O Little Town of Shandaken

O little town of Shandaken,
Small-minded with a passion;
How prejudice was ladled out!
But truth and insight rationed.

Those who spoke with lies and hate
According to their nature,
The Cosmic Fates shall recompense
To suit their dwarvish stature.

To slander one so innocent
Is ignorance phenomenal;
The minds of townsfolk thus engaged
Descended to the animal.

Though dogs may bark and cats may yowl,
And men may fight all day,
The proud and noble elephant
Continues on his way.

Michael Howard

Sidebar: Sri Chinmoy on dogs and elephants

A real genius is not bound by any convention. A genius is a genius. He has to go forward like an elephant, without paying attention to the barking of the dogs. Swami Vivekananda used to say that when an elephant is on the way to the market to eat bananas, the dogs bark and bark. But the elephant does not pay any attention. He goes to the market and eats the bananas and then he comes back home. The dogs are unable to enjoy the bananas.

Sri Chinmoy, from A Mystic Journey in the Weightlifting World, Part 1 Agni Press, 2000

* * *

Dogs get joy
By barking and biting.

Men get joy
By fighting and stabbing.

Earth gets joy
By struggling and suffering.

Heaven gets joy
By dreaming and smiling.

Seekers get joy
By loving and surrendering.

God gets joy
By illumining and fulfilling.

– Sri Chinmoy, from The Dance of Life, Part 18 Agni Press, 1973

* * *

Sri Chinmoy with elephant, courtesy https://srichinmoy.wordpress.com/

Sri Chinmoy: Bird drawing on Elephant, courtesy https://daily.srichinmoyart.com/

Of Further Interest

Self-Interest, Self-Giving, Low Ethics, and High Ethics
Doubt, Faith, and the Ethics of Apostasy
PIX11’s Mary Murphy: Stalking The Truth (but lies will also do)
Better Reporting on Religious and Ethnic Minorities

* * *

European Parliament Elections – Free For All

A free ramble touching on elections, patriotism, true love, media cowardice, and referencing such diverse characters as Patrick McGoohan, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, James O’Brien, Nigel Farage, and Theresa May. Also reprising quotes on the problem of false balance.

“Free For All” was the title of an episode of The Prisoner which first aired in 1967. The title is sardonic because residents of The Village were not free. Elections weren’t free either, but they did descend into a free-for-all:

I always think of this Prisoner episode around election time, especially as politics grows more and more surreal, and what is odd or intolerable is “normalized” (to use a word which was absent from political discourse in 1967).

The Prisoner is (in part) about people living in a totalitarian technocracy; and what especially irks the main character (played by Patrick McGoohan) is that they have normalized the intolerable conditions under which they live. They enjoy electioneering as a community activity in spite of knowing it’s a complete sham; but perhaps “enjoy” is not quite the right word. They take perverse pleasure in playing out a role assigned to them with exaggerated gusto. So, these cheering crowds have a sinister quality, like those cheering for Mussolini in Fellini’s Amarcord.

It would be tempting to claim that I see the same sinister quality at Trump rallies or Brexit Party rallies, but in truth that is not the case. Those real world political rallies tend to be boring and insipid, because they’re attended primarily by people who don’t see very deeply into the nature of reality, or the character and motivations of the politicians they’re supporting. Most attendees are not downright evil or sinister, just frightfully dim, and prone to the character flaws which lack of insight can give rise to.

A theme which has emerged in some of my posts is: What is a genuine emotion? Since politicians and other salespeople are constantly pushing our emotional hot buttons in order to manipulate us, how can we be more discriminating in our responses to their stimuli, to propaganda? Can we learn to distinguish between emotions which are cheap and easy to produce (even through lying) and emotions which come from the core of our being and seem to radiate truth, or connect us with something truly eternal and greater than ourselves?

Patriotism is one of those emotions it’s difficult to question. Maybe people who attend Trump or Brexit Party rallies are genuinely patriotic. Or maybe like love (or what sometimes passes for love), patriotism can exist at a multitude of levels — some shallow, some more profound.

On her 1968 double album Any Day Now, Joan Baez sang nothing but Bob Dylan songs, including two which show how love can be viewed both cynically and idealistically. These are “Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word” and “Love Minus Zero/No Limit”:

Seems like only yesterday
I left my mind behind
Down in the Gypsy Cafe
With a friend of a friend of mine
Who sat his baby heavy on her knee
Yet spoke of life most free from slavery
With eyes that showed no trace of misery
The phrase in connection first with she occurred
That love is just a four-letter word

Outside a rattling storefront window
Cats meowed till the break of day
Me, I kept my mouth shut to you
I had no words to say
My experience was limited and underfed
You were talking while I hid
To the one who was the father of your kid
You probably didn’t think I did, but I heard
You say that love is just a four-letter word

I said goodbye unnoticed
Pushed forth into my own games
Drifting in and out of lifetimes
Unmentionable by name
Searching for my double, looking for
Complete evaporation to the core
Though I tried and failed at finding any door
I must have thought that there was nothing more absurd
Than that love is just a four-letter word

Though I never knew just what you meant
When you were speaking to your man
I can only think in terms of me
And now I understand
After waking enough times to think I see
The Holy Kiss that’s supposed to last eternity
Blow up in smoke, its destiny
Falls on strangers, travels free
Yes, I know now, traps are only set by me
And I do not really need to be assured
That love is just a four-letter word

Strange it is to be beside you
Many years, the tables turned
You’d probably not believe me
If I told you all I’ve learned
And it is very, very weird indeed
To hear words like forever, fleets of
Ships run through my mind, I cannot cheat
It’s like looking in a teacher’s face complete
I can say nothing to you but repeat what I heard
That love is just a four-letter word

My love, she speaks like silence
Without ideals or violence
She doesn’t have to say she’s faithful
Yet she’s true like ice, like fire

People carry roses
And make promises by the hour
My love she laughs like the flowers
Valentines can’t buy her

In the dime stores and bus stations
People talk of situations
Read books, repeat quotations
Draw conclusions on the wall

Some speak of the future
My love, she speaks softly
She knows there’s no success like failure
And that failure’s no success at all

The cloak and dagger dangles
Madams light the candles
In ceremonies of the horsemen
Even the pawn must hold a grudge

Statues made of matchsticks
Crumble into one another
My love winks, she does not bother
She knows too much to argue or to judge

The bridge at midnight trembles
The country doctor rambles
Bankers’ nieces seek perfection
Expecting all the gifts that wise men bring

The wind howls like a hammer
The night wind blows cold and rainy
My love, she’s like some raven
At my window with a broken wing

Love falls on strangers, travels free, and love (or what passes for love) sometimes results in loveless marriages and unwanted, unloved children; but love can also be true and constant, like ice, like fire.

Truth and constancy are wanting in our politicians, and in advertisers who flog us their products; and we have normalized the phenomenon of being lied to. These are, if not causes, at least symptoms of what ails us in modern life.

This allows me to segue into a recent interview with James O’Brien — a British journalist, radio talk show host, and author:

One of O’Brien’s points is that the media are not being honest or scrupulous in their treatment of our would-be leaders — not practicing good journalism. Their simplistic formula for a news segment is to get two people who hold opposing views to slug it out for a few minutes (or a few paragraphs). Lacking any reference point or North Star pointing towards truth, the outcome is decided more or less on force of personality, or who can most effectively appeal to base sentiments. A bounder like Nigel Farage rises to power because practically no one in the UK media is truth-squading him.

These problems are not new, nor is this analysis. A number of media outlets have, at one time or another, called attention to the problem of false balance and pledged to try and rectify or overcome it; yet we are still where we are. The BBC (which is, after all, a governmental institution) continues to believe — or act as if they believed — that pointing out when a politician is lying outright or contradicting his/her own prior statements would somehow be a “biased” thing to do. That culture in which truth and lies are treated as if coequal needs to change.

In a 2016 post, “Better Reporting on Religious and Ethnic Minorities,” I discussed the problem of false balance, and compiled some potent quotes which I reprise here. Rem Rieder writes:

No matter what the news media’s many critics believe, most journalists endeavor to be fair, to give both sides rather than choose sides. In that effort, there’s a tendency to print what someone says, print what the other side says and call it a day.

The trouble is, there isn’t always equal merit on both sides. So, in instances where one side is largely fact-based, and the other is spouting obvious nonsense, treating both sides equally isn’t balanced. It’s misleading.

Often journalists are reluctant to state the conclusions that stem from their reporting, out of the concern that they will appear partisan or biased. But just laying out both positions without going further in an effort to establish the truth can create [false balance]. And that doesn’t do much good for the readers and the viewers.

Journalism isn’t stenography. It’s not treating everything the same when it’s not the same. It’s about giving citizens information about public affairs that is as accurate as possible.

— Rem Rieder, “The danger of false balance in journalism,” USA Today

Katrina vanden Heuvel writes:

False equivalence in the media — giving equal weight to unsupported or even discredited claims for the sake of appearing impartial — is not unusual. … There are many sides to almost every story, but that doesn’t mean they are automatically equal. Unfortunately, too much of the media has become increasingly fixated on finding “balance,” even if it means presenting fiction on par with fact.

Ultimately, forcing balance where there is none is not journalistically ethical. It’s not part of the proud and essential tradition of truth telling and evaluation, either. At best, it’s lazy. At worst, it’s an abdication of the media’s responsibility.

— Katrina vanden Heuvel, “The distorting reality of ‘false balance’ in the media,” The Washington Post

According to The Economist:

Balance is easy and cheap. In political journalism, a vitriolic quote from each side and a punchy headline is all that is needed to feed the news machine. Who cares if substance and analysis are thrown to the wind? Journalism is a commodity. There is always a need for more “inventory” on which to place ads. Journalism, real journalism — the pursuit of truth — also creates inventory, but not as much, and it is difficult, costly and time-consuming. Far easier to bolt together a few pieces of trivial comment from political pundits and move on.

