Put a Bird on It!

Artist and spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy drew countless birds — not just on paper or canvas, but on clocks, seashells, glass, fabric, and children’s toys.

Countless are the birds of the air, and countless are the fish in the sea. We call something countless because — even though it has a finite number — it defies our human capacity to quantify. We could start a project to count all the birds in the air, but it would take generations and by that time there would be new birds in the air not counted previously. There would be innumerable technical challenges, and who would fund such a study?

Of those things which are countless, the most countless of all is infinity. When I was growing up, math teachers liked to recommend George Gamow’s book One, Two, Three…Infinity as a way of grappling with deep concepts. It was entertaining and profound at the same time, explaining how there could be differently sized infinities. But even Gamow (half-jokingly) admitted that when you expand your thinking beyond a certain point, you’re no longer dealing with Math or Science but Divinity:

There was a young fellow from Trinity,
Who took the square root of infinity.
But the number of digits, Gave him the fidgets;
He dropped Math and took up Divinity.

— George Gamow

The Upanishads say:

Infinity is that.
Infinity is this.
From Infinity, Infinity has come into existence.
From Infinity, when Infinity is taken away, Infinity remains.

After reciting this passage in a 1971 Yale lecture, Sri Chinmoy continued:

Creation is the supreme sacrifice of the Brahman. Creation is by no means a mechanical construction. Creation is a spiritual act, supremely revealing, manifesting, and fulfilling the divine splendour of the Brahman. The divine Architect is beyond creation, and at the same time manifests Himself in and through creation.

— Sri Chinmoy, The Upanishads: the Crown of India’s Soul, Agni Press, 1974

On earth, we are limited by the finite. We cannot create anything which is literally infinite. But by knowing the infinite, we can speak of the infinite in our creations. We can point to the infinite, approximate the infinite, give a taste of the infinite even within the finite.

The last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony runs about 26 minutes in human time. But within that time, worlds within worlds open up for the listener, and the experience of infinity becomes immanent, palpable.

Gustav Holst, in the closing strains of his orchestral suite The Planets, was likewise able to convey a sense of countless years in the life of the planet Neptune.

In his poems, Sri Chinmoy often speaks of infinity, and of endless days with “no dole, no sombre pang, no death in my sight.” He writes:

At last I know my age.
My age is Infinity’s page.1


Above the toil of life my soul
Is a Bird of Fire winging the Infinite.2

He also writes:

Birds have a very special significance; they embody freedom. We see a bird flying in the sky, and it reminds us of our own inner freedom. Inside each of us there is an inner existence we call the soul. The soul, like a bird, flies in the sky of Infinity. The birds we see flying in the sky remind us of our own soul-bird flying in the sky of Infinity. While looking at the birds, feel that you yourself are a bird; you are your soul-bird flying in the sky of infinite Light, infinite Peace and infinite Bliss.3

A bird painting by Sri Chinmoy from 1975

A bird painting by Sri Chinmoy from 1975

This connection between birds, flight, and infinity is a pervasive feature of Sri Chinmoy’s artistic oeuvre. It’s also present in his music — particularly his piano and organ improvisations which are filled with a maelstrom of notes that would be nearly impossible to transcribe, and which call forth a sonic impression of infinity.

Yet, we may fail to notice infinity in his bird paintings and drawings due to the inherent limitations of the formats in which they are presented. On the Internet, we may see a few of his works, or perhaps a short video showcasing more still. And while such presentations may communicate both spiritual and decorative elements, they stop short of communicating the conceptual nature of his art.

It’s one thing to draw a few birds; it’s quite another to draw literally millions of them, so that they remain (for all intent and purposes) countless. Only when one sees those rare gallery exhibits where there are thousands of his soul-birds on display on multiple levels does one begin to get a sense of how vast his vision was, and how deeply he believed in the essential message which underlies all such paintings and drawings: Life is beautiful! If it isn’t, put a bird on it!



Sri Chinmoy traveled widely and often used native materials in his art. His Oslo exhibit displays a riot of iridescent colour, while the one in Kagoshima reflects a more sparse, calligraphic style, well-suited to zen meditation:


In Bali, he amassed an amazing collection of objects on which to draw, including a cheap knockoff Charlie Brown & Snoopy clock:

Sri Chinmoy draws on Charlie Brown & Snoopy clock. Photo by Kedar Misani.

Sri Chinmoy draws on a Charlie Brown & Snoopy clock. Photo by Kedar Misani.

Here are a few more videos which hint at the countlessness, vastness, and infinitude of Sri Chinmoy’s art:



It’s clear from these videos that though Sri Chinmoy created countless paintings and drawings, he did not do so mechanically but from a state of rapt creative attention, investing himself fully in each brushstroke.


Collector Robert Scull (1916-1986), interviewed in 1975 at the Jharna-Kala Gallery on Mercer Street, said: “It’s an incredible output, and I think that that amount of paintings done in two months must be coming from a deep autobiographical well of images and feelings.”

sri-chinmoy-jharna-kala-painting-1_v2Artist Paul Jenkins (1923-2012), interviewed on the same occasion, said: “The abundance! Yes, there are many watercolors, but what’s here is an abundance of color, abundance of images, abundance of things that come through your mind when you meditate. And I don’t look at them with a tough eye, say like an artist art critic. I look at them for what they are: for his joy.”


In presenting Sri Chinmoy with an award from Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts in June 1976, the late Brian F. Gormley described his work as “art cleansed of all the ambitions and desires that we too often see in the art world.”

sri-chinmoy-soul-birds-20-1-2006-2Sri Chinmoy died in October 2007, and a few years later the comedy series Portlandia created a stir with its “Put a Bird on It!” sketch, gently satirizing the artistic spirit informing some good Portlanders. That concept re-echoed through the blogosphere in March 2016 when a Portland rally for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was unexpectedly visited by a “sparrow to believe in”:


But Sri Chinmoy was the original put-a-bird-on-it guy:

sri-chinmoy-soul-bird-objects-1He really did it and meant it and lived it, and one of his talks is rumoured to have received a similar (benign) avian visitation.

