable tips on breaking news. But I also began receiving mail from guys doing time in various prisons around the state -- a not-so-fun innovation that was a direct result of my photo appearing semi-regularly in the newspages. Obviously, reading the prisoner's letters was an odd experience, mildly upsetting. Considering that they were a "captive audience" only went so far to soothe concerns that I also felt about the potential negative fallout of the new "transparency." So, yes, this brand new news that my former Herald staff photos are now up for auction at eBay carries a frisson of that 20 year-old anxiety, along with a decidedly postmodern element -- Internet wariness.

Out of Context: Who Controls My Brand Image?


On one hand, I am somewhat comfortable with this dynamic, likewise with the tools of producing and managing my own online "brand." I most certainly am more knowledgeable about these matters than I could have imagined back when those Herald photos were first made.  From my Senior Class photo, which I have posted on my Facebook profile each May since 2010, to images that live in the archives at Beacon Press and Grove/Atlantic Press, my book publishers; to the images of me that were made by the terrific DC-area photographer Steve Barrett and which are easily accessible on several social channels, I do not object to my photo appearing on the Internet. I object to not having control over when and where images of me appear.

Since resigning from The Miami Herald in 1997 and setting myself up as an independent writer, I have very deliberately crafted a public, professional persona based on my expertise in Communicating -- reporting, researching, writing and expressing informed opinion on topics that interest me. In this context,  I have equally deliberately attempted to maintain control over my work and my image. For the past decade, I have tried to manage any release of photos of myself on the Internet. I have done this in part because I am a parent but also because I am aware of the viral nature of the Web -- and also because I am wary of the shadowy unknowns bound up in all the accessibility of the Internet.

The fact that I do not have control over my former staff photos is problematic, since the company's choice to put it out to bid took place without my knowledge or consent.  The fact that a price is being attached to my image, too, is problematic, mostly for issues of ego rather than safety or privacy. Why are my images going for $32.88 -- why not a cool $33...or $40? We've been joking ruefully in the Herald alumni Facebook group about which reporter's or editor's photos are being auctioned at what price. Like -- who at the third-party outfit that is selling these images decided what price to set as opening "bid" for our images?

Hey Scribe! Think You're Famous? What's Your Going Rate on eBay?

What are the metrics for deciding the price? Why, for example, is the legendary crime reporter, author, and Pulitzer Prize-winning former Herald staffer Edna Buchanan's photo listed at $28.88 -- four bucks less than the cost of my image? How about former staffers who are now well-known "thought leaders" in media on one topic or another, such as Dexter Filkins? Less amusingly, at least one staffer is ticked off that a photo of himself and some of his family members -- taken long ago during a company event -- has also turned up for sale on eBay. This staff member's family members never worked at the Herald, nor presumably did they sign any kind of legal release for those images. Shouldn't the have some measure of protection from this?

Glenn Garvin, a current staffer, legitimately raised the question Sunday in the alumni group Facebook page that few of us carping in that space about the sale of the staff photos appear to be concerned that images of thousands of "civilians" are also being auctioned without their consent or knowledge -- where is our concern for their privacy rights? 

I suspect that the McClatchy company (the current owner of The Herald though its long-time owner was Knight-Ridder) in all likelihood didn't consider these kinds of nuances when it made the deal to sell or license its photos. Yet the deal does strike me as merely another iteration of the larger, troubling trend toward what web pioneer-turned-Internet critic Jaron Lanier calls the "decontextualzing" of creative output (books, music, film), the removal of the "person" who created the "content" from the content itself.

The utopian (if also naive) idea that "content wants to be free" that has sped the demise of the old economic model that once supported newspapers like The Herald informs this cavalier selling of our images. With a few exceptions such as LinkedIn, tech companies that are increasingly becoming "media companies" are not to date led by individuals who appear to have very much respect for news practitioners, or for the practice itself (see Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer's recent comment post-Tumblr acquisition, that "there are no real professional photographers" any more thanks to smart phone cameras and online distribution services. She later apologized... sort of.)

The cheapening of "content" that has drastically, swiftly dropped the stock of all trained, professional journalists is a touchy subject. It is a cold new reality rife with cultural, economic and political implications. I do not profess to have all the answers, not for this eBay auctioning of our images, nor for the larger issue. But I do know that it sucks to see oneself so abruptly "decontextualized" -- not to mention put up for bid for less than the price of a good Sushi dinner.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Notes On the AP vs DOJ: Where's the Public Love?

Thanks to the Internet, millions of Americans don't seem to know that the Associated Press was our first Internet.

It's important to note this now,  as the AP is in the news (rather than just covering it) for a serious matter involving the First Amendment and government intrusion.  We know that Journalism itself has been under siege for some time now from an increasingly disaffected audience, and that some of the unhappiness with the current state of the American press is valid. But the relative absence of outrage about the U.S. Department of Justice's sweeping intrusion into the AP says to me that the press in America is held in even lower esteem than I realized.  It also points up the growing need for intensive media literacy efforts by news organizations and institutions of higher learning to aid the public's understanding of the crucial role of the legitimate news-gathering organizations, and of the press's watchdog mission.

I'm on the record as indicting the leadership of many of the nation's legacy and emerging news organizations for their stubborn inability to make their enterprises more representative of America's population by hiring,  retaining and promoting more Latino, Asian and black journalists and producers, as well as practitioners from low-income or working-class backgrounds. But this news of the AP's situation, and the absence of public outrage about it, hints at a bleak future in terms of the Fourth Estate's ability to prevail in the court of public opinion and possibly in regional and Federal judicial settings. The AP hasn't been immune from economic challenges or from complaints over decades from some staffers frustrated by the same monochromatic issues (lack of class, gender race inclusion) that exists at other news organizations. All the same, the AP is the Timex of American Journalism, and it deserves respect.