— “The balance trap,” The Economist

Maragaret Sullivan, [former] Public Editor at The New York Times, writes:

Hardly anything sends Times readers for their boxing gloves as quickly as does the practice of “he said/she said” reporting. (Here’s an extreme and made-up example just for the sake of illustration: “Some sources believe that the earth is flat; others insist that it is round.”) … In general, The Times tries to avoid letting two sides of a debate get equal time when one of them represents an established truth[.]

— Margaret Sullivan, “Another Outbreak of ‘False Balance’?” The New York Times

Ms. Sullivan also writes:

Simply put, false balance is the journalistic practice of giving equal weight to both sides of a story, regardless of an established truth on one side. And many people are fed up with it. They don’t want to hear lies or half-truths given credence on one side, and shot down on the other. They want some real answers.

“Recently, there’s been pressure to be more aggressive on fact-checking and truth-squading,” said Richard Stevenson, The Times’s political editor. “It’s one of the most positive trends in journalism that I can remember.”

You’re entitled to your own opinion but not to your own facts, goes the line from [late Senator] Daniel Patrick Moynihan[.] … The trick, of course, is to determine those facts, to identify the established truth.

The associate managing editor for standards, Philip B. Corbett, puts it this way: “I think editors and reporters are more willing now than in the past to drill down into claims and assertions, in politics and other areas, and really try to help readers sort out conflicting claims.”

Journalists need to make every effort to get beyond the spin and help readers know what to believe, to help them make their way through complicated and contentious subjects. The more news organizations can state established truths and stand by them, the better off the readership — and the democracy — will be.

— Margaret Sullivan, “He Said, She Said, and the Truth,” The New York Times

In endorsing a policy adopted by National Public Radio, James Fallows writes:

With these words, NPR commits itself as an organization to avoid the worst excesses of “he said, she said” journalism. It says to itself that a report characterized by false balance is a false report. It introduces a new and potentially powerful concept of fairness: being “fair to the truth,” which as we know is not always evenly distributed among the sides in a public dispute.

— James Fallows, “NPR Tackles ‘False Equivalence,’” The Atlantic

False balance can occur when journalists don’t distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources, or between scholarly research and popular prejudice. They fail to locate the “established truth.”

Not that truth-squading is a universal panacea. Some people simply prefer lies. As the Fleetwood Mac song goes, “Tell me lies, tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies.” (Or as is the case with some political or anti-religious propaganda: “Tell me ugly, hateful lies that just happen to coincide with my biased world view.”)

How do you fight feelings with facts? Some people claim it isn’t possible. But as I discuss elsewhere:

Offering a positive vision is helpful. Facts are also helpful to people who are halfway reasonable. A few people do change their minds in response to higher quality information flowing in… Insight is needed, but insight cannot be bought as cheaply as propaganda. Insight can come from many sources, including meditation, spiritual readings, and self-reflection.

Insight can also come from better education in civics. Civics courses need to be updated so that people emerge from the educational system better-armed to deal with propaganda, including propaganda which may target them via social media.

Insight and education are tools that can be used to lessen religious hatred. A high school and college textbook like Mary Pat Fisher’s excellent Living Religions  can help people gain insight into the world’s religions. Where there is insight and understanding, it is difficult for intolerance to take root. The feeling vs. fact dichotomy is not insoluble. Where people are exposed to an environment which stresses tolerance, this can have a mediating effect. Understanding which encompasses both head and heart may ensue.

Returning to the subject of James O’Brien: He can be a bit dark and cynical because he sees through much of what is false in British politics. Maybe his insights would find more converts if he could sprinkle in a few dashes of hope. For, yes there is hope — if not in politics, at least in music, art, and poetry, and (of course) spirituality. There are realms untouched and untrammelled by the lies of politicians or advertisers — realms of peace, bliss, and beauty.

As for the problems of this world… Another issue with the media is that they accept things at face value when they ought to be questioning what they’re being handed. A thing is often not what it says on the tin!

Theresa May says she has a brand spanking new deal for Parliament to approve regarding Brexit. So the mimeo-mad press writes headlines like “THERESA MAY’S NEW DEAL” or “THERESA MAY OFFERS 2ND REFERENDUM.” What nonsense! Has Theresa May gone back to Brussels and negotiated a new deal with the EU? No! It’s the same old deal for the umpteenth time, tarted up a bit to tempt those on the cusp. Does she now support a second referendum? No! She’s offering to vote on having a vote, but only after the House of Commons approves her deal. Then she’ll whip her party to vote as a bloc against a second referendum. It’s all smoke and mirrors; Labour is right to have no part of it. Any promises she makes on her way out the door can easily be reneged on by the next administration.

“You don’t like my anchovy-and-marmalade sandwich? Here, I’ll wrap it in some seaweed and put some lipstick on it. Now it’s a new sandwich! Isn’t it appealing?” “Oh yes, Auntie May,” reply the press. “Please give us more so we can write headlines about it!”

In spite of these discouraging signs, and the potential for Nigel Farage to win big in today’s European Parliament elections, I do remain hopeful. Truth does win out in the end, but it can take a very long time. One should not lose hope! It is better to be in the minority that sees clearly and speaks rightly than to condition oneself to enjoy anchovy-and-marmalade sandwiches and regard them as manna from Heaven!

Michael Howard

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

* * *

DailyMotion’s New API – Bad For Bloggers!

Screencast shows how WordPress.com blogs are affected by new DailyMotion API and policies

June, 2018. If you’re a blogger, embedding videos in your posts can be a great way to communicate. But in testing, DailyMotion’s new API (sprung on end users without warning) is a disaster. Their new policy is to push clickbait videos onto blogs retroactively. This means blog posts which were once family-friendly are suddenly weaponized! As this screencast (uploaded to Vimeo) shows, a G-rated post about a children’s film was clickbaited by DailyMotion to push videos including “A shock in the nuts!!” (which shows two pigs copulating) and “NYC’s Nude Awakening – Get An Eyeful Of The Naked Tempest.” A post about self-giving, Mother Teresa, and the Dalai Lama of Tibet now pushes “The History of Body Hair,” “Real Housewives of Potomac,” and other spammy nonsense.

Unlike with YouTube, where bloggers can use rel=0 in the shortcode to suppress so-called “related videos,” we found no way to stop the clickbait videos when using DailyMotion on our WordPress.com blog. Prior to June 2018, embedded DailyMotion videos were well-behaved. If you had a blog and a DailyMotion account, you could ensure that only the videos you chose would be displayed. Now you’re at their mercy.

Because this new policy is retroactive, videos you embedded years ago may now push offensive content. Check your old posts! If your readers are being served clickbait by DailyMotion, you may want to consider moving video content to a host which respects users’ choices and doesn’t violate their trust.

WordPress.com might help with a solution by tweaking their implementation of the DailyMotion API so bloggers can use something like rel=0 in the shortcode. As this screenshot shows, WordPress.com’s own support pages aren’t immune from DailyMotion’s new, spammy policy:

DailyMotion now spams blogs (including WordPress.com support pages) with clickbait videos

Please spread the word and complain to Vivendi (which owns 90% of DailyMotion) about this “shocking” new policy. We hear a lot about normalization these days. But when companies do bad things that affect us as bloggers, we should make our voices heard. Vivendi’s contact page is here:


My non-commercial blog is about ethics, spirituality and the arts. It’s also evolved to include politics, humour, and film studies. I often include short video clips which are carefully chosen to be meaningful and relevant:


I can only apologize to readers for the tasteless and irrelevant content now being pushed by DailyMotion. A solution will be found, but it may take time. It would be wonderful if WordPress.com could help out those affected by implementing a shortcode that would allow suppression of these spam videos. Would also be great if Automattic could contact DailyMotion or Vivendi at the corporate level to complain about the new policy.

According to promotional material found on DailyMotion’s Wikipedia page:

In 2017, Dailymotion revamped its user-facing platform as part of the platform’s most expansive update since its inception. The new interface includes an evolved user interface that prioritises premium content from verified publishers, shifting the focus from user-generated content to top-tier video content from trusted publishers.

This PR speak apparently camouflages a crass move to hit end users with massive amounts of clickbait! Or maybe the video of pigs humping constitutes “premium content from verified porkers.” What up, DailyMotion?

Michael Howard

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

* * *

No More Stormenatti!

Please, my fellow liberals, stop treating Stormy Daniels like a civil rights hero, and stop booking Michael Avenatti on every show in the MSNBC lineup…

I get it. Daniels and Avenatti are going up against Donald Trump, so it’s tempting to welcome them as fellow travelers, or at least “enemies of mine enemy.” But if Republicans have become roundly unprincipled, liberals should stand up squarely for something better than the crass opportunism represented by Stormenatti.

I’m a liberal, but not a knee-jerk liberal. I tend to embrace causes of social compassion and human rights. I also try and see through all forms of propaganda and b.s. I just can’t take any more #Stormenatti on MSNBC, particularly on Lawrence O’Donnell, where Avenatti is given nothing but softballs to hit. It’s like a Bizarro World version of Fox News, but with liberal propaganda. It’s transparently bad journalism, and drives away principled people who might otherwise be allies.

Politics can be a mixed bag; it sometimes brings us insight, but other times asks us to put on blinders. Yea to the former but nay to the latter.

If you’re not just playing politics, but take a principled stand against Donald Trump due to his unbridled hucksterism, then you should also take a stand against Daniels and Avenatti — for the same reason. Not that I want their legal bid to fail; I just don’t want to see them dominate the news or be held up as role models.

Metaphorically speaking, Donald Trump and Stormy Daniels both inhabit the same grindhouse exploitation film — and the person they’re exploiting is you the viewer. They’re both in show business, both insatiable publicity hounds, and perhaps neither has much to offer beyond the brassy, artificially inflated personas they flash for the cameras.

I’m not suggesting a ban on coverage of #Stormenatti, but please don’t make it/them nightly attractions, and please practice basic journalism, like asking tough, skeptical questions about their means and motives.