During a peace ceremony in Malta in 1991, he released doves into the air as a symbol of the commitment to world peace made by the leaders assembled on that day:

In his concerts, he performed on an ever-changing variety of instruments, including the dove ocarina. Sumangali Morhall describes a concert she attended in September 2005:

The maestro arrives, and the hush finds new depths. The opening meditation is a silent overture, creating most seemly and serene environs for new sounds to take flight.

The blue ceramic dove is first as always, like a sweet ethereal invitation to another realm, then the esraj with its seamless husky call; one note yearning for the next. A western flute somehow echoes in a bass octave, doubling its mellow melting warmth, yet still mirroring the surrounding silence. A dance of strings: the curled smiling sunny tones of the sitar follow those of smaller things responding brightly to Sri Chinmoy’s touch.

Delight is not just in the sounds themselves, but also in the physical beauty of each instrument, and in the grace with which they are handled to draw forth their truest, sweetest, and most powerful voices. Sri Chinmoy’s image on the screen portrays the depth of meditation holding the source of every note. How haunting the harmonium; the notes hanging as backdrops in the air, and then Sri Chinmoy sings… I feel only heart then; one vast affirmative in that striking yet mellifluous flow of sound and expression.

— Sumangali Morhall, “Sri Chinmoy’s World Harmony Concert, Hamburg”

Although it’s possible to count the numerous concerts Sri Chinmoy gave over a lifetime of service, these concerts were made up of countless spiritual moments in the lives of seekers — experiences which are recorded on the tablet of their hearts. As striking as were Sri Chinmoy’s outer achievements, they are nothing compared to his inner achievements, which can never be quantified.

Sri Chinmoy holding a white dove (from SriChinmoyPhoto.com)

Sri Chinmoy holding a white dove (from SriChinmoyPhoto.com)

When we think of infinity, we tend to be overwhelmed and not to think of beauty in the same breath. But in Sri Chinmoy’s song “O Beauty-Infinity” (here performed by Blue Flower), these two qualities go together:

Sri Chinmoy taught that God is infinite; but perhaps more important to the many persons of artistic temperament who gathered around him, he taught that God is “beautiful, more beautiful, most beautiful. Beauty unparalleled in the garden of Eden.”4

In the inner world, beauty and infinity make two most charming companions.

Michael Howard

Special thanks to Kedar Misani of Switzerland, who has posted many excellent photos and videos of Sri Chinmoy online. Visit his YouTube page here.


1Sri Chinmoy, “My Name, My Age, My Home” from My Flute, Aum Classics, 1998 (1972)
2Sri Chinmoy, “Revelation” from My Flute, as above
3Sri Chinmoy, from Sri Chinmoy Answers, Part 36, Agni Press, 2004
4Sri Chinmoy, “O My Lord of Beauty” from My Flute, as above

Other items you may enjoy:

“A Magnificent Obsession” by Dr. Vidagdha Bennett

“The Strange Birds of Ottawa” by Chidananda Burke

“Spiritual leader draws seven million Peace Birds” by Julie Gunther
(updated link to follow)

“United Nations Displays Sri Chinmoy’s Paintings” – Newsweek

1975 Documentary on Sri Chinmoy’s Painting and Philosophy of Art

“Bird Imagery in Secular and Sacred Music” (group discussion)


* * *

PIX11’s Turkey Dude

Edwin Lyngar in a role that will surprise you…

Meet PIX11’s Turkey Dude:

He bears a striking resemblance to a shady character who’s previously graced these pages: blogger Edwin Lyngar, known to cavort about as faux poultry in connection with his sideline as an atheist wedding officiant. Indeed, Lyngar is atheism’s “man of a thousand faces,” many of them thoroughly sh-tfaced:


Blowhard blogger Edwin Lyngar

You would recall that when Lyngar’s not planting false stories on Salon.com at the behest of his well-seasoned (or salty) literary agent Elizabeth Kracht, he’s doling out instructions on boating safety for the Nevada Department of Wildlife. (And believe me, the saf-e-ty of the public is always the uppermost thing in their minds.)

Though I lack proof positive, I’m personally convinced that Turkey Dude is in fact Edwin Lyngar. The build and IQ are both about right. Then too, boating safety doesn’t pay a packet, and neither does his monthly rant for Salon. As for his manuscript “Guy Parts” (tentatively renamed “Chicken Parts”), it’s been looking for a home longer than Little Orphan Annie.

Even though Lyngar did the dirty deed and planted a false story in Salon to please his agent, she so far hasn’t upheld her part of the bakshish by bringing those lonely chicken parts in from the cold and fobbing them off on some misguided publisher looking for a tax write-off. So I’m guessing Lyngar’s appetites have reduced him to dressing in a turkey suit and debasing himself on behalf of the Power Presssure Cooker XL, which can reduce solid cholesterol to liquid cholesterol in under ten minutes. But can it core a apple?

This whole debacle ties in with my series on WPIX-TV and native advertising. According to PIX11 News, Turkey Dude just happened to drop by and offer to demonstrate this amazing discovery. Maybe Turkey Dude was accompanied by Stuffing Dude (the enforcer of the operation). Maybe Stuffing Dude threatened to treat PIX11 newscaster Scott Stanford like a sock puppet, and that’s why Stanford was willing to play the fool.

I’m a great believer in serendipity, coincidence, synchronicity, and Auspicious Good Fortune always. But I must confess the thought crossed my mind that maybe this human interest story about a down-and-out writer who dresses in a turkey suit and does embarrassing things with cream cheese is not exactly what it seems. Have I been scammed again? Is this another of PIX11 News’s fiendish plots to get me to buy crap merchandise? Your opinion counts!

POLL QUESTION: What do you think of the Power Pressure Cooker XL?

1. Power Pressure Cooker XL — gimme gimme gimme!
2. Power Pressure Cooker XL — it sucks donkey farts.
3. Edwin Lyngar should be euthanized. (Maybe someone should just put a bird on him?)

Putting a bird on Edwin Lyngar. There, now he’s pretty. (Pic to follow.)

Typical of PIX11 News, they don’t disclose that this is a paid ad and not a story about the mentally deranged or nutritionally challenged — or about Foghorn Leghorn cosplay. Maybe viewers are supposed to just know it’s the usual plugola. Still, that’s not what the FTC says. You have to disclose.