A PR offensive by the AP in the midst of its current challenge may help rouse the public. Any such initiative would need to be broader than simply defending the institution in this particular fight with the DOJ.  I am familiar with the Semper Fi culture of the AP, which is to say it has historically avoided the kind of preening and show-biz commercial measures undertaken by its print and broadcast counterparts, even in recent years when marketing and promotions have become flashy and crass, owing to corporate and shareholder pressuring news brands to more strongly differentiate themselves.  The AP is boring, necessarily so. But were I advising the group now, I'd recommend a strategic campaign that emphasizes the "S-word" element of the current DOJ fight -- "S" for "shame," not for "scandal;" and also arrange for some of the company's top Correspondents and Photographers to engage in a barnstorming tour of advocacy groups, colleges and the like, to remind us of the AP's history and of it's reliable, vital work in an increasingly partisan and sloppy media ecosystem.

On Sunday, May 19, Gary Pruitt, CEO and President of AP, gave his first television interview since news of the DOJ's action broke.

Characteristically, Pruitt appeared on the least sexy Sunday political news program on the air, the venerable "Face the Nation" at CBS. (I link to the clip of Pruitt's interview above -- alas it doesn't render if you're viewing my column on a mobile device. Here's the URL: And not surprisingly, Pruitt used clear, blunt language in describing what he believes was the DOJ's "unconstitutional" action.

This is not a small thing, people. I am lately having to concentrate extra hard to stay abreast of this shameful situation amidst the rising cacophony of coverage on the supposed "Obama Administration scandals" that dominates the news cycles.   (Yes, I am discerning, as well as fortunate to have developed over the years a highly-attuned "noise filter."  But it is important to say that many news consumers don't have such skills. I'm not saying that audiences are "dumb," I'm saying that civilians are overwhelmed daily by such a firehose of images, data and partisan screaming that it is a big challenge to ascertain what's truly important. It is a paradox: As Americans become more "media-savvy" thanks to the over-saturation of channels in the Web and on TV screens, the surfeit of news and news-ish outlets is not, in fact, creating consumers who are better informed about legitimate Journalism.)

Pruitt and other members of the AP's leadership might view the idea of a disruptive PR campaign unseemly. Yet handled appropriately, such a strategy at this time actually stands a good shot at elevating the AP's message above the noise.  Americans tend to love a crisp narrative involving historic institutions that started small, grew big over time, and managed to hold fast to their values through the decades. That is the story of the AP.

But how many Americans know it?

AP is funded by individual news organizations and staffs bureaus across the US and the globe.  It was founded in 1846 by a group of five New York newspaper companies who banded together to support a pony express route that would enable their papers to speed news of the Mexico War to their readers faster than the US Postal Service.

I have worked in news organizations that contribute to the AP, and can report first-hand that the AP houses some of the best writers, editors, visual journalists and producers in the world. Its immense brick and mortar footprint -- as in, bureaus large and small strung across the globe -- are hugely valuable to working journalists worldwide.

In 1992, for instance, when Los Angeles lit up in flames following the acquittal of white police officers who had been charged with beating a black motorist named Rodney King, the AP bureau in the City of Angeles hosted dozens of out of town journalists who rushed to the city to cover the conflict. We were literally sheltered by the AP in LA , and provided quality equipment and resources in what can only be described as urban warfare conditions. I was moreover during that week stunned to look up from a desk I'd found off the main newsroom of the AP in LA to find that another person had joined me at an adjoining desk, a local AP reporter named Linda Deutsch.

Even at that neophyte stage of my career, I knew that Deutsch was a legendary legal affairs reporter and a mainstay of LA journalists.  She was friendly, helpful and mildly salty, as we made small talk for the rest of the afternoon that I shared that space. I knew that Deutsch had covered some of the biggest trials and criminal cases in LA for many, many years. Her work had filled column inches in newspapers across the globe for decades with straightforward, tough dispatches.  I'd always aspired to writing dailies and long-form stories that were "colorful," but I certainly understood and appreciated the ability of Deutsch and other AP staff correspondents to hew closely to the "Just the facts, Ma'am" style that is the AP's hallmark (although its correspondents also produce terrific feature writing, sports coverage, and also in recent years, video reportage.) They tend to be fly-on-the-wall reporters,
not peacocks.

The AP's reach historically represented a ubiquity that is now replicated (albeit in a vastly mutated, accelerated form), by the Internet.  It concerns me that upcoming generations of news consumers don't seem to know that the blogs they read, the sports sites, the fan-pages are largely seeded by work from AP writers worldwide.  If you take a moment to think about it, then take another half hour to actually mount an organized search, you'll easily see that without the AP, a whole lot of "content" would vanish from the Web.  And by "content," of course, I mean "news and information."

Finally, a word about AP's CEO Gary Pruitt.

He is from Florida,  has a law degree from UC Berkeley, and is probably one of the last news company Chiefs who genuinely believes that the mission of a news corporation is to support an open, transparent democracy, not simply rake in big profits for owners and shareholders.  Pruitt was for many years a top lawyer at the McClatchy Newspaper Company in California, and then CEO of that Company.  During my time as a Fresno Bee staff writer, Pruitt moved from Sacramento to Fresno to serve as publisher, and pretty quickly implemented a policy of transparency as well as structural innovations that the FresBee sorely needed at that time. Of all the editors, publishers and owners that I encountered in the many years that I've worked in news and information, I can say without hesitating that Pruitt is easily the brightest, most genuine, and emotionally intelligent that I've met.

He's also a crafty, tough negotiator -- and an expert in the First Amendment and the Constitution.  I anticipate the AP's dealings with the Department of Justice from here out will be highly instructive, with or without a flashbang PR campaign.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Grieve, Seethe, Repeat: Will America Heed Mrs. Obama's Advice?

"This is a moral obligation...because ultimately, this city and this community will be judged not just by the beauty of our parks and lakefront or by the vitality of our businesses but by our commitment to our next generation."
 -- Michelle Obama, April 10, 2013, at a business leader's lunch in Chicago.

The current gun safety debate was sparked by the murders of 26 adults and children in suburban Connecticut on December, 14,2012. It is now at the top of President Barack Obama's policy agenda, and from the halls of Congress to local school boards, it seems that everyone is talking about whether we've reached a tipping point in our history of gun ownership in the United States.