What is the great civil rights cause championed by Stormy Daniels and her lawyer? That she ought to get paid more than $130,000 for having sex with Donald Trump and keeping quiet about it?

What are the underlying circumstances? Why were she and other porn stars hanging around the golf resort where Trump was staying? Because they were on the lookout for millionaires, hoping that an initial hookup might be bartered into a hefty wad of cash — which Daniels eventually got. Later, she made a self-interested business decision that if she could overturn the contract that netted her $130,000 for one night’s work, she could make millions as a celebrity in her own right. Gandhi, MLK, and Susan B. Anthony move over!

I’m not a lawyer, and don’t pretend to understand the legal distinction between “blackmail” and “hush money.” But if there is a legal distinction (and it may be a fine one), I see very little moral and ethical distinction. So, notwithstanding that I’m a liberal, it makes me want to throw up when I see the shrewd and rapacious Michael Avenatti blathering away on Lawrence O’Donnell as if his client were a cross between Joan of Arc and Harriet Tubman.

One can cover newsmakers from a liberal point of view while still retaining an iota of skepticism. The New York Times covers #Stormenatti, but with a tad of snarkiness that helps restore perspective. This they do by interspersing factual narrative with titles of films in which Daniels actually starred. My favourite (make-believe) ones are Bring Me Some Head for Alfredo Garcia and Three Days of the Condom (links are Roger Ebert reviews).

I’m always trying to refine my understanding, and to avoid saying what’s already been said better. So when researching this post, coming across “Stormy Daniels is a feminist heroine,” I assumed it must be meant sarcastically. I was gobsmacked to find it was a credulous (if rhetorical) claim by none other than Krystal Ball, who often appears on MSNBC.

My mind works in a discursive manner, so I can only say that I’m reminded of a scene from a DVD extra called “Dr. Forever! – The Celestial Toyroom.” It’s about the toys that Doctor Who fans had when they were kids. Some toys came in boxes of Weetabix wholegrain cereal — which was a terrific marketing coup, and had the side benefit of keeping millions of young Britons extremely regular. Sadly, Krystal Ball was not among them.

By all means, let’s treat all people everywhere decently, and let’s not be overly judgmental. The conservative right tends to apply hateful stereotypes to women who make certain less-than-ideal career choices, but the fallacy in Ms. Ball’s thinking is that she applies a syrupy inverted stereotype to the same women. In truth, Ms. Daniels is neither an untouchable sinner, nor a feminist heroine taking back power from the patriarchy one spank at a time. Like her lawyer, Daniels is just another huckster, not easily distinguishable from millions of other hucksters who dot American life, from telemarketers to folk selling quack baldness remedies on late night TV. May they one day find better wisdom.

As human beings, we are all of us more than we appear to be. In characterizing where some people presently are, I don’t mean to restrict, confine, or belittle them. We all have the potential to bring out deeper aspects of our selves — aspects which are in some sense truer. But that acquisitive instinct or spirit of hucksterism tends to be a stumbling block, making it hard for us to be our best selves.

If we recognize this greediness to be a stumbling block in human nature, then we would ideally choose as role models those who epitomize unselfishness and charity.

There’s a sense in which real estate magnates and porn stars go together. They are both found at golf resorts plying their respective trades or proclivities. But the world is so much bigger than that! America is a great and good nation, and the national attention should be focused on better things.

Michael Howard

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

* * *

Al Franken, Sexual McCarthyism, and Moral Panics

More on the Al Franken/Leeaan Tweeden blowup, plus film & TV clips exploring moral panics and McCarthyism from different angles.

About ten days ago, Huffington Post contributor David Fagin penned a searing screed decrying the alleged framing of Al Franken by Trump supporters. It seems to have gotten pulled by Fagin or HuffPo. It was pretty over-the-top (perhaps written in haste or anger), but Fagin made some good points about the propagandistic nature of Tweeden’s attack on Franken:

Then, there is the way [Tweeden’s] piece is constructed. Anyone else find it a bit odd she mentions her father, Vietnam, her husband, the Air Force, the troops in the Middle East, and 9/11, all in the first paragraph? If one didn’t know better, one would think she was going for the easy sympathy play and using the military service of her father and husband, as well as the rest of the armed forces overseas, to further ingratiate herself to the reader. Almost like a calling card to other right-wing MAGA’s out there. “My father, brother, husband, cousin, neighbor’s nephew’s dog, and piano teacher’s great grandson are all in the military, so that means you should believe me no matter what.”

Al Franken allegedly kissing a woman during a rehearsal of a skit ten years ago is exactly what Congress should be using tax payer dollars to investigate at this moment in time.

There’s another dimension to the optics here. Leeann Tweeden is a sort of Miss America type. Al Franken is a sort of Woody Allen type. So I thought of this clip from Allen’s 1971 comedy Bananas:

To overthink it would spoil the humor, which is delicious, though not always politically correct. Political correctness will be the death of the American left. Right now Al Franken is being sacrificed on the altar of political correctness by people who should know better. It’s not a pretty thing to watch. Harry Truman once said (or possibly didn’t say), “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”

I might not agree with David Fagin on everything, but he tweeted that “#AlFranken is the first victim of sexual McCarthyism.” There’s probably some truth in that. I find myself recalling the classic Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”:

First airing in 1960, its subtext was nothing other than McCarthyism viewed as a moral panic (though the term “moral panic” would not come into widespread use in the social sciences for another decade).

As in much late 50s/early 60s sci-fi, the theme is aliens in our midst, as a metaphor for fear of communist infiltration. In a moral panic, fear of a problem (which may be a real problem) becomes exaggerated to the point of rampant paranoia and a frenzy of finger-pointing — much like the present culture of public accusation. “Look! Under that rock! It’s another sexual abuser! Everybody run, run, run, and grab a few stones while you are running. We shall stone the Canaanite!” Or as the old adage goes: “When in danger or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout.” (The adage has been quoted by everyone from Herman Wouk to Robert Heinlein to Spider John Koerner.)

This is not to underestimate the importance of taking sane, rational steps to create a culture in which sexual abuse of women and girls is not tolerated. The problem is real. But the present media frenzy is not helpful, and may even be counterproductive in relation to genuine change, since outrage may be a substitute for action, and can lead to outrage fatigue.

I think there are two extremes to be avoided: one where women never talk about sexual abuse, so nothing ever gets done; and the other where every woman has to have a story of abuse in order to be admitted to the sisterhood, and every edition of The View, Good Morning America, or Hannity must have its Leeann Tweeden wannabe rabbiting on about a misplaced kiss in the distant past, in between autographing copies of Playboy.

Of course, in the midst of a moral panic it may do little good to say, “Hey people, check yourselves out.” A moral panic is a form of collective insanity, and one feature of that insanity is the inability to hear voices of calm and reason. It’s a little like this ancient tale about the wise king and the poisoned well, which was reprised in the 1973 film Serpico, about a New York City cop who fights against police corruption and is hated for it. If you don’t drink from the same well as everyone else, they’ll simply say you’re crazy or don’t understand the frightful danger they’re responding to, or the overwhelming need (and greed).

A classic symptom of a moral panic is that the major media, while acting as if they are arbiters of what is reasonable, are actually fuelling or even constructing the moral panic.

A panic differs from a short-lived hoax in which the true facts are quickly brought to bear. Consider the Mercury Theatre’s radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. Broadcast in 1938, it was presented in such a way that many casual listeners really believed the Earth was being invaded by Martians:

According to a short article on History.com:

Perhaps as many as a million radio listeners believed that a real Martian invasion was underway. Panic broke out across the country. In New Jersey, terrified civilians jammed highways seeking to escape the alien marauders. People begged police for gas masks to save them from the toxic gas and asked electric companies to turn off the power so that the Martians wouldn’t see their lights. One woman ran into an Indianapolis church where evening services were being held and yelled, “New York has been destroyed! It’s the end of the world! Go home and prepare to die!” [Editor’s note: Similar sentiments were voiced just after the November 2016 presidential election.]

The broadcast may not even rise to the level of a hoax, since those who listened from the outset knew it was only a radio play, and announcements to that effect were inserted at intervals.

What’s different about a moral panic is that it often concerns a perceived problem about which there is limited or sketchy information, and the facts or true dimensions of the problem remain difficult to ascertain. This may lead to an extended period of wild speculation, acts of vigilantism, and harsh social control measures which later turn out to have been uncalled for.

The panic over alleged satanic ritual abuse of children at preschools in the 1980s is a classic example of a moral panic. This New York Times book review of We Believe The Children  includes an excellent summary, and notes:

Elaine Showalter, in “Hystories” (1997), showed how the psychological establishment, and feminists within it, intrigued by trauma theory, so-called multiple personalities and a new belief in recovered memories, was primed to believe outlandish stories of abuse, especially from women. Believing the victim became nonnegotiable — with adult female patients, then with children and even toddlers.

Moral panics tend to occur in cycles, and are not understood by the average participant in them; so in the present phase, hashtags like #MeToo and #BelieveTheWomen are not viewed as problematic by those who fail to study history.

Those remembering The X-Files might have gleaned something of the flavour of moral panics from the episode “Syzygy” (s3e13), which combines analysis of the Satanic Panic phenom with humor. Like “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” it captures the quality of frantic finger-pointing and mob rule in which everyone is suspect, especially those who are different in some way. In “Maple Street,” the first suspect is a stargazer who suffers from insomnia, while in “Syzygy,” the crowd storms the house of a cross-dresser.

From the study of moral panics we observe that the media as a whole is not an impartial body standing apart from the fray and carefully disseminating accurate accounts. The media get caught up in the frenzy, and become a major force in stirring it to fever pitch, perhaps providing moral cover for vigilantes.