I’ve mentioned before that PIX11 News starts hitting viewers with liquor ads (disguised as news) around 7 a.m., and we must assume that some viewers take those ads to heart and make morning drinking a part of their regular routine. So in pondering whether viewers automatically know that Turkey Dude’s serendipitous visit to PIX11 studios is a crock of sh-t, we must consider their blood alcohol level.

Little Johnny may be high as a kite on a diabolical mixture of Riunite Lambrusco and black cherry soda poured down his gullet by lifestyle expert and Sipteaze.com founder Nicole Young as part of another PIX11 “news” segment — this one themed on the Fourth of July:

Regarding the Coconut Vanilla Cooler made with 2 cups Punzoné Vodka, news anchor Kori Chambers exclaims: “This stuff’ll knock you down!” — so we must assume that little Johnny is already in a supine position. When he wanly raises his head toward the TV and sees an orange bejumpsuited man forced to pretend he’s a turkey, he may think he’s watching a prisoner interrogation conducted by legendary C.I.A. psychologist James Mitchell.

(A little known rider to the Defense Authorization Bill passed by Congress permits the transfer of prisoners from Guantánamo Bay to U.S. soil provided they’re willing to appear in infomercials for miracle cookware.)

Anyway, if the FTC or FCC are considering whether to fine WPIX-TV for failing to disclose sponsored content, I think they should assume maximal ignorance on the part of viewers. This is hardly a leap, given the viewership which PIX11 seems to cultivate:

pix11-viewersAnother consideration is that PIX11 News sometimes runs hoax stories like this one produced by Mary Murphy which was the subject of considerable blowback. Between hoax stories and paid ads disguised as news, viewers don’t know whether they’re coming or going. They need all the help they can get, and this would ideally include clear labeling and disclosure of all sponsored segments.

So FTC and FCC, please have pity on poor, befuddled (possibly inebriated) PIX viewers, and start enforcing the laws which mandate clear disclosure of sponsored content, and hefty fines for repeat violators of rules against payola.

As for Edwin Lyngar, if that truly is him in the turkey suit, then like WPIX President and General Manager Richard Graziano, he has risen to his level of incompetence. 😉

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

Sidebar: Foghorn Leghorn in “Weasel While You Work”

In case the Foghorn Leghorn reference threw you, here’s that very personage in a 1958 Warner Brothers cartoon:

* * *

Is PIX11 News Making Your Kids Dumber?

How “chill” can a newscast get before it’s just stone cold stupid?

pix11-news-wpix-tvAs reported previously, under President and General Manager Richard Graziano and News Director Amy Waldman, WPIX-TV is placing increasing emphasis on enhancing its revenue stream by partnering with advertisers to produce so-called “native advertising” or “sponsored content.” This includes early morning “news” segments promoting liquor brands like Cavoda Vodka, Diplomático Rum, Four Roses Bourbon, Bombay Sapphire Gin, and Casa Noble Tequila.

Such segments treat viewers as if they were stupid, but can viewing them actually lower your kids’ media IQ? And will there be a backlash against these brands when consumers realize they’re being scammed? Is there really a “National Bourbon Month,” and does anybody care other than the people trying to sell you bourbon? Aren’t commercials between news segments enough, or do we really need commercials disguised as news?

Here I provide an essential guide to native advertising and solutions for weary consumers — everything you need to know including a satire on PIX11 Morning News, and how to complain to the FTC or FCC about payola.

PIX11 News: It’s 7 a.m. Do you know where your bourbon is?

PIX11 News: It’s 7 a.m. Do you know where your bourbon is?

Native advertising is controversial because according to John Carroll, a former advertising and television news executive who’s now a professor of mass communication at Boston University, “What they’re doing is blurring the lines between news, entertainment, and advertising. The whole idea is to keep it up in the air: What exactly is this?” (So says a Boston Globe article.) For a clever and funny look at native advertising, see writer-comedian John Oliver below:

Even adults might not notice they’re watching an ad when the sponsored content is camouflaged — worked seamlessly into the news broadcast, introduced as if it were real news, and uses the same on-air personalities. But children are especially vulnerable to such native advertising because they tend to be uncritical viewers. So peppering them with fake news segments in the early a.m. — segments where trusted news presenters are shown oohing and ahhing over cocktails made with hard liquor — is seen by critics as an underhanded way of promoting underage drinking — an analogue to the old Flintstones commercials pushing Winston cigarettes.

For a brief retrospective on the Flintstones and marketing, see “Yabba Dabba Cough!” in Advertising Age. Then compare this Winston ad with the following PIX11 News segments promoting numerous liquor brands:

PIX11 News Four Roses Bourbon segment:

PIX11 News Bombay Sapphire Gin segment:

PIX11 News Spooky Spirits segment:

If the drinks drunk by adults are too bitter for kids, why not ply them with extra sweet drinks for Halloween? The “Spooky Spirits” segment is particularly shameful — chock full of gimmicks meant to appeal to kid tastes: Ice cream, Dutch chocolate, Karo corn syrup (which kids are used to seeing Mom pour on waffles), blue food coloring, green ice cubes which light up, and a Cavoda Vodka bottle that blinks on and off. (“It’s a premium vodka for under $40. That’s a great gift to give somebody, by the way.”) They mercifully passed on the performing clown who juggles shotglasses, and the Power Rangers swizzle sticks. Disclosure? They passed on that too.

Children in low-income families receive much of their education and acculturation through unsupervised television viewing. The TV becomes a surrogate parent, so it’s troubling when PIX11 News treats every familiar holiday (and a few novel ones) as an occasion to drink hard liquor — much like a bad daddy in need of a good 12-step program. Their early morning segments covertly sponsored by liquor manufacturers aren’t merely about mixing cocktails, but about establishing a strong connection between holiday-making and alcohol consumption, turning “finding the right drink” into a mandatory ritual for Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Earth Day, July Fourth, Labor Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, New Year’s Eve, and (of course) National Margarita Day. (Did you remember to send a card?)

Other excuses for running sponsored content promoting booze include the Super Bowl, the Oscars, the World Cup, the Belmont Stakes, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and a new season of Game of Thrones. (Ralph Kramden’s Birthday was debated but tabled.)