This is not the first time, of course, that politicians, community activists and educators have chewed this particular bone: My California Senator, Dianne Feinstein,  a San Francisco Democrat, attempted in the 1990s to pass legislation designed to control access to assault weapons; her recent attempt was thwarted by bipartisan resistance, including from her fellow senator, Harry Reid of Nevada. It has become a boring cliche to say that the topic of gun safety is "fraught" here in the U.S.

Yet it is also true that some of us are quite exhausted by the seemingly-endless cycle of boom and bust of this issue,  as in:

  •  A terrible mass shooting takes place in an American community (Aurora, Colorado, Virginia Tech University, Tuscon Arizona).
  •  A frenzy of media coverage erupts.
  •  Politicians local and national express sympathy for the victims.
  •  The National Rifle Association bullies elected officials into watering down any gun safety proposals that make it to the floors of state houses or Congress.
  •  Everybody settles down....until the next horrible mass shooting happens. 
Grieve, seethe, and repeat. 

So now, the Obama Administration says it wants to break this terrible cycle. And Michelle Obama, the administration's most effective public relations force, is joining the White House's effort. We will see if the First Lady's intellect, compassion and mesmerizing speaking abilities will gin up public will that is strong enough to carry the day.

I have watched this clip of Mrs. Obama's April 10 talk in Chicago a half-dozen times by now. It it remarkable for several reasons, but mostly for this: Michelle Obama, graduate of Princeton, Harvard Law School and a former executive, is telling the over-class in America that it is failing.

With stunning precision she ties the shooting deaths of poor black and Latino kids on the streets of Chicago to the shooting deaths of white kids from affluent families in Colorado and Virginia, then knots those directly to the "obligations" of all American adults -- including and especially the wealthiest -- to quit dithering and start getting serious about ending easy access to guns AND to invest fully in creating better opportunities for kids nationwide. Obviously, she has kinship (as she noted) with many of the poor and working- or middle-class kids who die every day on American streets from gun violence.  Unless you are a willfully blind conservative or a stubborn racist, you can appreciate the authenticity of Mrs. Obama's concern.

It is not politically cynical for her to emphasize her family's similarity to that of the young Chicago woman, Hadiyah Pendleton, who was gunned down for no reason other than foolishness earlier this year.  That Mrs. Obama has come from those same Chicago streets and similar economic circumstances (modest) as Pendleton is (or should be) a cause of awe and optimism to all Americans, if also reason for bittersweet introspection.

In addition,  the relative silence from the "thought leadership" wing of the press, the dearth  of deep analysis of Mrs. Obama's Chicago address is troubling: it signals that the continuing disappearance from our newsrooms of writers, editors and producers who hail from working-class backgrounds is diminishing coverage of topics that deserve urgent attention. The implications of this are huge yet amidst the crazy proliferation of alleged "media critics" and "experts" that now clogs the Internet, there are very few who are qualified to identify this void and propose solutions. (I have plenty of suggestions and here is the most obvious one: The top editors and hiring editors at what is left of the MSM should figure out how to fund pipelines extending directly from J-schools and departments that still focus on teaching the practice, to PAID internship programs. These pipelines must ultimately feed directly into staff positions at what is left of the Legacy news organizations and the handful of web outlets with aspirations of legitimacy. Resources are tight, yes, but I'd say it is a smart investment in their future economic survival.)

Moreover, if future political historians don't identify this Chicago speech as a seminal moment in postmodern American politics (or at least of the Obama Administration's eight year run), I will rise from my resting place and eat my hat.

And a pro tip: If you venture back and read the relatively few press stories or blog posts on this speech, steel yourself for the Comments: I know better than to get upset by the high level of rank racism and misogyny that many Americans apparently hold toward Mrs. O but at a certain point, you have to wonder if we are becoming a barbaric nation. Mrs. Obama's message here is simple yet profound: Those of us who have benefited from the many opportunities that exist in America are morally obliged to create a safe path for the children who live here, and for their children to come.  Full stop.

That some "Americans" aren't capable of appreciating that point and instead choose to hurl in the wake of this speech hateful comments about FLOTUS' skin-color, gender, and "privileged" life makes me frightened indeed.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Thank You, Sheryl Sandberg. Can We Move On Now? A Guest Post

For someone who is currently "between assignments," the Black Snob sure is busy!

Here is her recent take on a person  -- Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg -- and a topic -- American women in the workplace, or more accurately, in the corporate ranks -- that has dominated the news cycle for much of the past week. 

As usual, The Snob brings everybody back to earth, and not a moment too soon. Really, the coverage of Sandberg and of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer was rapidly spinning up into the La-La World where only the rare species of Upper East-siders, Marin County denizens and Fisher Island habitues could possibly translate the rituals and language. For the rest of us out here just trying to keep the lights on, we view the reams of digital ink and airtime spent on Sandberg and Mayer and think, "And this discussion reflects my situation how?"

So, here's a look first at a snippet of Sandberg's recent "60 Minutes" interview, followed by The Snob's post, followed by The Snob's recent turn at PBS' "NewsHour," where I'm pretty sure she caught a few of that august program's viewers unawares.  

Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg: Are Women in Their Own Way? By Danielle Belton

Facebook COO Sheryl SandbergOn 60 Minutes this Sunday there was an eye-opening interview with Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg where, pushing a new book, wondered if women were the ones holding women back. 

Watch the whole story here:

While Sandberg makes some valid points about women downplaying their worth or being afraid to negotiate for raises (this goes back to how often women, especially white women, are socialized to "be happy just to be here" then "apologize for existing"), her story is lacking in how myopic her view is. She's wealthy, accomplished, has an equally successful and supportive husband, nannies and had a career shepherded by a powerful man before blossoming as an executive and becoming the leader she is today. 

Basically, she's the best case scenario.