If a moral panic is a type of madness of crowds, people in media hardly seem immune to that madness. Some of what they do is no doubt intentional profiteering off a craze, but some is personal surrender to an easy narrative that arouses passion. For all their journalistic training, they are carried away by the same tide as non-media actors. In some cases they are responsible for constructing the moral panic. Indeed, some theorists define moral panics as a media phenomenon:

A moral panic may be defined as an episode, often triggered by alarming media stories and reinforced by reactive laws and public policy, of exaggerated or misdirected public concern, anxiety, fear, or anger over a perceived threat to social order.

To a great degree, moral panics take place in the media. During moral panics, media coverage, rousing public fears over a reputed social problem, also assists appreciably in constructing that problem.

Charles Krinsky, “Introduction: The Moral Panic Concept”

Take the panic over violence between between Mods and Rockers in 1960s Britain:

Interviewed in the video, moral panic theorist Stanley Cohen says: “The media, by their reaction, kept the panic going, and therefore in a sense amplified it.”

In the argot of moral panic theory, Al Franken has been transformed into a “folk devil” by hysterical media coverage. The extent and nature of that coverage, particularly in right-wing media, seems quite out of kilter with the alleged wrongdoing.

Though an incompetent and odious president, Donald Trump has always shown a talent for media manipulation. He helped spur the transformation of Franken into a “folk devil” by referring to him as “Al Frankenstien” [sic] in a tweet.

The “folk devil” spoken of in moral panic theory bears some resemblance to what we might today call a “meme.” Memes and folk devils have little regard for individuals and their differences, tending to act the like the whale which swallowed Jonah. The individual is swallowed by a meme or folk devil characterization, and his or her qualities are conflated with those of a large number of other individuals, many (perhaps most) of whom bear little true relation to one another. Thus Al Franken is conflated with Roy Moore.

In the 1980s there was a panic concerning new religious movements (sometimes redefined pejoratively as “cults”). While most religious and spiritual groups are peace-loving and law-abiding, the events at Jonestown in 1978 (where about 900 people perished) crystallized sentiment against new religious movements, causing virtually any such movement (no matter how pacific) to be conflated with the horror at Jonestown.

Fundraising letters from anti-cult groups in the 80s hypothesized that millions of Americans belonged to purported “cults” without even knowing it, and suggested that the church or temple down the street — the one your neighbour goes to — might be a secret hotbed of cult activity. Like communists and alien invaders, cults were said to possess the power to brainwash innocent youth and turn them into mindless robots hell-bent on destruction.

To be sure they weren’t unwitting members of a “cult,” readers of anti-cult tracts were urged to subject their faith to a “cult checklist” which, being composed by secular rationalists, was sure to test positive for virtually any faith held deeply and actually practiced in real life. Although the panic has died down since the 80s, the prejudice against minority faiths persists, and the notion that faith groups must pass a test devised by secular rationalists is still popularized in some periodicals and on the Internet.

Those spiritual groups which had their roots in Hinduism and Buddhism were often singled out for special vitriol, and the practice of meditation — which has since gained widespread appeal for its benefits — was branded as extremely dangerous, a tool used by “cults” to exercise “destructive mind control.” In retrospect, this seems like the paranoid fantasy of ultra-rationalists who couldn’t cope with the insights that Eastern philosophy and practice bestowed upon the West. Consider by contrast this (more recent) NBC Nightly News report on meditation in the schools:

Returning to the matter nearer at hand: During a moral panic, people who understand the media can manipulate events; so the claim is made that Leeann Tweeden is part of a cynical effort to take down Sen. Al Franken, and does not make a very convincing victim. In my post “Of Senators and Playmates,” I closed with an uncaptioned image of Raquel Welch performing for the troops in a bygone era:

But looked at symbolically, the pic can also represent Leeann Tweeden and the media. She’s a bright shiny object which the media find irresistible. She elicits from them the same mindless drooling and circling reaction you see from the troops in the photo. Someone who understands media can count on that almost Pavlovian response, and orchestrate it in a Machiavellian (or Rimsky-Korsakovian) way.

During a moral panic, satire is one element that can help restore perspective. The above-mentioned David Fagin recently tweeted:

We have nearly reached that point.

As for the more serious implications, in “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street, writer-narrator Rod Serling closes like so:

The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices to be found only in the minds of men. For the record: prejudices can kill, and suspicion can destroy, and a thoughtless frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own — for the children, and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined to the Twilight Zone.

Sidebar: MST3k Satire on the McCarthy Era

According to one theory, the reason so many people were taken in by the Mercury Theatre’s “War of the Worlds” broadcast is that they tuned in late — having been listening on another network to ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy. The latter is not to be confused with Sen. Joe McCarthy, the legendary figure behind the Army-McCarthy hearings which came to be regarded as a “witch hunt” for communists in the 1950s (along with HUAC).

Leveraging this coincidence of names, the MST3k gang did a satire of the McCarthy era based on supposed testimony from a variety of puppets and cartoon characters:

This is hysterically funny if you know a little about a) the real McCarthy and HUAC hearings, and b) the cited puppet/cartoon characters. I’ll stop short of providing a monograph on the subject, but may add a list of characters and links. The sketch appears in Mystery Science Theater 3000 #205, where the main feature is Rocket Attack U.S.A., a low-budget cold war spy drama.

The McCarthy era was one in which many left-leaning writers (some mentioned in the sketch) were blacklisted and couldn’t work. Bringing us full circle, this was the subject of Martin Ritt’s 1976 film The Front (starring Woody Allen), which ended with a cheeky (but funny!) rebuke to the men who interrogated witnesses in a manner so lacking in decency (NSFW):

Michael Howard

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


The Front – Official Trailer
At The Circus with Topo Gigio

* * *

Leeann Tweeden and Blaming The Victim

UPDATED! When Leeann Tweeden launched her publicity campaign against Al Franken, appearing on a number of TV shows which have viewership in the millions, I began looking into her background. This culminated in my writing “Of Senators and Playmates.” Why is this not an example of “slut-shaming” or “blaming the victim?” Why shouldn’t we simply accept Tweeden’s claims at face value?

Feminists advance many arguments, many of which I agree with. One argument is that by subjecting Leeann Tweeden to scrutiny, we’re creating an environment in which “victims” will be afraid to come forward. This argument needs to be carefully examined. It’s a good argument in theory, and there are many situations to which it’s properly applied. This isn’t one of them. Here’s why:

Unless we want to surrender to a mob mentality, the only way we can properly adjudicate claims of improper sexual behaviour is through some form of due process. From the point of view of due process and fairness, the hardest claims to evaluate are those which are made years after the alleged event, and which emerge in connection with some type of publicity campaign, partisan attack, or therapy fad.

The #MeToo movement is a very mixed bag. At its best it embodies the courage of women who have been long silent to tell their stories — stories which need telling. But at its worst, it’s a reenactment of the whole Courage To Heal debacle, which resulted in many false accusations and destroyed many innocent people’s lives. Paraphrasing George Santayana, those who fail to study this debacle are doomed to repeat it. It seems to be a generational thing: People who don’t know what happened in the 90s are blindly and blithely repeating it circa 2017.

The issues are subtle and complex, but to get at the crux of them I commend to the reader these two pieces appearing on Salon.com:

The lie that tore my family apart
Interview with Meredith Maran

The nature of movements like Courage To Heal is that they tend to create a me-too mentality. It’s politically taboo to say this, but it must be said for the sake of honesty: During a period of moral panic, some women wholeheartedly embrace victim feminism, but their claims of abuse are either woven out of whole cloth, or exaggerated to the point that they barely resemble real world events.

Some feminists are smart enough and honest enough to recognize that false or inflated claims are counterproductive to the larger goal of ending sexual abuse, and lead to a backlash in which women’s complaints in this area are less believed. (If you don’t believe in backlash, just consider who we have as president.)

Other feminists stubbornly cling to the belief that “women never lie” about a thing like that, and that there are “no rewards” for “coming forward.” In truth there are many rewards, including attention, sympathy, and being part of the latest social/political fad. Again, it’s politically taboo to say this, but presenting oneself as a victim is a status symbol in some feminist circles, and becomes a part of social identity formation. That’s one of the points being made by Meredith Maran.

This was a major issue in the UVA rape hoax, where a woman named Jackie drifted into a survivors group, and appeared to adopt a borrowed scenario from a book she had been given about campus rape. This interview conducted by Ronan Farrow with Liz Seccuro, a genuine survivor of a UVA campus rape 34 years ago, gets at the underlying issues:

Liz Seccuro: Anonymous people, blog commenters, my friends, and my family all called me, or commented, or wrote to me and said, “This is your story.” I can’t comprehend how someone would co-opt someone else’s pain and story for this.

Ronan Farrow: Do you think there’s a chance that that’s what happened, that Jackie co-opted your story?

Liz Seccuro: I think, as I said it’s been suggested to me so many times that I have to allow it to be a possibility.

Ronan Farrow: I understand the crisis management center [at UVA] gave out your book to survivors.

Liz Seccuro: Yes.

Ronan Farrow: Do you think that Jackie perhaps believed that your story was hers?

Liz Seccuro: I think that somebody who has now told this story so many times, and stuck by her story even after being discredited, I believe that that person would have some mental issues, and would believe that.

Ronan Farrow: If this is true, if by some happenstance Jackie co-opted your story (to use your words), what’s your message to her?

Liz Seccuro: Well I think right now, my message to her is to get some help and to understand — and I’m not ruling out that nothing happened to her. I think something traumatic has happened to her in her life, and I think she needs to get some help to address that. It’s very easy to become enamoured with the survivor community and dive into that. But unless you’re willing to talk to the police and to file a complaint, you can’t level these sort of allegations. It was hard for me, and we had evidence. You can’t make these sort of allegations that live on forever, because look at the mess we’re in now.