The messages such native advertising sends to kids are that drinking is hip, drinking is cool, drinking is fun, drinking is popular, drinking is newsworthy, drinking is patriotic, and drinking is indispensable to social bonding. The latter message could hardly be more explicit than when perennial guest Nicole Young of Sipteaze.com pours the Punzoné Vodka (“Organic! Delicious!”), while anchor Sukanya “Suki” Krishnan explains:

You know what’s so great when you have people come over your house, the first thing you want is to have a little beautiful drink when somebody’s entertaining in their house. And that’s the first thing my mother always taught me: Offer a drink!

“‘Shocktails’ perfect for toasting on Halloween,” PIX11 News, October 30, 2014.

Neither grammarian nor teetotaler, Krishnan has been voted the news anchor most likely to introduce your kids to a bomb-biggity cocktail that’s really chill. These native ads (often featuring Krishnan) are like mini tutorials teaching your kids how to drink and why to drink, powered by the caffeinated enthusiasm of well-paid media personalities who act as role models for dipsomania. “I love my Martinis!” Krishnan exclaims in one early morning segment, and “Who really has just one glass of wine, right? You know we all sometimes go above the recommended serving because we need to.” Such alcoholic reasoning is endemic among PIX11 News anchors, as on “National Drink Wine Day,” another obscure marketing holiday also known as ”Suck Up To The Liquor Industry Day”:

Nevertheless, it’s a long-standing broadcast industry policy that on-air personalities don’t actually consume the alcoholic beverages they’re shown deeply inhaling and pronouncing delightful. But PIX11 News gets around that prohibition by having a camera person or even the director of the broadcast sample such beverages:

From PIX11 Morning News, “Shocktails For Halloween” (10/30/2014): Sukanya Krishnan hands broadcast director “Bob” a cocktail made with Punzoné Vodka to drink on cam, and jokes about him getting tipsy/passing out. It’s not yet 9 a.m.

PIX11 News and Sukanya Krishnan are no strangers to payola. The NY Daily News reports that in 2009 they were caught promoting restaurants in segments titled “Dining PIX.” Viewers weren’t told that in order be featured, each restaurant had to pay $10,000 or more in gift certificates under the table. This violates FCC payola rules.

Payola isn’t always paid directly or in cash, but may be funnelled through agencies and use in-kind payment such as gift certificates. Imagine you’re a company with 100 employees who each expect a Christmas bonus. If you give them a $100 gift certificate in lieu of cash, that saves you $10,000. The company providing the gift certificates in exchange for on-air promotion would probably not record the details in their books, so uncovering the crime would require careful sleuthing.

Such shenanigans have been going on forever, and even formed the basis for a 1978 Columbo episode where a restaurateur is murdered because he threatens to blow the whistle on a payola scheme in which the “Restaurant Developers Association” pays a prominent TV personality for good restaurant reviews. He in turn deposits the checks in a dummy account registered to “Irene de Milo” (not to be confused with Intravenus de Milo).

See this excellent Washington Post article by Paul Farhi detailing common industry practices, or hear him interviewed on WNYC radio. What’s changed since Farhi wrote in 2011 is that under the new rubric of “native advertising,” broadcasters are demanding a bigger slice of the pie in exchange for playing a bigger role in the deception.

When PIX11 News introduces someone as a “lifestyle expert” or “trend forecaster,” that’s typically code for an actor hired by a marketing firm to promote a selection of products which the manufacturers paid to have promoted. Where the industry policy toward such paid shills was once “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” it’s now more like “Come on in and let’s cook the news together. You brought your checkbook, right?”

Where you see a news anchor launch into Suki Krishnan mode, exclaiming “Oh my God, I LUVVV it!” about a drink made from Thunderbird and lime Jell-O (garnished with McDonald’s garlic fries), you can confidently assume that someone’s palm is shiny with grease. It’s not always clear whose.

PIX11’s “Spooky Spirits” segment should really be dubbed “Hocus Pocus, Lose Our Focus” (on news). There’s no discussion of problems like alcoholism or drunk driving — but then there wouldn’t be in an ad designed to ensure that the next generation is culturally acclimated to booze. Children of alcoholics might be able to add a jigger of insight to the mix:

A big thank you to Katherine for posting that brave video, which I can definitely relate to. She’s not against drinking, but she is against alcoholic parenting, just as I’m against deceptive marketing of alcohol, especially to children.

Children and marketing

We’ve known since the 1960s that TV advertising is an intense and highly targeted form of propaganda. Its effectiveness may increase exponentially when we don’t know that what we’re watching is an ad. Sponsored content inserted covertly into news broadcasts is a form of “ambush marketing” which may fail to trigger our marketing defenses. We may know in theory that advertisers lie, yet we may trust news presenters and TV personalities not to harm us. Longtime Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek now hawks insurance for Colonial Penn. Such “guaranteed life insurance” (which actually provides close to zero benefits for a $9.95 monthly payment) is viewed by some as preying on the elderly.

Children have relatively few defenses against marketing. I can remember as a child wanting the toys I saw on TV without any insight as to why I wanted them, or how I came to associate owning a particular piece of plastic with entering a world of unending fun. It didn’t cross my five-year-old mind that the reason the kids in the toy commercial looked so happy was that the commercial was designed to manipulate me psychologically. This little ditty from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory makes the serious point that excessive consumerism leads to personal selfishness:

Children want grownup things, and PIX11 News segments aired during cartoon time often begin by mixing some alcoholic cocktails for adults, finishing up with a non-alcoholic or “mocktail” version for kids. Contrary to what’s claimed, this is not at all “kid friendly.” The mocktails are stigmatized with the “kid” label and explicitly described as “less fun.” They’re nevertheless meant to introduce kids to drinking — just as candy cigarettes are meant to get them used to holding cigarettes and regarding them as items to be purchased and consumed. See “Study Links Candy Cigarettes to Smoking,” where Robin Lloyd writes:

Candy cigarettes predispose children who play with them to smoke the real things later, new research concludes.

The look-alikes made of candy or gum are marketing and advertising tools that desensitize kids and open them more so to the idea of smoking later on, says study leader Jonathan Klein of the University of Rochester. Candy cigarettes cannot be considered simply as candy, Klein said.

“The continued existence of these products helps promote smoking as a culturally or socially acceptable activity,” Klein said in a prepared statement.