But to say women are holding women back is too broad when she really means "Upper-middle-to-upper-class women hold themselves and each other back in a debate over whether or not they want equality or for men to simply be nicer to them." This is not a debate we're all having in the lower classes and ethnic groups. Our lady lament is more like "why isn't family leave time universal," "why won't my job let me take time off to attend to my sick kid," "why did I stop getting promotions just because I got pregnant," "why do I get such crappy wages compared to my male counterparts," "I wish Jim in accounting would stop hitting on me it makes me uncomfortable," "I wish my husband -- if I have one -- was more supportive or would at least wash the dishes sometimes" and so forth. Essentially problems that have little to do with the "lady within" but everything to do with the patriarchal world without. Where pregnancy is talked about by some like it's a disease and people think your womb (and what does or doesn't go in it) needs regulation. 

For black women, the situation is often more nuanced or entirely different altogether. Recent studies show black women, unlike white women, are not penalized for being assertive in the workplace and that their peers actually expect it. (That is the first time ever I think a stereotype worked for me.) And unlike Sandberg's lack of female mentors, I'm drowning in them. A while back on Michel Martin's show on NPR I spoke out about how women helped me, including Martin herself, in getting my writing and my blog a wider audience. Far from what reality shows reveal, the black women in my life have been champions, sisters, friends and cohorts, not enemies. A win for one has been a win for all. As for the one woman who can't play nice with others, no one's studying her. She doesn't want to be part of Team Black Woman anyway. She likes being a token. The women I've known did not.

As for Sandbergs more universal points, I'm not married and don't have kids because there is no way for me to juggle my live in D.C. one day, live in the Bronx the next career. It would be irresponsible to drag some poor tyke from pillar to post as I pursue my dreams as a writer. A lot of women are forced to make these decisions because the world (and biology) isn't fair. Women often do have to chose between family and work as Sandberg points out, but what she doesn't seem to get is very few women can have it all. Having it all is a myth. Having children in a competitive work environment is often frowned upon in the workplace. (Apparently some are even out-right hostile to it.) And we're going to keep having these problems as long as there is A) sexism and B) women are the only ones who can reproduce.

What we need to champion is better family leave for all workers, more flexible work environments and a society more understanding of a woman who takes some time off to have kids, but then decides to rejoin the workplace after she's done breast-feeding. But we don't have those things because the partiarchal powers-that-be and their female co-signers feel if men don't need it, neither should you. Even though men too would benefit from all those things. Women at work shouldn't be about being the most exceptional to overcome these obstacles and find yourself and outlier. Equality only comes when you can be just as average as your male counterparts and achieve on the same Peter Principle level.

But even if we reach that magic land of equality, there still might slightly be more male CEOs and COOs for that reason alone. Somebody has to have the kids. And while stay at home dads are more and more common, the only people pushing little people out of their body parts are women. This is the reality we negotiate with. This is the world we live in.

Not Sandberg's. 

And here's The Black Snob's spin at PBS' "NewsHour" last night:

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Why We Need More Black Princesses: A Guest Post

Thank goodness for The Black Snob! She watches "The Real Housewives of Atlanta" so you don't have to. Here's a great post on an interesting aspect of "ROHA" -- and why we need more Black Princesses. 

ROHA's Porsha Stewart is Perfect and I Love Her 
(But Let Me Explain)

By Danielle Belton

Normally, I don't have much in the way of interest for Bravo's Real Housewives of Atlanta. It's a silly, fun show full of cringe-inducing people and a few glamour-pusses flouncing around and twirling. But this season has piqued my interest, but for one reason and one reason alone -- granddaughter of a civil rights activist and wife of former pro-football star Kordell Stewart -- loveable ditz Porsha Stewart.

Porsha Stewart reacts to gifts at her fairy tale wedding.

Porsha is not the brightest bulb in the lamp, but I love her. And not ironically. I LOVE HER. And I'm publicly declaring it to be so! I would like to brush her weave and help her pick out outfits. But I love her specifically because she is the first time I've ever seen a black woman play the role of "Pretty, Pretty Pampered and Protected Princess" on television.

Black women historically get to be mules in both the media and real life. We get to be sapphires and jezebels and mammies and the best BFFs of the white hero with no lives of our own. We get to be video hoes. We get to be in the background. (Even though we're quite diverse, multidimensional and awesome.) But Porsha is essentially a pretty, pretty princess version of screwball Lucille Ball with Kordell as her slightly-controlling, but possibly harmless father-figure Ricky Ricardo.
And that is refreshing by virtue of it being both different and necessary. It's like a lesser version of what you get with Michelle Obama planting a garden at the White House. Typically the role of a black woman in the White House is cleaning it. Now it's running it. "Who cares if she doesn't practice law!" says all the black women tired of having to carry everything and be all things to all people all the time. You just want to see her dote on her kids, love her husband and run things with positivity and sophistication because YOU NEVER GET TO SEE THIS ON SUCH A LARGE SCALE.

She's on magazine covers! She's an icon! People admire her for her brains and beauty! Oh! Oooo! Me next! ME NEXT, PLEASE! Sez a generation of black women.

Once upon a time a white female friend of mine told me black women would grow to resent the pedestal if we got put on it and my response, on behalf of all black women was, "LEMME GET UP THERE AND SEE IF IT SUCKS AND THEN I'LL TELL YOU ABOUT IT."

Porsha is up there and there is where I want ... nay, need her to stay.

Black women don't always get the pedestal treatment, so when one of us gets up on there and gets to be the paragon of womanly virtue and perfection, you'll fight for that woman to stay up on there in hopes that other black women -- even you -- will be not just respected, but celebrated for your choices in education, career and family. Even if you're not deep like Nikki Giovanni.
So, in some ways, I'm fighting for silly Porsha because I love that she's just an innocent goofball and gets to be the innocent goofball because it's so rare to see that publicly -- a black woman trophy wife who is not broken or angry or bitter, but goofy and happy to be here. Happy to wear the dress. Happy to play house. Happy to be happy, bouncing around without a natural care in the world.