MSNBC interview with Liz Seccuro

My intention is not to “weaponize” false reports, but simply to point out that during a moral panic, it’s hard to evaluate reports at face value because those making false reports can seem sincere and well-intentioned. During a panic, we’re told to believe the women (or children, or whomever) unquestioningly. But later, after the panic has died down, we realize the truth in what Cathy Young wrote on Slate.com: “A de facto presumption of guilt in alleged sexual offenses is as dangerous as a presumption of guilt in any crime, and for the same reasons: It upends the foundations on which our system of justice rests and creates a risk of ruining innocent lives.” Mere numbers of reports are not dispositive. Bari Weiss writes:

I think that “believing all women” can rapidly be transmogrified into an ideological orthodoxy that will not serve women at all.

If the past few weeks have shown us the unique horrors some women have faced, the answer to it can’t be a stringent new solidarity that further limits the definition of womanhood and lumps our highly diverse experiences together simply based on our gender. I don’t think that helps women. Or men.

I believe that the “believe all women” vision of feminism unintentionally fetishizes women. Women are no longer human and flawed. They are Truth personified. They are above reproach.

I believe that it’s condescending to think that women and their claims can’t stand up to interrogation and can’t handle skepticism. I believe that facts serve feminists far better than faith. That due process is better than mob rule.

– Bari Weiss, The Limits of ‘Believe All Women,’  The New York Times

There’s an important distinction between anti-feminists who want to downplay the very real problem of sexual abuse, and feminists (some, victims themselves) who want to minimize false claims and maintain a reasonable perspective (thereby avoiding backlash). Charlotte Vale Allen, a genuine abuse survivor and the author of Daddy’s Girl writes:

A woman I’ve known for over thirty years who’s always been searching for her ‘gift,’ for the career move that will finally bring her happiness has now got memories that fill her with purpose. After falling out of touch for a decade, she telephoned to say, in essence, ‘Guess what? Me too!’ But in the very new tones of tremendous self-importance. This woman who’d never been able to find something to do in life that would bring her any satisfaction was now positively brimming with it. With the help of her therapist, she’d at last found her calling–as a victim! She had ludicrous, unbelievable tales to tell of satanic abuse–in the heart of one of Toronto’s oldest, wealthiest areas. Right! … What is going on? It’s as if some sort of collective lunacy has taken hold of people–the patients and therapists, both lockstepped in a march toward finding a past history of abuse at all costs. Victimhood as a desirable status is anathema to me[.]”

Having been aware of this quote for over a decade, when I hear there’s a new social media movement with hashtag #MeToo, I think “Uh-oh. Here we go again.”

During such a period, we need to be especially careful to separate reasonable claims timely made and backed up by evidence, from claims made in connection with publicity campaigns, partisan attacks, or faddism — whether social, political, therapeutic, even journalistic.

During a moral panic, the mere accusation or act of finger-pointing is enough to destroy someone’s life, or at least their career. Alarmists say the problem of abuse is so serious that we need to forget about due process and fairness, and simply burn at the stake (or flame in the media) anyone who’s even accused, no matter how partisan the attack or how flimsy the evidence. Historically, such people are called “reactionaries.” Their opinion flies in the face of American ideals of justice.

During a moral panic, the notion is floated that if we don’t immediately flay anyone who has been accused, some evildoers might escape punishment. This is true, but it has always been true. In a just society, we only punish those who are proven guilty. We can do no more and still be a just society. Otherwise, we would become like our Dear Leader, who advocates that police slam the heads of suspects into squad cars.

Teen Vogue columnist Emily Lindin tweeted, “I’m actually not at all concerned about innocent men losing their jobs over false sexual assault/harassment allegations … If some innocent men’s reputations have to take a hit in the process of undoing the patriarchy, that is a price I am absolutely willing to pay.” This is tribalism at its worst and not a view informed by conscience.

Spiritual insight suggests that those whom we cannot punish (because there is no proof) are still subject to the Law of Karma. If they have done wrong, they will eventually pay the price. In our human justice, then, we should not be excessively bloodthirsty or vengeful, nor adopt polices which would punish the innocent along with the guilty, or make it impossible for men and women to coexist peacefully and lovingly.

During a moral panic, numbers replace substance. This is something I understood from a piece by barrister Barbara Hewson on Spiked-Online.com:

Unlike a train crash or a disaster like Thalidomide (where the damage is obvious), an acute problem with historic abuse claims is the absence of direct evidence, apart from the claimant’s unsupported word. An uncritical approach to claimants, then, is going to make it easier for those who are either mistaken or malicious to make false allegations.

A further problem is the general acceptance of the notion of ‘corroboration by volume,’ where claims of sexual abuse are involved. This means that the greater the volume of claims, the more they are seen as mutually supporting. So weak claims reinforce strong ones, and vice versa. Indeed, a mass of weak claims is also taken as compelling. So there is little incentive to weed out weak claims.

Back in 1924, the then Lord Chief Justice warned of the danger of this approach:

‘The risk, the danger, the logical fallacy is indeed quite manifest to those who are in the habit of thinking about such matters. It is so easy to derive from a series of unsatisfactory accusations, if there are enough of them, an accusation which at least appears satisfactory. It is so easy to collect from a mass of ingredients, not one of which is sufficient, a totality which will appear to contain what is missing.’

If this is a problem in the courts, it is ten times worse in the media, where we are now treating #MeToo tweets as evidence of crimes, rather than evidence of social affinity. But in the midst of a moral panic it may do no good to say “Hey people, check yourselves out.” The popular mania is too strong, so people of sense and sensibility tend to withdraw from public life.

After the panic has died down, the crowd may return to business as usual, because they regret the excessive blaming and public shaming which occurred in the panic phase. That’s why some feminists are trying to tone down the sort of rhetoric which would brand a single stolen kiss among friends as an incident of sexual assault, or would demand that we uncritically accept any allegation which is floated, or insist that women are the only ones ever targeted for unwelcome advances in the workplace.

One portion of the (earlier) quote from Barbara Hewson perhaps requires clarification. We understand how someone could make a “malicious” claim, but how could someone simply be “mistaken” about an “historic abuse claim” dating back a number of years? A couple of points here:

– First, there are those people (we’ve all met them) for whom feelings, emotions, and beliefs are the only reality (or at least the primary reality). Such people rewrite history to correspond to their changing emotions, belief systems — even political views. When their view turns negative, past events are rewritten accordingly.

– Second, people may substantially change their identities over time. They sometimes judge past events according to the person who they are now, rather than the original social context in which those events occurred. Who was Al Franken in 2006? Who was Leeann Tweeden? He was a comedian and she was a pinup girl. They were both putting on a USO tour which was raunchy and sexual. Eleven years later, Franken is a U.S. senator and Tweeden is an anchor for talk radio (though she continues to sell autographed copies of Playboy). A kiss, if it occurred in 2006, might not have been far out of place in the original social context, though it would be out of place today.

– Third, there are numerous external influence factors which can cause people to change their story, or to bring up a past incident out of the blue as an alleged incident of sexual assault, when they didn’t view it that way at the time. Psychologist Tana Dineen calls such people “synthetic victims”:

Synthetic victims are the people who become persuaded that they have been sexually harassed and often they appear to be truly suffering the psychological consequences. … [They include] the person who describes a scene to a co-worker, a spouse or maybe to a psychologist or even a lawyer and is provided with encouragement to think about it differently, perhaps as an incident of harassment or assault.

Memories change; reactions change; feelings change AND stories change. Relatively trivial events can become dramatic; they can be moulded, edited and modified to fit the sexual harassment script which people can easily find in pop psychology books, women’s magazines and on talk shows and now even on the Internet. As Mordecai Richler puts it in his most recent book Barney’s Version, these are people who “are tinkering with memory, fine-tuning reality.”

Scrupulously investigate any sexual harassment report that lands on your desk, looking not only for corroborating evidence, but, also, for possible contamination by the Psychology Industry. This contamination can take place, not only directly in psychotherapy but indirectly through pop psychology books, self-help manuals, media reports, support groups, comments made by family or co-workers, and even information posted on the Internet [e.g. #MeToo movement].

— Tana Dineen, from “Are We Manufacturing Victims?” (comment added)

– Fourth, especially when the claim is made as part of a publicity campaign with partisan overtones, we can’t rule out the possibility that someone’s willingness to “rethink” a past event was influenced by career, politics, or money. This borders on the knowingly malicious, but some people are not honest — even with themselves. When adopting a new narrative becomes advantageous to them (and is perhaps suggested by political operatives), they find the new narrative irresistible and embrace it as if true. It’s not quite lying, but very close to it. They convince themselves that it is true because it serves their narrow interests of the moment, and a cause which they view favourably.

Returning to my original point: Leeann Tweeden is not a “victim” — she’s a complainant, but not a complainant in any forum providing due process. She’s a complainant in the three-ring circus of the media, and her complaint seems designed to jet-propel her career, gain publicity for the talk radio station which employs her, and take down Sen. Al Franken. Under those circumstances, it is appropriate to look into her background, to take note of her hypocrisy and her faux feminism. She’s anti-feminist on Hannity (and in posing nude for Playboy), but now claims to be part of the #MeToo movement. Give me a large personal break!

If you’re a victim of inappropriate sexual behavior, it’s important that you file a timely complaint with some body having adjudicatory authority. If you wait ten years, your only option will be to prostitute yourself in the media, as Leeann Tweeden is doing now. That she does so with great gusto is not a credit to her character.

Sidebar: Fish-lips shaming

While researching this article, I read Mark Peters’ piece on Slate.com about slut-shaming and a host of other types of shaming which have lately emerged. I was also struggling to explain why it’s a problem that in addition to being about an event ten years ago, Leeann Tweeden’s publicity campaign against Al Franken concerns a single kiss. Going over the details, I remembered that in trying to paint as ugly a picture of Franken as possible, Tweeden also accused him of having “fish lips.” Is this not a case of “fish-lips shaming,” and should not our silver-scaled brethren from the undersea kingdom feel slighted? Perhaps they should sue Tweeden for emotional distress and, ahem– loss of aquarium.