An article appearing on nbc.com notes that “a 2000 study in the British Medical Journal concluded that the tobacco industry worked with the candy industry to design candy products ‘that would effectively promote smoking to children.’ … ‘Candy cigarettes are like training wheels for smoking. Teaching this behavior to kids is ridiculous,’ said Danny McGoldrick, vice president for research at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.” The NBC article includes this graphic of 4-year old Destiny pretending to take a drag on a cigarette for the hit reality show Toddlers and Tiaras:

destiny-toddlers-and-tiaras-drag-on-a-cigaretteOpponents of underage drinking have long complained that wine coolers (which are sweet and fruity) marketed to youngsters are a gateway to hard liquor. In that vein, it’s remarkable how many of the cocktails mixed on PIX11 News during cartoon time include sugar syrup, fruit juice, or artificial coloring to make them more appealing to kid tastes.

PIX11 Morning News (6/29/2015): The ingredients for this July Fourth cocktail include a whole bottle of Riunite Lambrusco, and 2 cups black cherry soda, which liquor industry presenter Nicole Young calls her “secret weapon” (for getting kids to drink?). Note the apropos news ticker.

Ingredients for this Fourth of July pitcher include a whole bottle of Riunite Lambrusco, and 2 cups black cherry soda, which liquor industry presenter Nicole Young calls her “secret weapon” (for getting kids to drink?). Note the apropos news ticker.

Perhaps these two lines of fictional dialogue would help illustrate the problem:

Husband: What’s wrong with our boy? Why he ain’t been to school in three weeks?

Wife: That poor boy’s f-cked up again on Riunite Lambrusco and black cherry soda. Been drinkin’ it faster than he can piss it out.

Deeper implications of native advertising

There’s a big difference between seeking after truth and pandering to commercial interests. At the more responsible media outlets, people take news-gathering seriously as a sacred obligation, not something to be watered down. In that serious view, neither government nor industry should be allowed to dictate the content of stories. Yet, looking back on history, we can question whether the supposed “facts” we were fed about wars in Vietnam and Iraq were mostly truthful, or mostly lies. A sad fact of human nature (and the institutions created by us humans) is that we often honour high principles in the breach. Want to have an unjust war? You might need to pay some people off. Some journalists might be persuaded to substitute lies for truth.

British poet Adrian Mitchell first read his antiwar poem “To Whom It May Concern” (a.k.a. “Tell Me Lies About Vietnam”) in Trafalgar Square in 1964, but has continued to update it as events warranted. The December 2008 version published by the Guardian includes these snippets:

I smell something burning, hope it’s just my brains
They’re only dropping peppermints and daisy-chains

You put your bombers in, you put your conscience out
You take the human being, and you twist it all about
So scrub my skin with women
So chain my tongue with whisky
Stuff my nose with garlic
Coat my eyes with butter
Fill my ears with silver
Stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about –
BAE Systems

Tell me lies Mr Bush
Tell me lies Mr Blairbrowncameron

Tell me lies about Vietnam

Mitchell captures the sense of incredulity which many people feel in the face of genocide: surely they can’t really be napalming villages with women and children inside; they must only be dropping peppermints and daisy-chains. He likewise captures the sense that a great many people must be paid off in material goods so as not to hear the screaming when a genocide occurs, and not to protest. Chain my tongue with whiskey and fill my ears with silver, indeed!

In this broader context, is a news report that the war of the day is going well and was thoroughly justified based on truth, or is it an advertisement promoting the interests of politicians, generals and arms manufacturers? You decide.

Blurring the lines between news and advertising is dangerous for any number of reasons, not least because it ultimately blurs our own sense of ethics. A prostitute is someone who will perform any sexual act as long as he or she is paid. When some so-called journalists will promote any product or cause as long as they are paid, how are they distinguishable? When everything is up for sale, what happens to truth, and how will we locate truth when we really need it? If we listen to lies all day long, we will gradually become inured to them, and to the view that truth doesn’t matter. It’s all about marketing, of a drink or a drug or a war.

Increasingly, the purpose of mainstream media is not to help us locate truth, but to persuade us to consume the products produced by advertisers. This is true not only in the narrow sense that we are shown particular short, targeted advertisements, but also in the broader sense that mainstream media tend to push a particular platform for living: a platform based primarily on production and consumption, but not based on insight. Indeed, insight is the enemy, because insight would cause us to wonder whether endless production and consumption is really the key to human happiness, or whether something more is needed. Insight would have us temper the happy talk of PIX11 News anchors as they tout the social benefits of drinking with remembrance of the faces on skid row — faces of people whose lives were destroyed by drinking.


As for that platform of consumerism, it might be described as a “Design For Dreaming” — the name of a short film produced by General Motors in 1956. The characters seem thoroughly drunk or tripped-out on consumerism. They’re not buying a car or oven so much as a fantasy of future happiness. But as the MST3k crew deftly observes: “Future not available in Africa, India, or Central or South America.”

Sacrificing balance for commercial interests

Good reporting is supposed to be balanced, but “sponsored content” is anything but. When the same PIX11 News personalities who euphorically push booze to kids start telling us what to think about politics or religion, the obvious question is “Who’s paying them to sell this particular point of view?” There’s an inherent conflict when folks who are in the tank for narrow business interests also push a world view which is politically reactionary and contemptuous of spiritual alternatives. Would you really trust Forbes for advice on meditation and choosing a spiritual teacher? As I joked in a previous article, maybe the reason PIX11 News runs hoax stories about spiritual groups is that those groups aren’t buying enough bourbon. In a society which has become both consumerist and conformist, those offering spiritual alternatives may be depicted as the enemy.

PIX11 News ties its on-air promotion of liquor brands to Facebook promotions that further blur the lines. This just in: Drinking, baseball, and pretty girls are good. Watch PIX11 News for more of all three. What isn’t good? Nonconformists and party-poopers. BOO! HISS! (And you wonder why your kids seem stupid, and can’t seem to separate their desires of the moment from facts, ethics, and abstract concepts? Maybe it’s because TV news has turned to Silly Putty far beyond the wildest dreams of Paddy Cheyefsky in Network.)