After episode whatever it was, when she was just trying on dresses for her husband's birthday party, it dawned on me I could watch Porsha twirl around in cocktail dresses all day, talking about having twins on command (as if science would allow such a thing, oh Porsha!) and thinking this child is too shallow to be real. Porsha -- trying and failing then kind of succeeding in babysitting. Porsha, being ordered to try wine instead of ordering a Sprite because mentally, she's still a kid and wine is GROWN PEOPLE DRANK. (Porsha is not grown.) Porsha's little feud with Kenya Moore that seems more harmless and high school-like than degrading and offensive like most black lady fights on reality TV. (Case in point: Team Stallion Booty versus Team Donkey Booty versus society wanting to poke out eyeballs.)

To Porsha, I say, never change. You HOLD ON to that little girl, child-like, innocent spirit inside of you and stay goofy and ... um ... mentally uncomplicated. If someone tells you that you need to be "deep" or "stand for something" tell them to SHUT UP. Your protest is by existing. Black people were brought to this country in chains to work for free. Every day you choose to wear a $1,000 dress while doing nothing is a damn protest against The Man. (This goes for all other black people who chose to do whatever they please with their lives post-Emancipation. Fall in love! Get married! Get educated! Drink champagne at noon! It's all a protest, people! Being free is a form of protest! So ... protest responsibly!)

Just because some black women might be intellectually incurious doesn't mean they should die horrible deaths or face dire fates and diminishing prospects. Everybody can't be (or has the capacity to be) Coretta Scott King, but you can honor her memory by being nice, not embarassing and finding other ways to represent Team Black Woman and her junior squad, Team Black Girl.
So I say, Lawd, let this child have this! I need it for her. And by her, I mean me. It's hard out here on these streets. Let's let some sister get the easy route, then pat her on the back for winning the genetic lottery that got her there. If it turns out the pedestal is wack, believe me, we'll let you know.

Do you agree? Disagree? If you disagree and think it's a bad look for any black woman to take a break from full-time battlemode to be a goofnugget on Bravo I respect your opinion, but you're also why WE CAN'T HAVE NICE THINGS! I'm kidding, of course, but not kidding ...

Monday, February 18, 2013

Two Reasons Why Denzel Washington Won't Win Best Actor Oscar....and Thoughts on Why He Should

Denzel Washington deserves the Oscar for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role from the Academy next week but he won't receive it.

Daniel Day-Lewis is likely to walk away with that award, for two reasons: 

  1.  Day-Lewis' performance as America's 16th President is  poignant and forceful.
  2. Academy voters will believe that our body politic at this juncture needs a larger-than-life cinematic characterization of a Commander-in-Chief who makes a strong, brave (if imperfect) stand against slavery and, tangentially, against racism.  

In short, a Best Actor Oscar to Day-Lewis's Lincoln will be sure to make whites in 2013 America feel good about themselves. 

This is the vanilla form of political expression that I anticipate the members of the Academy to engage in. 

But such a 'feel-good' vote, while not the least cynical, won't much lift the spirits of black Americans at this time.

More of us than not are experiencing dichotomies, challenges, and dashed hopes similar to those experienced by Washington's character, Whip Whitaker, a commercial airline pilot. We mostly admire Lincoln, of course.  But Whitaker's challenges are familiar, and....close.  His third-reel redemption is an immediate beacon, bright, complicated, hopeful.

Yes, I am aware that it is hard to ignore the historic synergy of "Lincoln' and Day-Lewis' depiction. I mean, really. 

After all,  Lincoln freed the slaves, and here we are now, commencing the second term of our nation's first black president.....who happened to have declared his intention to run six years ago in Springfield, Illinois, where Lincoln began is political career!

Won't it be so deliciously.....symbolic and synergistic to select Day-Lewis' portrayal of  'The Great Emancipator' as the 'best' leading male acting performance in all of American movies for 2012...the same year that 'we' re-elected a black president

Well, yes, if one lacks insight and courage -- and I mean 'insight' in the acting context and courage in the political context. In a terrific New York Times essay, Nelson George recently argued for more nuanced portrayals in Hollywood films of blacks and characters from other historically marginalized groupsWashington's performance in 'Flight' is an excellent example of just such a role -- and of why such nuanced roles matter.

Washington's airline pilot, Whitaker, is a deeply flawed individual.  He's also a brave and heroic contemporary American.  He over-indulges on the personal pleasures (sex, drink, drugs).  He lies (to his ex-wife, to his son, to himself).   He also is sublimely self-confident in his professional skills, which comes in handy when the plane he's piloting experiences catastrophic equipment failure.  

The sequence in which Washington's character mentally wills and technically manipulates the failed plane to a nearly-safe landing is magnificent -- a perfect meshing of all the stunning technological wonders that are now at filmmakers' fingertips and of good old fashioned acting chops.

Later, after the story is officially grounded, and technical wizardry is no longer in the foreground, we are plunged into a human story that is as harrowing, draining, inspiring and authentically invigorating as the Civil War.

I know the story of the 16th President, almost by heart at this point.  I am awed and grateful for Abraham Lincoln's life and his devotion to humanitarian principles.  Yet the creative engine that fuels my forward motion comes most efficiently from real world examples -- individuals in the here and now who are capable of heroic acts of bravery, even if in a fictional context. The late-breaking revelations of creative liberties taken by Tony Kushner, author of the film, too, has cast a minor shadow over my admiration of the film "Lincoln."  (After I saw the film late last fall, I went on a Twitter tear about Kushner's excellent use of period language. "Pettifogging,' for example, is a word that should be invoked often by Beltway journalists covering the current Congress. What does it mean "Meanly petty.")

However if one is going to selectively call ''Creative License"  when presenting a fictionalized cinematic version of a well-known historic figure and moment, well, best the made up portions concern matters of wardrobe or menu items, not votes in Congress on the 13th Amendment, as Maureen Dowd at the Times argued.

Finally, I am sorry that I didn't write this post sooner. But my life of late is harrowing, inspiring, draining, and invigorating. I feel greater kinship to Whip Whitaker than I do President Lincoln, with all due respect to the Great Emancipator.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

State of the Racial Union: Facts, Optics, Fear

 What connects this..... this?