Fish-lips shaming is not an entirely new phenomenon. It is an adaptation or corruption of dog-lips shaming. If you’re a fan of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (as I certainly am), you know that Lucy Van Pelt is the original and most sadistic of dog-lips shamers, mercilessly deriding Snoopy for his Creator-bestowed smackers:

Fish-lips shaming may also be viewed as a variation on liver-lips shaming, which was a popular type of black-on-black rankout when I was growing up, maybe around grade 6 or 7.

Not to leave out the third main non-vegetarian alternative to hamburger: Had Al Franken not tried to kiss Leeann Tweeden on the 2006 USO tour (or so she says), he might have had to endure taunts of “Chicken-lips!” from enlisted men. (Chicken lips may also be an ingredient in some types of head cheese, in which case they deserve shaming!)

Michael Howard

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

* * *

Of Senators and Playmates

Weighing in on the Al Franken/Leeann Tweeden blowup

As a quiet recluse, it often seems to me that people in society are constantly fighting with each other, trying to destroy each other. One day it’s whites against blacks, the next day Christians against gays, the next day women against men (or vice versa), with populist media always fanning the flames, heating things up to the point of mania.

Observing these fights, I’m often reminded of John Le Carré’s description of the latter stages of the cold war: half-angels fighting with half-devils, and no one knows who the goodies are. It makes me want to remain a conscientious objector.

From my remote observatory, the Al Franken/Leeann Tweeden blowup looks so junior high school. Franken is like the dorky guy rehearsing a play with the sex queen, so he has to act like a jerk (back in 2006) and try kissing her. (If that’s what happened. Franken says he remembers it differently.)

If I were a teacher-referee, I would sit the kiddees down and explain to Franken that just because Leeann Tweeden got her start as a Hooters waitress and parades around half-naked in biker & skin mags doesn’t mean he can take diabolical liberties. I would also explain to Tweeden that women who launch their careers by strutting their stuff in multiple venues tend to attract dorky guys who want to prove their manhood. The two types go together.

I’m a liberal, but not a knee-jerk liberal. I open myself to criticism from fellow liberals by saying that I’m more sympathetic to Franken than Tweeden. Why? Both come from an entertainment industry culture which is highly sexualized. But from all appearances, Al Franken made a conscious decision to break with that culture and become a staid, responsible political leader who has worked quietly for positive change this past decade. Leeann Tweeden is still part of an entertainment industry which is puerile and narcissistic. I don’t see her so much as a victim as an opportunist who’s using an ancient incident with Franken as another stepping stone in her career, jumping on the me-too bandwagon at a convenient moment in time, when a woman isn’t part of the sisterhood if she doesn’t have an abuse story to tell. Faux feminism at its worst.

It’s hypocritical to spend years feeding the beast (as Tweeden has done), then complain that it is ravenous. She has nothing but praise for “Hef” (as she calls him) — the late Hugh Hefner, who founded Playboy, gave Tweeden her big break, and more or less institutionalized the notion that women should be “playmates,” and wear bunny costumes that would define their roles even visually. See this HuffPo article discussing the Hefner legacy.

To Tweeden, Playboy is “iconic” and “cool,” but it might not be that way to women who’ve fought hard to create a world where women aren’t judged or commodified according to their looks.

Tweeden has no problem being a playmate or calendar kitten as long as it makes her famous and can be used as a springboard for a career in mainstream media, where looks count nearly as much as they do in the porn industry. (Does CNN really have its own peroxide factory, or is that just fake news?) On Tweeden’s Internet store, you can currently buy a “Personalized December 2011 Playboy Magazine” featuring her for a mere $100. Is that feminist empowerment?

KABC talk radio, where Tweeden currently works, rarely misses an opportunity to tout her history as a playmate, and the KABC website was the initial launch point for Tweeden’s public offensive against Franken — leading me to wonder how much of this is just another publicity stunt to boost ratings, and how much is pure politics. In a way, it’s a contest to see who has the strongest stomach for public confession as a form of therapy and self-stroking. Tweeden has yet to puke, though listeners may.

There’s a distinct odor of politics to her claims and their timing. Tweeden is a right-winger who’s fanatically pro military, while Franken is a left-winger who’s reasonably pro military, while also fighting to end abuses — notably, the problem of rape. Do a Google search for Franken anti-rape amendment and you’ll see a host of articles about how he forged ahead and got his amendment signed into law. See this 30-second spot by Amy Lawday Productions highlighting the amendment’s significance:

According to Emily Douglas, senior editor at The Nation:

Upon hearing the amendment passed, Jamie Leigh Jones told the Minnesota Post: “It means the world to me… It means that every tear shed to go public and repeat my story over and over again to make a difference for other women was worth it.” It’s a reminder that rape survivors go public with their stories at a serious emotional cost, and the onus is on political leaders and advocates to make it worth what could be only in the most euphemistic sense be referred to as their while.

— Emily Douglas, “Franken’s Anti-Rape Amendment”

Just because Franken has fought against rape as a senator doesn’t mean he was entitled to act offensively toward Tweeden back in 2006 when they were rehearsing for a USO skit together. But if I’m any judge of character, Franken is not by nature abusive, has matured considerably since his days as a comedian, and is a decent sort of bloke.

But in fighting against the DoD to get the rape amendment passed, and in fighting with Jeff Sessions over both the rape amendment and Russiagate, did Franken identify himself as a target to military brat Tweeden and her minders? On a gut level, I can’t shake the feeling that she’s the aggressor here, and that there’s something of the Kellyanne Conway about her: snowing the media to advance a hidden agenda, going on a well-planned “confession tour” to distract attention from the Trump administration’s dirty deeds.

According to CBS news, Trump oppo research guy Roger Stone knew Tweeden was about to hit Franken hours before her allegations went public, and tweeted (through an intermediary) that it was Franken’s time in the barrel. This suggests the attack was coordinated to fall on a day when the Trump administration needed maximum distraction from the Republican tax plan, which is a huge wealth transfer from the middle class to the richest Americans, and which includes a provision partially defunding Obamacare.

On the same day, the Trump administration reversed an Obama-era ban on importing African elephant trophies from Zimbabwe, and the FCC relaxed ownership rules for media companies, ensuring that in some markets citizens will have only one pro-Trump corporation (like Sinclair) controlling both newspapers and TV. A good day to pitch a bright shiny object (or dull shiny object) in the direction of the media.

The disgusting use of a confession tour to sandbag Franken reflects deeper problems in our society which won’t be solved by the present accusation culture. People on social media are commenting that this culture has reached the level of a moral panic. “menckenjr” on DailyKos writes:

Franken shouldn’t have clowned her like that. It reflects poorly on his judgement at the time. If there are more credible complaints, he has to go.

Having said that, however, it’s easy to believe that Ms. Tweeden is lending her (possibly grossly inflated) outrage for partisan purposes and misremembering how she felt. This is starting to feel a lot like the moral panic over satanic child-molesting day care centers from the 1980’s with the whole “recovered memories” scam springing up without paying any attention to how malleable memories are. Anyone can say anything they want to about how something made them feel a long time ago and absent any other contemporaneous accounts there’s no way to tell whether they’re telling the truth or not. If there are people she talked to about it at the time, that’s one thing. If this is just her on right-wing Tea Party radio trying to muddy the waters and help Roy Moore squeak through in Alabama, that’s another.

With all the changes in society in recent decades, both women and men are struggling to make sense of their roles, to find ways of getting along together — even loving each other.

Franken may have acted boorishly by taking a comedy skit way too far, and by mugging for the camera, pretending to grab at Tweeden while she was asleep on the plane in heavy military gear. But in this murky contest between half-devils and half-angels, Tweeden looks to me like the bigger devil for trying to wreck Franken’s political career, which (unlike most media faff and soft-core porn) is irreplaceable.

The photo in question, which was intended comedically, has been described as “lewd,” though it contains no nudity or even partial nudity. The obvious question is, compared to what? The photos of Tweeden which appear in men’s magazines?

According to FastDate.com, which publishes a larger version of this photo of Tweeden, she’s a former FastDate “Calendar Kitten” who “has her own website with a sexy Members Corner showing more hot shots like the one above.” http://www.fastdates.com/PitLaneNews2006.05.03.HTM

I’m not a prude and am not offended by either the Franken photo, or the many being circulated of Tweeden prancing about in the nearly altogether. My point is that there’s clearly some kind of double standard here. Like Claude Rains in Casablanca, Tweeden is “shocked” at the attention she receives from men. The operational folk wisdom is: “Don’t turn them on if you’re not comfortable turning them down.”

Leeann Tweeden – lingerie shoot (thumbnail)

The optics are important due to the bright shiny object factor, and the deceptive nature of the PR blitzkrieg unleashed by Ms. Tweeden. Most press reports seem to show her wearing dark business attire and geek glasses, but that is not the attire for which she is known, and on which her career has been largely based. It’s not the attire she was wearing when she appeared at Budweiser promotional events, autographing 8×10 glossies of herself.

People have a right to change their image, though the fact that she’s still selling her Playboy and Budweiser paraphernalia makes the change dubious. What people don’t have a right to do is skewer people from their past, for relating to them according to the image that they consciously projected at the time.

Note also that the Franken photo was not considered “lewd” in 2006. It was apparently included in the courtesy book or disc issued by the USO at the end of the tour. In its original context, it was a picture of two entertainers who had a reputation for joking their way through the tour. Comedian Franken is pretending to grope calendar kitten Tweeden, who’s fully clothed in a flak jacket and helmet, and is either asleep or pretending to be asleep for the photo. In the uncropped version (not always shown), another person is seen seated beside her to her left.

MSNBC’s Kasie Hunt was lambasted on right-wing media for describing the photo as showing “mock groping,” but she is correct.