PIX11 News runs hoax stories like this one produced by Mary Murphy, which was the subject of considerable blowback. To media critics, this combination of sponsored content coaxing kids to drink and hoax stories trolling convenient minorities is a deadly cocktail — deadly in the sense that it deals a fatal blow to the credibility of the Tribune brand, associated with both WPIX-TV, the Hartford Courant, and numerous other media properties. Under Rich Graziano’s past stewardship, the Courant likewise developed a reputation for sacrificing integrity to please advertisers. According to this New York Times story, columnist George Gombossy was allegedly fired for airing consumer complaints about Courant advertisers.

WPIX-TV has had a troubled history, including a series of name changes as the poisoned chalice was passed from one media conglomerate to another: Channel 11, 11Alive, the WB11, the CW11, currently PIX11, but in the future, who knows? Viewing their veritable infomercial for Four Roses Bourbon, I wonder why not FourRoses11? After announcing the name change, Rich Graziano could give his assurances that this won’t mean major changes at the station. “We’ll continue to be focused on sports and entertainment,” Graziano could say. “One minor change is that the FourRoses11 News will open with bourbon news before going to local, national, and world news.”

The Bourbon News for May 21st, 2016

Kaity Tong: Have your kids been diagnosed with ADHD because they get up and wander around the classroom when they’re supposed to be watching a slideshow about Mesopotamian burial rituals? Kori Chambers just might have the answer.

Kori Chambers: That’s right, Kaity. May is National Attention Deficit Disorder Awareness Month, so we’ve invited bartender Franky Marshall back. She’s going to explain how mixed drinks just might calm your kids down. Plus, she’s got some great recipes using (what else?) Four Roses Bourbon. Franky, what can you tell us?

Franky Marshall: Well, it’s awfully hard to calm kids down these days, and filling those prescriptions for Ritalin can cost an arm and a leg. That’s why many parents are opting for an old-fashioned solution. Add a jigger of Four Roses Yellow Label to Hawaiian Punch and you’ve got a Hawaiian Haymaker. It’s a refreshing taste treat kids can’t resist, and will also mellow them out considerably. Or add two jiggers of Four Roses Small Batch to strawberry Yoo-Hoo for a drink we call a Shot In The Head. Now that film about dental hygiene shown in assembly will seem a lot more interesting. Try a sip, Kori!

Kori Chambers: Oh no, not while I’m on duty. I can’t. But the aroma, mmmmmmhhh…

Franky Marshall: Then pour some on your head, Kori. It also makes a great baldness remedy.

Kori Chambers [pours mixture on head]: That is refreshing! I can feel the follicles waking up and starting to grow. And yet they’re not too agitated. I get the feeling they could listen to a boring lecture and not walk out…

Franky Marshall: Right now we have a special promotion going with Facebook and FourRoses11. Kids, sign on and tell us in 50 words or less how Four Roses Bourbon helped you make it through the school day, and you could win this handsome prize. See? It looks like a history book, but when you open it, it actually contains a jigger of Four Roses for emergencies — like when your 6th grade teacher starts covering the Peloponnesian War.

Kori Chambers: Oooh, I remember that — or at least I remember forgetting it. I could have used some Four Roses back then.

Franky Marshall: One last drink for you, Kori. This one’s called a Woodside Wannamaker. Take half a jigger of Four Roses Single Barrel, combine with three jiggers grave water and the grated erasers from three Eberhard Faber pencils. Add a dash of bitters, a note from the principal, then shake with ice and pour into a diorama depicting the extinction of the mastodon. Garnish with a discarded rosary bead, and drink it through a straw.

Kori Chambers: It looks delicious! Sure wish I could try some. But wait a minute boys and girls, who’s that? Why it’s Bob, the director of our FourRoses11 News broadcast. Whaddya say, Bob? Have you worked up a thirst today?

Bob: Sure have, Kori. Ya know kids, directing the news is hard work, man’s work, and it works up a powerful thirst too. One of the fringe benefits of working here at FourRoses11 is all the great stories involving food products — whether it’s Stouffer’s Macaroni and Cheese, McDonald’s Big Macs, or Starbucks Lattes. But my personal faves are the stories about cocktails you can make at home and even bring to school. [Quaffs down the Woodside Wannamaker in one big gulp.] Ahhh, now that’s what I call refreshing!

Kori Chambers: We’re putting that recipe up on FourRoses11, in case you didn’t get it. Just go to FourRoses11-dot-com-slash-mastodon. Or send for our free video “Teach Your Kids To Drink Religiously.” Franky, always good to have you here. I won’t question the pink hair. Back to you, Kaity!

KaityTong: Just say no to Ritalin, just say yes to Four Roses. I love it! Now for some local news…

[Just then, Officer Joe Bolton capers onto the set swinging his billy club, and closes down the station for holding an open bar without a liquor license. “Show’s over, nothing to see here folks!” Bolton exclaims in a thick Irish brogue, as the producer cuts to a cart claiming “technical difficulties.”]

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How to complain to the Federal Trade Commission or Federal Communications Commission

This article is primarily about the ethics and mechanics of native advertising. A separate topic is the legality of native advertising. The Federal Trade Commission is understandably concerned with native advertising, and provides a Guide For Businesses which underscores the requirement that any native advertising must include clear and prominent disclosure of the ad’s commercial nature. PIX11’s native advertising for Four Roses Bourbon, Bombay Sapphire Gin, and a wide variety of other products appears to flout this requirement, and may therefore violate the law.

PIX11’s native advertising isn’t confined to just a few minutes of broadcast or cable TV time. The videos are subsequently posted online, not just on PIX11’s site, but also on Amazon.com, AOL.com, and HuffingtonPost.com. None of these other entities regurgitating PIX11 native ads properly label them either. For example, Amazon.com labels them “free video shorts,” notwithstanding that they’re obviously product ads which often include pricing info and where-to-buy. Though not detailed in this article, other major purchasers of native advertising on PIX11 News appear to be McDonald’s, Starbucks, and children’s clothing retailers.

If you’re concerned about native advertising in general, and its use to promote hard liquor to children in particular, then complain to the FTC here:


Complaining to the FTC is crucial because the explosion in native advertising virtually guarantees that the FTC won’t know about every violation unless informed by irate consumers. It’s basically a game of whack-a-mole. As in a John le Carré spy novel, the FTC needs your help finding the moles.