The New York Times

The Persistence of Racial Resentment

[Emphasis added in boldface]

Thomas B. Edsall
Tom Edsall on politics inside and outside of Washington.
Although there was plenty of discussion during the 2012 presidential campaign about the Hispanic vote and how intense black turnout would be, the press was preoccupied with the white vote: the white working class, white women and upscale whites.
Largely missing from daily news stories were references to research on how racial attitudes have changed under Obama, the nation’s first black president. In fact, there has been an interesting exploration of this subject among academics, but before getting to that, let’s look back at some election results.

In the 16 presidential elections between 1952 and 2012, only one Democratic candidate, Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, won a majority of the white vote. There have been nine Democratic presidential nominees who received a smaller percentage of the white vote than Obama did in 2008 (43 percent) and four who received less white support than Obama did in 2012 (39 percent).

In 2012, Obama won 39 percent of the white electorate. Four decades earlier, in 1972, George McGovern received a record-setting low of the ballots cast by whites, 31 percent. In 1968, Hubert Humphrey won 36 percent of the white vote; in 1980, Jimmy Carter got 33 percent; in 1984, Walter Mondale took 35 percent of the ballots cast by whites. As far back as 1956, Adlai Stevenson tied Obama’s 39 percent, and in 1952, Stevenson received 40 percent – both times running against Dwight D. Eisenhower. Two Democratic nominees from Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis in 1988 (40 percent) and John Kerry in 2004 (41 percent), got white margins only slightly higher than Obama’s in 2012 — and worse than Obama’s 43 percent in 2008. In other words, Obama’s track record with white voters is not very different from that of other Democratic candidates.

Ballots cast for House candidates provide another measure of white partisanship. These contests have been tracked in exit polls from 1980 onward. Between 1980 and 1992, the white vote for Democratic House candidates averaged 49.6 percent. It dropped sharply in 1994 when Newt Gingrich orchestrated the Republican take-over of the House, averaging just 42.7 percent from 1994 through 2004. White support for Democrats rose to an average of 46.7 percent in 2006 and 2008 as public disapproval of George W. Bush and of Republicans in Congress sharply increased.
How can the percentage of people holding anti-black attitudes have increased from 2006 to 2008 at a time when Obama performed better among white voters than the two previous white Democratic nominees, and then again from 2008 to 2012 when Obama won a second term?
In the aftermath of Obama’s election, white support for Congressional Democrats collapsed to its lowest level in the history of House exit polling, 38 percent in 2010 —  at once driving and driven by the emerging Tea Party. In 2012, white Democratic support for House candidates remained weak at 39 percent.

Despite how controversial it has been to talk about race, researchers have gathered a substantial amount of information on the opinions of white American voters.

The political scientists Michael Tesler of Brown University and David O. Sears of UCLA have published several studies on this theme and they have also written a book, “Obama’s Race: The 2008 Election and the Dream of a Post-Racial America,” that analyzes changes in racial attitudes since Obama became the Democratic nominee in 2008.

In their  2010 paper, “President Obama and the Growing Polarization of Partisan Attachments by Racial Attitudes and Race,” Tesler and Sears argue that the

evidence strongly suggests that party attachments have become increasingly polarized by both racial attitudes and race as a result of Obama’s rise to prominence within the Democratic Party.
Specifically, Tesler and Sears found that voters high on a racial-resentment scale moved one notch toward intensification of partisanship within the Republican Party on a seven-point scale from strong Democrat through independent to strong Republican. To measure racial resentment, which Tesler and Sears describe as “subtle hostility towards African-Americans,” the authors used data from the American National Election Studies and the General Social Survey, an extensive collection of polling data maintained at the University of Chicago.

In the case of A.N.E.S. data, Tesler and Sears write:
The scale was constructed from how strongly respondents agreed or disagreed with the following assertions: 1) Irish, Italian, Jewish and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors. 2) Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for blacks to work their way out of the lower class. 3) Over the past few years, blacks have gotten less than they deserve. 4) It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites.
The General Social Survey included questions asking respondents to rate competing causes of racial discrimination and inequality:
The scale was constructed from responses to the following 4 items: 1) Irish, Italian, Jewish and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors. 2) A 3-category variable indicating whether respondents said lack of motivation is or is not a reason for racial inequality. 3) A 3-category variable indicating whether respondents said discrimination is or is not a reason for racial inequality. 4) A three-category variable indicating whether respondents rated whites more, less or equally hardworking than blacks on 7 point stereotype scales.
Supporting the Tesler-Sears findings, Josh Pasek, a professor in the communication studies department at the University of Michigan, Jon A. Krosnick, a political scientist at Stanford, and Trevor Tompson, the director of the Associated Press-National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, use responses from three different surveys in their analysis of “The Impact of Anti-Black Racism on Approval of Barack Obama’s Job Performance and on Voting in the 2012 Presidential Election.”

Pasek and his collaborators found a statistically significant increase from 2008 to 2012 in “explicit anti-black attitudes” – a measure based on questions very similar those used by Tesler and Sears for their racial-resentment scale. The percentage of voters with explicit anti-black attitudes rose from 47.6 in 2008 and 47.3 percent in 2010 to 50.9 percent in 2012. 

Crucially, Pasek found that Republicans drove the change: “People who identified themselves as Republicans in 2012 expressed anti-Black attitudes more often than did Republican identifiers in 2008.”