Franken used various comic personas in his act, including that of the man-child who refuses to grow up (a la Jerry Lewis). For some unfathomable reason, the lecherous idiot persona is one which never fails to elicit a guffaw from troops. It has persisted since the days of vaudeville, when comics and strippers often performed in tandem; but perhaps it’s time to let it go the way of the dinosaur, like the Benny Hill Show, which often consisted of little more than Hill groping women (who were part of the act) for supposedly comic effect.

The context is important because according to USO sources, entertainment provided to the troops is typically racy, with lots of sight gags and sexual humor. Not to go all Dr. Strangelove, but women are chosen for their– well, previous USO stars have included Ann-Margret, Joey Heatherton, and Raquel Welch. Indeed, a PR puff piece on Tweeden appearing on MilitarySpouse.com notes that ever since she was an itsy-bitsy girl, her ambition was to please her Air Force mechanic father by becoming just like Raquel Welch and entertaining the troops — whether in Vietnam, Iraq, or wherever they may be sent to help the local population discover the benefits of American-style democracy (sometimes known as the “babes and bombs” strategy). Here’s a snippet from the actual copy by Kate Dolack:

A Father’s Journey, A Daughter’s Love

While helping her father sort through old photographs when she was young, Leeann had come across a signed photograph of bombshell Raquel Welch. At the time, she hadn’t heard of the USO. In their talks, her father described meeting Welch while he was stationed at Phan Rang in Vietnam. “He said Bob Hope had brought Raquel Welch. And for the first time he was over there, he forget [sic] where he was for a moment.”

And so the spark was struck. Maybe I could be someone’s Raquel Welch, she thought.

Definitely a light-bulb moment! 😉

UPDATE: As the story has dragged on in the press (I almost said “evolved”), this YouTube video of the 2006 USO tour with Franken, Tweeden, and Mark Wills has been scrutinized. It underscores the raunchy atmosphere established by the performers, and includes footage of Tweeden (at around 5:50 to 6:01) which raises serious questions about the sincerity of her account. Watching the full video, one would find the Franken prank photo extremely mild by comparison.

A separate sociological or political critique might be penned concerning the portion of the entertainment commencing at 10:00, where a bearded man identified by Tweeden as “Saddam Hussein” is dragged to the microphone by two uniformed soldiers, and proceeds to shout “F-ck you!” repeatedly, as everyone laughs. A hangman’s noose is placed around his neck, and he continues to complain, curse, and joke with Tweeden about rape as she feeds him pre-rehearsed straight lines. It’s not for the squeamish, and neither is Tweeden, who’s decked out like Louise Linton in the famous “money shot,” but with more cleavage and something resembling Bugs Bunny on her head.


Leeann Tweeden, 2006 USO show, modeling the Louise Linton Collection


The cry of serious, intelligent women that “We are not playthings!” deserves to be treated with utmost concern, respect, and empathy, as does the cry of migrant workers and hotel maids. That cry is less persuasive when coming from women who are (literally) Playboy playmates selling autographed copies of the mag (thereby spreading the Playboy philosophy). Rights are rights, and Playboy playmates have just as much right not to be inappropriately kissed as lawyers or brain surgeons. (Maybe we should ban all the novels that employ the dated simile “sweet as a stolen kiss,” including Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. Ban François Truffaut’s film Stolen Kisses too?)

But in trying to make sense of the New Frontier in which we find ourselves, and bring peace to the Battle of the Sexes, we should all beware of hypocrisy. Given human nature, women who continue to make their money in whole or in part from the sex industry are going to rack up more incidents of unwanted attention than those filing their briefs with the Court of Appeals.

As a good liberal, I really want to close ranks with women on this issue. But I can’t, because most liberal women seem to be taking sides solely on the basis of gender, and helping to fuel the present moral panic. This culture of constant public accusations with a new target every day is not healthy for either men or women (or children, and possibly not even for pets).

This seems to be a particularly unhappy time in America, with the media leading an obsessive search for scapegoats. Everyone seems to have forgotten the UVA rape hoax, and the lessons that journalists and on-air personalities were supposed to have learnt from it. One piece very much worth revisiting is Cathy Young’s “Crying Rape” on Slate.com. Here’s a brief excerpt:

Rape is a repugnant crime — and one for which the evidence often relies on one person’s word against another’s. Moreover, in the not-so-distant past, the belief that women routinely make up rape charges often led to appalling treatment of victims. However, in challenging what author and law professor Susan Estrich has called “the myth of the lying woman,” feminists have been creating their own counter-myth: that of the woman who never lies.

A de facto presumption of guilt in alleged sexual offenses is as dangerous as a presumption of guilt in any crime, and for the same reasons: It upends the foundations on which our system of justice rests and creates a risk of ruining innocent lives.

Our focus on getting justice for women who are sexually assaulted is necessary and right. We are still far from the day when every woman who makes a rape accusation gets a proper police investigation and a fair hearing. But seeking justice for female victims should make us more sensitive, not less, to justice for unfairly accused men. In practical terms, that means finding ways to show support for victims of sexual violence without equating accusation and guilt, and recognizing that the wrongly accused are real victims too.

— Cathy Young

Another must-read is psychologist Tana Dineen’s trenchant article “Are We Manufacturing Victims?”

All in all not a happy time, with Leeann Tweeden’s confession tour being a lurid display far more shocking than anything put on by the USO stars of yesteryear.

Michael Howard

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

* * *

Women’s History Month: Student-Teacher Decorum

Using scenes from the film Term of Trial to explore the topic of student-teacher relations…

Term of Trial is a 1962 film directed by Peter Glenville, starring Laurence Olivier and Sarah Miles. It explores the complex dynamics which develop between a teacher (Olivier) and the young student (Miles) he’s tutoring. Here are some scenes:

(Any problems with the embedded video, view directly on Vimeo here.)

Some questions for discussion:

– According to the film, what is the ideal form of student-teacher decorum, or is this question left open?

– What are the responsibilities of the student and teacher to ensure that no misunderstandings develop?

– One sociological theory is that reality is socially constructed. How does this apply to a situation involving disputed events? Expand, amplify.

– Can perceptions about decorum be influenced by pre-existing stereotypes about race, nationality, religion, gender, and age? Give examples where stereotypes about a teacher or student might influence how events are interpreted.

– A perceived breach of decorum may lead to judgments about the people involved, or even legal consequences. One set of moral and ethical values may clash with another. How are we to know who’s right?

– In daily social interactions, we constantly give each other cues which reinforce shared ethical systems without explicitly stating values. Cite examples of this in the film or in real life.

– Is the case made that society’s values differ from those of one or both of the film’s protagonists? Are any clues given about society’s values?

– When people develop hardened positions on issues and events, how likely are those positions to change in real life?

– Are social, legal, and educational institutions highly flexible in their responses to individual incidents, or is there a tendency for certain machinery to automatically kick in? Explain.

– In the mainstream media, many stories are couched in terms of victim and victimizer. Can you think of any examples?

– Once the roles of victim and victimizer have been clearly defined, do they ever change? Does this happen frequently or rarely?

– Are societal institutions better or worse than individuals at judging the truth about particular events? Justify your answer.

– In the film, what are Shirley Taylor’s motivations for accusing Graham Weir?

– Reconcile these two statements: 1. A victim should always be believed. 2. A person is innocent until proven guilty.

– In the film, why does Graham Weir (or the school where he taught) not sue Shirley Taylor for defamation of character? Is it out of kindness? Would such a suit be justified under UK law, and stand a good chance of succeeding?

– How does the modern Internet era affect the underlying issues? Suppose Shirley Taylor only made her accusations on Blogspot or Facebook? Would she still be liable under UK law?

Michael Howard

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

Suggested Reading

My Lie: Why I falsely accused my father
False Salon Story: What was said at the time
Define defamation of character
Mother faces paying £20,000 damages over Facebook ‘libel’
High Court Grants Judgement for libel defamation on Facebook
Internet platforms can assume the role of publisher and become liable for defamation
BBC Webwise – Social media and libel
Exposing libel myths surrounding Twitter and other social media
Canada: Facebook Defamation Case Awards Significant Damages

* * *

In Praise of a Free Press and an Open Society

Restoring sanity to the recent furor over fake news (UPDATED!)

Readers of my blog know that I’m occasionally critical of certain media outlets and figures, notably:

– tabloid TV
– Internet publications which use shock headlines as clickbait
– publishers, literary agents, and agencies which profiteer off false stories pandering to populist prejudices
– commercial bloggers like Edwin Lyngar who are rabidly and offensively anti-religious, but who nonetheless insist on doing hatchet jobs on spiritual figures.

Now, in criticizing the above, I usually focus on particular stories which are either horribly biased, or which genuinely rise to the level of fake news. In fact, in two of my posts on the subject, I quoted from Caitlin Dewey’s series in the Washington Post on “What was fake on the Internet this week.” Ms. Dewey writes:

[W]here a willingness to believe hoaxes once seemed to come from a place of honest ignorance or misunderstanding, that’s frequently no longer the case. Headlines like “Casey Anthony found dismembered in truck” go viral via old-fashioned schadenfreude — even hate.

There’s a simple, economic explanation for this shift: If you’re a hoaxer, it’s more profitable. Since early 2014, a series of Internet entrepreneurs have realized that not much drives traffic as effectively as stories that vindicate and/or inflame the biases of their readers. Where many once wrote celebrity death hoaxes or “satires,” they now run entire, successful websites that do nothing but troll convenient minorities or exploit gross stereotypes. Paul Horner, the proprietor of Nbc.com.co and a string of other very profitable fake-news sites, once told me he specifically tries to invent stories that will provoke strong reactions in middle-aged conservatives. They share a lot on Facebook, he explained; they’re the ideal audience.

As manipulative as that may seem, many other sites are worse: there’s Now8News, which runs outrageous crime stories next to the stolen mugshots of poor, often black, people; or World News Daily Report, which delights in inventing items about foreigners, often Muslims, having sex with or killing animals.