The FTC’s website uses a wizard-driven menu for filing complaints, but it’s easy to navigate. Since the problem with WPIX-TV doesn’t fit a prefab category, use the “Other” category and fill in:

Native advertising, failure to disclose sponsored content, marketing hard liquor to children.

Then describe the problem briefly, and give links to the PIX11 videos cited in this blog post, or to the blog post itself. When asked for company details, fill in:

Richard Graziano, President and General Manager
220 East 42nd Street
New York, NY 10017-5806
(212) 210-2411

You may also want to mention that WPIX-TV is owned by Tribune Media.

If you have any trouble using the online wizard, there’s a box you can click (during weekday business hours) to chat live with an FTC representative, or you can call this toll-free number: 1-877-FTC-HELP

Native advertising is legal when fully disclosed, but TV broadcasters may get away with a tiny, illegible notice that quickly scrolls by. When there’s no disclosure, that’s payola plain and simple, and violates FCC rules against payola. To complain to the FCC:

File a complaint online
– By phone: 1-888-CALL-FCC (1-888-225-5322); TTY: 1-888-TELL-FCC (1-888-835-5322); ASL: 1-844-432-2275
– By mail (please include your name, address, contact information and as much detail about your complaint as possible):

Federal Communications Commission
Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau
Consumer Inquiries and Complaints Division
445 12th Street, S.W.
Washington, DC 20554

That the FCC takes such violations seriously is indicated by the following: “TV Station Agrees to $115,000 FCC Fine for Not Identifying Sponsor of Program Promoting a Sale at Auto Dealership.”

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

For Further Reading:

“Disguising ads as stories”

“Native Advertising Examples: 5 of the Best (and Worst)”

“Five Tricky Ad Trends to Watch for in 2015”

“Native advertising and sponsored content: Research on audience, ethics, effectiveness”

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Sock Puppet Theatre – A Tribute to Samuel Bradshaw

Combining the Doctor Who and anti-cult movement themes

Samuel Bradshaw is an IT manager famous for abusing the Internet (and his former friends and colleagues) by using multiple sock puppets to post hate material. Bradshaw was associated with the American Family Foundation (a.k.a. International Cultic Studies Association), which tries to maintain a respectable public face, but often links to extreme hate material and uses people like Bradshaw to post it. According to Bradshaw, he met with attorney Herbert Rosedale, then president of AFF/ICSA, on a number of occasions to discuss how to avoid being sued for libel. The strategy they apparently worked out was for Bradshaw to keep changing sock puppets on a regular basis, going from “Steve Stevens” to “SEEKER” to “iamschubert” et al.

But though Bradshaw changed sock puppets, he was less conscientious about changing IP addresses. People eventually caught onto his scams when they noticed that various postings alleging crimes against humanity by spiritual groups all came from the same IP address at Oliver Wyman, where Bradshaw was working at the time. Rumor has it that in some lexicons of Net jargon, the icon for NSFW is a headshot of Bradshaw. 😉

Samuel Bradshaw (center) here shown with two other ICSA deprogrammees

Samuel Bradshaw (center) here pictured with two other ICSA deprogrammees

Though Bradshaw has no training in psychology or counseling, he began giving anti-cult advice on the Internet. He would tell people to stop meditating because meditation reinforces destructive mind control. (Everyone who believes this, raise your hand!) He also began promoting exit counseling services, offering to get people discounts. This is consistent with a familiar type of fear marketing used by anti-cultists consisting of the “one-two punch”: a sermon on the evils of cultism followed by a sales pitch for some sort of anti-cult product or service alleged to cure afflicted individuals. Maybe a cream to smear on your temples so you can stop chanting nam-myoho-renge-kyo.

While Bradshaw’s antics may seem funny in retrospect, they call attention to the serious problem of hate on the Net, which I’ve addressed seriously elsewhere. Those familiar with AFF/ICSA would know that its leadership consists primarily of a subset of psychologists and lawyers who take the fringe view that spiritual groups pose a danger to scientific rationalism and secular materialism. Few spiritual seekers or scholars of religion would agree. The religious tolerance point of view is based on everyone just getting along.

AFF/ICSA opposes spiritual groups not only by circulating anti-cult propaganda (sometimes using third-party technique), but also by persuading former spiritual seekers to view themselves as “cult victims,” to purchase anti-cult “therapy” sessions, and (once they’ve been told during faux therapy that spiritual practice is abusive) to then sue their former spiritual group.

A bit of a racket IMHO. For example, when Samuel Bradshaw was trying to stir up enthusiasm among apostates for filing a lawsuit, he became dissatisfied with the lackluster quality of atrocity stories or “testimonials” they were submitting. So he gave them a link where they could read stories about a different guru (not the one they followed) which they could then use as models for stories alleging abuse.

I view this as tantamount to subornation of perjury by Bradshaw. It’s also typical of the idiotic notions floated by anti-cultists: All Eastern gurus are alike (they claim), so stories about them are completely fungible. If you’re tasked by an exit counselor with going on the Internet and posting something negative about your former spiritual group (as part of faux therapy), but don’t know what to write, just borrow someone else’s story. To paraphrase the famous New Yorker cartoon: On the Internet, no one knows you’re a plagiarist (or a sock puppet). Indeed, though this may be a slight exaggeration, I’ve often thought that more than half the messages on a particular anti-cult message board were written by Samuel Bradshaw and Anne Carlton under their various sock puppets. (Carlton’s specialty is starting a sexual rumor under one alias, then pretending to “confirm” it under a different alias.)

What does all this have to do with Doctor Who? Well, a comedy act making rare appearances on Doctor Who DVDs is the Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre, which (like Craig Ferguson) is an oddity that might possibly endear itself to American audiences. (I can just picture them performing during halftime at the Super Bowl, though they might have to wear shorter kilts.) This is them riffing on the fan obsession with cataloguing old Doctor Who episodes:

The above was an Easter egg for “The Dominators,” and if you ask me the serial code, I think it was “D.” 😉 Their routine may owe a little something to Abbott & Costello (“Who’s On First”) and to the Monty Python Cheese Shop Sketch.