In 2008, Pasek and his collaborators note, the proportion of people expressing anti-Black attitudes was 31 percent among Democrats, 49 percent among independents, and 71 percent among Republicans. By 2012, the numbers had gone up. “The proportion of people expressing anti-Black attitudes,” they write, “was 32 percent among Democrats, 48 percent among independents, and 79 percent among Republicans.”
At the moment, the population of the United States (314 million) is heading towards a majority-minority status in 2042.
The American electorate, on the other hand (126 million) is currently 72 percent white, based on the voters who cast ballots last November.
Obama’s ascendency to the presidency means that, on race, the Rubicon has been crossed (2008) and re-crossed (2012).
What are we to make of these developments? Is the country more or less racist? How can the percentage of people holding anti-black attitudes have increased from 2006 to 2008 at a time when Obama performed better among white voters than the two previous white Democratic nominees, and then again from 2008 to 2012 when Obama won a second term?
In fact, the shifts described by Tesler and Pasek are an integral aspect of the intensifying conservatism within the right wing of the Republican Party. Many voters voicing stronger anti-black affect were already Republican. Thus, in 2012, shifts in their attitudes, while they contributed to a 4 percentage point reduction in Obama’s white support, did not result in a Romney victory.
Some Republican strategists believe the party’s deepening conservatism is scaring away voters.
“We have a choice: we can become a shrinking regional party of middle-aged and older white men, or we can fight to become a national governing party,” John Weaver, a consultant to the 2008 McCain campaign, said after Obama’s re-election. Mark McKinnon, an adviser to former President George W. Bush, made a similar point: “The party needs more tolerance, more diversity and a deeper appreciation for the concerns of the middle class.”
Not only is the right risking marginalization as its views on race have become more extreme, it is veering out of the mainstream on contraception and abortion, positions that fueled an 11 point gender gap in 2012 and a 13 point gap in 2008.
Given that a majority of the electorate will remain white for a number of years, the hurdle that the Republican Party faces is building the party’s white margins by 2 to 3 points. For Romney to have won, he needed 62 percent of the white vote, not the 59 percent he got.
Working directly against this goal is what Time Magazine recently described as the Republican “brand identity that has emerged from the stars of the conservative media ecosystem: Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter, and others.”
It is not so much Latino and black voters that the Republican Party needs. To win the White House again, it must assuage the social conscience of mainstream, moderate white voters among whom an ethos of tolerance has become normal. These voters are concerned with fairness and diversity, even as they stand to the right of center. It is there that the upcoming political battles — on the gamut of issues from race to rights — will be fought.

Op-ed by Tom Byrne Edsall,  New York Times, Feb, 6, 2013
Photo of Christopher Jordan Dorner via ChicagoNow, Feb. 8, 2013
Photo of President Obama skeet shooting, Pete Souza/White House, via the NYTimes, Feb. 2, 2013

Sunday, January 6, 2013

UPDATED: Three Ways to Consider Tarantino's "Django Unchained"

Two weeks after it opened,  "Django Unchained" continues kicking up a windstorm of commentary, critiques and rants.  It has also earned more than $100 million at the domestic box office, not exactly small change for a spectacularly complicated film that opened at the height of the Christmas season.

I'd read the reviews in The New York Times and other outlets and sat it out, opting for a Christmas holiday free of blood-splatters.  During the film's first week, I followed and sometimes chimed in on the discussions that clogged my social media channels. Many of the writers, academics and media folks who are the core of my network expressed -- sometimes in heated language -- widely diverging opinions about the movie.  In summary:

-- Tarantino foolishly makes light of the horrors of slavery. (Susan Fales Hill.)
-- Tarantino delivered a liberating revenge fantasy, disturbing but legitimate (TaRessa Stovall.)
-- Tarantino wrongly suggests that an eye-for-an-eye philosophy would have been an acceptable antidote to slavery, i.e., slaves or former slaves killing whites in retribution. (William Jelani Cobb)
-- Tarantino is talented but woefully immature. (Me.)

Now that I've watched it, here are two points on the film, brief analysis on the buzz surrounding the film, and observations on the filmmaker's comments about how and why he made it. 

1) Story

"Django Unchained" is a love story wrapped in an action-packed revenge fantasy set against the backdrop of slavery in the Deep South and in the Southwest. 

Or is it?

As a postmodern, edgy action movie, it is wildly successful. As a love story it is weakened by excesses that Tarantino either didn't notice, failed to reign in, or willfully created. As a revenge fantasy-cum-commentary on racism, it succeeds moderately.   There are strained metaphors and over-long scenes that hamper the action  (Fales Hill, for example, quite astutely noted the 'hamfisted' inclusion a reference to Wagner's "The Ring Cycle,"  within the plot).  But the  biggest story deficit is that the film's spine -- it's core meaning -- isn't clear. Is it foremost a love story? A revenge fantasy? A buddy film? Tarantino's reputation as an enfant terrible of modern film auteurs springs from his ability to produce jarring, swift acts of violence, unexpected moments of tenderness, and black humor laced with creative explosions of colorfully profane language.

All are present here, but given the incendiary frame (slavery, the ultimate third-rail in American cultural politics), identifying the genuine point of the story is difficult. Tarantino's biggest weakness as a filmmaker (in my book) has long been his inability or unwillingness to honor the tradition of linear cinematic storytelling, i.e., plots that have clearly defined beginnings, mid-sections, and endings. His elliptical style, in which flashbacks and future developments pop up randomly, swing around and double back on each other, sometimes at a dizzying pace ("Reservoir Dogs," "Pulp Fiction") is used, I believe, as something of a dodge: He may indeed be capable of writing a linear narrative and simply elects not to. But as I view his catalog, Tarantino is more interested in encouraging incipient ADHD in the audience than in steadily building our investment in the characters, in cultivating a gradual, creeping tension as plot developments logically unfold. (No, I am neither inflexible or inherently opposed to 'non-traditional' storytelling tactics, I merely prefer the former method and Tarantino has yet to produce a film that  has this flow.)  The story within "Django Unchained" is obscured; it takes a back seat to the main theme that Tarantino is promoting -- blacks avenging the cruelties of slavery. That is not a 'story,' it is a political statement.

2) Artistry

Other reviewers -- film scholars and smart movie-goers alike -- have correctly identified the film's obvious homage to the "Spaghetti Westerns" of Sergio Leone.  Unmentioned, though, is its liberal borrowing of motifs from a host of other films and filmmakers, including Hitchcock, John Ford,  Gordon Parks, Mel Brooks, and in a fleeting reference, David O. Selznick. Taken individually, the references to Leone, Hitchcock, Parks, and to Brooks are not problematic.  Collectively though, they diminish the opportunity for a truly original film that might have been enhanced by deploying fewer (or by a more subtle deployment) of references to past films or other genres. As it is, the driving artistic feature of "Django' is that it is a mash-up, however slick, visceral and humorously drawn the total sum of its parts.

There are liberal doses of Peckinpah in the grisly images of spurting blood and rending limbs; reminders of Parks in the many shots of  Django's quick-draw skills and bad-ass lines of dialog; hints of Ford in the back-lit, sillhouettes or heroic shots of Jamie Foxx's Django swaggering away from the camera framed by looming mountain ranges;  big splashes of Hitchock in Django's intense, tunnel vision focus on rescuing Kerry Washington's Broomhilda, a character who serves as the proverbial 'McGuffin' -- that item or person identified by the Master of Suspense as the driving momentum of a plot (really, Broomhilda in "Django' may as well have been a mysterious uranium formula, a la Cary Grant's and Ingrid Bergman's 'McGuffin' in 'Notorious"). The scene in which the Klansmen -- led by Don Johnson's character --  disagree over their hoods is an updating of the bandit's 'beans for dinner' scene in "Blazing Saddles" -- unexpected, hilarious and decidedly un-PC.

And the appearance, mid-way through the second reel, of the word "Mississippi" in all-caps, slowly crawling (or is it 'wiping?') majestically across the screen from right-frame to left-frame, indicating the protagonist's traveling into the Deep South is clearly a reference to Selznick's "Gone With the Wind." Much has been made of the possibility that Tarantino is attempting with "Django' to reap a kind of cinematic payback upon that epic film and presumably other 'Golden Age of Hollywood"  tales of the Old South in which blacks were portrayed as simpletons and victims. This may be the case and Tarantino and modern directors are of course welcome to update that hoary genre at will. Yet, while "Django" is indeed a 'fun,' moderately cathartic revenge fantasy-take on slavery, it is also ultimately a fairly cold-hearted film, unlike "Gone with the Wind." Tarantino is tremendously talented, and I enjoy his films -- within limits. I do though eagerly await the moment when his output begins to show signs of genuine maturity, artistically and in the ability to explore the human condition with a stronger emphasis on compassion rather than cynicism. At least in "Django,' Tarantino has improved on a basic skill of mainstream film auteurs -- constructing mis en scene that is visually arresting, if ultimately in need of editing.

3) Buzz, Criticism, Tarantino's Comments: 

After I posted this column, news emerged that a merchandising company had teamed up with the Weinstein Company, producer of "Django Unchained," to manufacture and sell 'action-figure' dolls based on the characters in the film.  My thoughts on that development were rounded up by columnist Richard Prince of the Maynard Institute, along with comments from other journalists and cultural critics.

As I said up top, lots of very smart people are chattering about "Django Unchained," with most of the heat apparently arising from Tarantino's decision to take on slavery. Part of the challenge -- and I say this with all due respect to my peers! -- is that academic experts in black studies are not necessarily experts on film, while film scholars are not usually known for their expertise on black American history. Thus, we've had a huge amount of teeth-gnashing in the media ecosystem about "Django Unchained," but not very much in the way of genuinely useful analysis.

Even so, a common  point of contention is the violence and surfeit of images showing Washington's character being whipped and of another slave character being ripped apart by dogs after attempting to escape.  These scenes are upsetting, although, yes, they are meant to be and they should be.  What is objectionable is Tarantino's decision to return to them gratuitously in the second and in the final reel.  The fact that the characters use the word 'nigger' with abandon does not bother me -- it is, after all, a story that unfolds in a era when that word was widely used.  What does rankle me is what appears to be the author's insistence that he deserves a pass on his continued appropriation on black pain (as we have endured it throughout the brutal physical abuse of the antebellum era and in the deep psychological and emotional scarring that has accumulated in the decades since thanks to Jim Crow laws, and more recently, persistent, low-grade racism that permeates American institutions including corporations, the law, and education.) Also, Tarantino does not get a 'ghetto-pass,' just because he grew up among blacks in Southern California, or because his mom 'dated Wilt Chamberlain," as he recently disclosed in an interview. I don't abide anyone using the word 'nigger' in conversation in my presence; and while Tarantino's film characters are obviously fictional, it is not acceptable that he apparently believes that he has earned a license to continuously deploy that word and that he seems to have the impression that by doing so he is diminishing its power.  I argued nearly a decade ago that there was something sick about the proliferation of the phrase 'ghetto-fabulous' in popular media and culture and this appropriation of the word 'nigger' by Tarantino or other artists -- black and white, truth be told -- is in the same category of outsized entitlement and general Dumb Assery.

Moreover, I find Tarantino's insistence that the gleeful depictions of over the top violence that he often highlights in his film are 'fun' to be terribly ill-considered.  Even Clint Eastwood -- who rightly caught lots of hell for the splatter-fests that distinguished his "Dirty Harry' films of the '70s and '80s -- eventually gave up the argument that such violence didn't have any negative impact on our national consciousness.  Eastwood grew out of such displays, likely in no small part because as he matured to fatherhood and grandfather-hood he could no longer justify producing films with the potential to negatively inform the behavior of individuals within his off-spring's cohort.

On January 2, Terry Gross, the veteran host of  NPR's "Fresh Air" published a riveting interview with Tarantino.  I am always rooting for artists, even those who produce high profile work that garners lots of press, generates high heat but which is often stubbornly flawed.  Tarantino, as I've said, is genuinely talented, and I root for his success. Yet his response to one of Gross's questions was very troubling: Gross asked if Tarantino ever considers the the possibility that the violence and brutality in his films may have any connection to or influence over the mass shootings that have increased in the U.S. in the past decade, in particular, the recent horror of 20 dead children and six dead teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut. Tarantino replies that he is 'annoyed' by such a question, and that even asking it is, 'insulting to the memory' of those who died at Sandy Hook Elementary.

If I were writing a script about a public figure who produces mass media designed to resonate with millions of viewers.....but who also denies that his product has lasting influence on any audience members, I would include a version of this interview.  It would take place in the beginning of the third reel, at the crucial moment when the protagonist finally receives profound enlightenment, matures, and finds the strength and maturity needed to infuse his mission with clarity of vision, the bright light of hope, and the beauty of compassion.