So a hearty hats off to the Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre, the American Family Foundation, and the ever-protean Samuel Bradshaw. If someone knocks on your door and offers to attach electrodes to your arm to determine whether you are or are not a cultist, it might just be Bradshaw — whether or not he’s wearing any socks.

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About Dailymotion videos: If you have trouble playing a Dailymotion video embedded in a WordPress post, try clicking on the Dailymotion logo and viewing the video on the Dailymotion site. Here’s a direct link to the above video:


I usually prefer Firefox, but if you’re still having trouble viewing a Dailymotion video (even on the Dailymotion site), try using a recent version of Google Chrome. Dailymotion should really make their site backward compatible and equally accessible from all browsers and from Flash 11 on up. I’ve even dared to propose this to them, but you know how the French are: between making cheese and surrendering, they’re already severely overtasked. 😉 Software designers frequently get caught in the bells & whistles trap. They think that what makes a site popular is bells & whistles, when what most end users want is basic functionality. Just play the damn video!

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.


Survival, Friday The 13th, Doctor Who, and Black Cats

My entry on the topic of Survival


Surviving Friday The 13th has historically meant avoiding black cats. But the Doctor Who story “Survival” — which was the last story aired during the “classic” period ending in 1989 — was all about cats, cat people, and human beings surviving their excursions into animal nature. The not-so-subtle message telegraphed toward the end was “If we fight like animals, we’ll die like animals!”

Some cast members barely survived location filming at Warmwell Quarry, where temperatures reportedly soared into the hundreds. Lisa Bowerman, who was decked out in Fun Fur as a Cheetah Person named Karra, came down with heat stroke. Sylvester McCoy, who played the Seventh Doctor, was troubled by the heat, but more so by fellow actor Anthony Ainley’s approach to method acting. With an impish half-grin, McCoy recalls how Ainley (who played The Master) beat the crap out of him.

Sophie Aldred, who played Ace (and famously beat up a Dalek), is allergic to cats and barely survived playing a scene with a black cat without giving out a sneeze that would have blanketed Perivale. In addition, the animatronic cat used in some scenes (pictured above) was none too convincing, and had to be augmented by bringing in a sack of live cats, coaxing them to perform on cue — not much harder than getting cats to march in a parade. As finicky as these cats were, they demanded tea breaks and to be paid union scale.

Though none of the actors knew it at the time, Doctor Who itself would not survive. Producer John Nathan-Turner and script editor Andrew Cartmel suspected as much, and Cartmel dropped in some closing lines for “Survival” intended to address the possibility that this would be the last episode:

The Doctor to Ace: There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, the sea’s asleep, and the rivers dream. People made of smoke, and cities made of song. Somewhere there’s danger, somewhere there’s injustice, and somewhere else the tea’s getting cold. Come on, Ace — we’ve got work to do!

But like the Doctor himself, the series ultimately managed to survive by regenerating. Such regeneration was far from instantaneous, but when the series finally returned after a 16-year hiatus, one time-honoured Who tradition thankfully did not survive: the tendency to produce the show on a shoestring budget.

“The BBC Steadicam — a bit of rope and a lens,” Sophie Aldred famously remarks in an outtake from “Battlefield.” Yet when the series returned in 2005, it was given a budget that allowed for special effects comparable to major film releases. No more cheap rubber monsters (though the monster in “Vincent and the Doctor” is a bit goofy-looking, and does slightly resemble the carpet monster from the 1964 camp horror flick The Creeping Terror).

Perhaps more important to the new Who’s artistic merit, the character of Ace influenced the way that new Companions like Rose Tyler and Amy Pond were written. They had to have a good back story, be emotionally complex, and really drive the series, not just be window dressing or foils for the Doctor. Still, in an analogue to the classic Peter Cook & Dudley Moore routine about a “unidexter” applying for the role of Tarzan, things haven’t reached the stage where unattractive women need apply.

At least, having complex female characters who drive the series is progress for Doctor Who. Things weren’t always that way. Back in the 1970s women wanted challenging roles, and though actresses auditioning for Companion were often promised same, their roles frequently degenerated into screaming and being rescued by the Doctor. This was even true of Sophie Aldred’s immediate predecessor, Bonnie Langford, who played Melanie Bush. Though Andrew Cartmel originally had high hopes for bringing out Mel’s complex side (she was supposed to be a computer programmer), that complexity never emerged and Mel became instead the paradigmatic shrill screamer, able to shatter glass at thirty paces.

The character of Ace marked a genuine turning point for the show, and the final (26th) season was all about seeing Ace develop emotionally. “Survival” was written by Rona Munro, whose interest in feminist theory was not so heavy-handed as to spoil the story as entertainment. The strong female Companion is one good feature of “late period classic” that survived the regeneration.

An encounter between Ace and one of the Cheetah People

An encounter between Ace and one of the Cheetah People

Another surviving feature is the occasional dalliance in Doctor Who with political themes, usually left-leaning. “The Happiness Patrol” (also from season 26) is about a totalitarian world where it’s a crime to be unhappy. The main baddie is a female monarch who’s a scathing sendup of (then Prime Minister) Margaret Thatcher.

The new Who has its share of political themes and subtexts. “The Beast Below” (S05E02) is arguably about the exploitation of labour, or exploitation of Third World resources by First World powers. It’s also about repressive tolerance. You are free to protest, but those hitting the “protest” button are quickly whisked to Starship UK’s dank lower extremities. The story is also about survival and the ethical compromises a developed nation will make in order to survive. The implication is that few people can bear to know the truth about the means used, and those who see the truth find it more convenient to forget it.

Survival is a major theme of Doctor Who, and of science fiction in general. The survival theme may be handled crudely or elegantly, with comic-strip characters or complex human ones, but it tends to inform much great drama.

Trivia: In the dry spell between 1989 and 2005, some of the forms in which Doctor Who survived were novels and audio productions. The Seventh Doctor got a new Companion called Bernice Summerfield, who followed in the Ace tradition by being complex, rebellious and anarchic. Eventually, the character became independent of the Doctor and branched out on her own. In the numerous Bernice Summerfield audio plays produced by Big Finish Productions, Lisa Bowerman, the actress who played Karra in “Survival,” plays Bernice.

Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor, his arms brimming with cans of cat food

Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor, his arms brimming with cans of cat food

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