Needless to say, there are also more complicated, non-economic reasons for the change on the Internet hoax beat. For evidence, just look at some of the viral stories we’ve debunked in recent weeks: American Muslims rallying for ISIS, for instance, or Syrians invading New Orleans. Those items didn’t even come from outright fake-news sites: They originated with partisan bloggers who know how easy it is to profit off fear-mongering.

Walter Quattrociocchi, the head of the Laboratory of Computational Social Science at IMT Lucca in Italy, has spent several years studying how conspiracy theories and misinformation spread online, and he confirmed some of my fears: Essentially, he explained, institutional distrust is so high right now, and cognitive bias so strong always, that the people who fall for hoax news stories are frequently only interested in consuming information that conforms with their views — even when it’s demonstrably fake.

— Caitlin Dewey, “What was fake on the Internet this week,” The Washington Post

From her thoughtful analysis, it’s clear that there are definite criteria for identifying what is fake news and what (by contrast) may be completely genuine news which is disliked by an incoming administration — not because it’s fake, but because it’s true. When politicians go on a blitzkrieg of falsehood, it behooves the news media to up their truth-squading activities. (See Maragret Sullivan in The New York Times here.)

Media analysis yields few binaries, so there is perhaps a gray area where extremely poor reporting may somewhat resemble fake news. Also, in advocacy journalism the facts are slanted to make the case the writer wants to make, yet there is usually some underlying factual basis, however thin.

Her Blooming Cheek…

Let me shift gears for a moment and explain why I’m writing about this. Over the course of history, a perfectly valid form of expression may be undermined by later developments in language. A classic example is the presence in some 18th and 19th century literature of lines like these:

And now, as gazing o’er the glassy stream,
She saw her blooming cheek’s reflected beam,
Her tresses brighter than the morning sky,
And the mild radiance of her sparkling eye,

— Sir William Jones, from “The Palace of Fortune”

Or these:

A fair one next stepped forth to view
More fully form’d; more high the hue
That glow’d upon her blooming cheek,
Which seem’d more ripen’d age to speak;

— Mrs. Henry Rolls, from “The Banquet of Spring”

Or these:

The sun himself loses his countenance
Before her blooming cheek…

— Christian Dietrich Grabbe, from Cinderella (Aschenbrödel)

This last would surely strike any modern Briton as a reference to Kellyanne Conway!

Many more references could be unearthed, including one from Mr. Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. However, developments in cockney English (e.g., “Of all the blooming cheek!”) have rendered such lines vaguely comical in retrospect, and reciting them in a cockney accent only adds to this perception.

With the equally comical (yet terrifying) entrance of Donald Trump onto the world stage, my previous articles discussing “fake news” are thrown into some disarray by the latter’s mongrelization of the term as an epithet for any news report (however factual) he simply doesn’t like.

He may have short fingers, but those fingers now obsessively clasp a huge megaphone from which he blasts mind-numbing alternative facts aggrandizing his own accomplishments, coupled with wholesale attacks on “the media” for not being able to sufficiently camouflage their well-earned dislike of him.

Bully Pulpit

The phrase “bully pulpit” was originally coined by President Theodore Roosevelt:

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, bully pulpit means “a public office or position of authority that provides its occupant with an outstanding opportunity to speak out on any issue.” It was first used by TR, explaining his view of the presidency, in this quotation: “I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit!” The word “bully” itself was an adjective in the vernacular of the time meaning “first-rate,” somewhat equivalent to the recent use of the word “awesome.” The term “bully pulpit” is still used today to describe the president’s power to influence the public.

“Did You Know? TR, The Story of Theodore Roosevelt”

So it originally meant that the presidency is an awesome soapbox. Some Americans might be surprised to learn that it did not signify “a person who uses strength or power to harm or intimidate those who are weaker. Synonyms: persecutor, oppressor, tyrant, tormentor, intimidator.” (So sayeth Google of the bully.)

Unfortunately, Donald Trump uses the presidency in the manner of a bully, intimidating those members of the press who dare to ask him tough questions (sometimes even simple questions) about his policies and actions. After viewing a particularly bizarre presser held by Mr. Trump on February 16, 2017 — an event described by some as a Festivus airing of grievances — a shocked John Dean said: “I’ve never seen a more classless president.” Dean, of course, served as White House Counsel to President Richard Nixon.

So I want to clarify that while I’m occasionally critical of some media outlets, I don’t consider the media to be my enemy, nor the enemy of the American people as Mr. Trump recently tweeted:


He has sullied the waters by creating a caricature of the position opposing fake news so carefully carved out by Caitlin Dewey and others who have investigated the phenomenon of fake news, and who understand its subtleties.

Fake news does exist, and is developed primarily on sites which specialize in fake news, and on partisan blogs. It’s often spread via Facebook or Twitter. But the mainstream media generally try to avoid fake news. While one can question the accuracy, objectivity, and completeness of the view one gets from mainstream media, most mainstream journalists do try to separate fact from fiction, and don’t knowingly concoct fake stories. There are exceptions of course, but when caught, reporters engaging in outright fraud (e.g. Jason Blair) tend to be fired or forced to resign.

Even tabloid or “yellow” journalism, however bad, is usually based on actual sources. The sources may be unreliable, and the facts not carefully checked, but there’s usually a distinction between poor quality journalism and outright fakery.

So why does Mr. Trump keep repeating “Fake news, fake news” like a mantra? This is an example of preemptive framing. The Trump administration is itself one of the main purveyors of fake news (or at least false facts) in the present period. Attempting to massively discredit the press is a preemptive technique for replacing real facts with “alternative facts,” such as that Mr. Trump would have won the popular vote if not for millions of people voting illegally, or that there was a terrorist attack in Bowling Green, Kentucky (the fictional “Bowling Green massacre” referenced by Trump spokesperson Kellyanne Conway — she of the “blooming cheek”).

I believe very firmly in a free press and an open society. I also condemn perversions of the English language of the sort discussed in George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” which is required reading in the post-truth era of Trump, along with Orwell’s 1984. (See also NPR’s “With ‘Fake News,’ Trump Moves From Alternative Facts To Alternative Language,” and WAPO’s “‘Fake news’ has now lost all meaning.”)

The Fourth Estate

A free press will often get things wrong, and in a free press it’s rarely possible to enforce a high standard of scrupulosity. News is, moreover, a business. Commercial considerations threaten the quality and accuracy of news in any number of ways. The 24-hour news cycle tends to produce a great deal of “infotainment” of limited value, but “limited value” is not “no value.”

Mainstream media are open to careful, reasoned criticism on many counts, but this does not negate their role as a “fourth estate” — an unofficial but important check on governmental power and abuse. Attempting to discredit the media wholesale is a tactic of tyrants, and it seems more than coincidental that Mr. Trump’s most acidic tongue-lashings (or tweet-lashings) of the press come at a time when his administration is facing increased criticism for alleged Russia ties, and when he’s issuing harsh authoritarian policies by fiat. (And no, Virginia, a fiat is not a blooming car!)

It would be something of a cliché to cite the 1976 film All The President’s Men to illustrate the vital role the press can play in unmasking government abuses. Perhaps less well-known to present day audiences is the 1969 film Z, whose unusual one-letter title derives from the fact that the Greek letter Zeta — signifying “he is alive” — was banned (as graffiti) when a right-wing dictatorship took control of that nation in 1967. If you’re curious why, these two SPOILER clips comprising the end of the film may elucidate:

Though Z is only partly about the role of journalists in ferreting out government abuse, you would observe that when the military junta takes control, it’s quick to ban a free press. (Read Roger Ebert’s contemporaneous review of the film here.)

Power Center

The mainstream media is (among other things) a power center. In a mostly free society, government officials learn to get along with that power center, however uncomfortable such power-sharing arrangements may be. Rachel Maddow recently aired a clip of President Kennedy giving an interview in December 1962, shortly after the Bay of Pigs incident, for which he had taken a major shellacking in the press. Rather than lashing out vindictively, his response was gracious, reasoned, philosophical, and respectful of the role which the media can play in highlighting an administration’s failures:

This is not a democrat vs. republican issue. Fifty-four years later, Sen. John McCain — the paradigmatic Cold Warrior himself — stressed the same points with equal or greater vigour in a February 2017 interview on Meet The Press.

By contrast, Richard Nixon is heard on the infamous White House Tapes to say: “Never forget the press is the enemy. The press is the enemy. The press is the enemy. The establishment is the enemy. The professors are the enemy. The professors are the enemy. Write that on a blackboard one hundred times and never forget it.” He drilled it into his underlings in a manner no less totalitarian than we might expect to find in communist China at the height of the Cultural Revolution.

Of course, people have a right to adopt any philosophy or creed that they may choose, but when the government imposes it through brute force or bullying, that’s quite a different matter. This point was driven home by the character Toby Ziegler in an episode of The West Wing titled “Isaac and Ishmael”:

There’s nothing wrong with a religion whose laws say a man’s got to wear a beard or cover his head or wear a collar. It’s when violation of these laws becomes a crime against the State and not your parents that we’re talking about lack of choice.

— Toby Ziegler

The Mainstream Media: Not All Sweetness and Light

The mainstream media are subject to their own lapses and even abuses, but this doesn’t make them “the enemy.” Three problems which I cover in greater detail elsewhere are that mainstream media:

– Usually have difficulty making sense of the spiritual landscape;
– Sometimes engage in calculated smear campaigns;
– Often indulge in false balance, treating both sides of an argument as equal, even where the facts don’t support it.

In “The Truman Show and Finding Reliable Spiritual Resources” I write:

Spiritual seekers have needs and goals which aren’t always well-served by mainstream media. Are you a spiritual seeker? Then you can rely on populist media for the weather report, but you cannot rely on them for what we call “spiritual report.” In this they are unreliable. It’s simply not their area of expertise; plus, their emphasis on commercialism and populism acts as a heavy-handed filter of information concerning spiritual groups. Many people in the mainstream media are good and well-meaning, but spiritual topics elude them. They lack the time and interest to make sense of the spiritual landscape, so they tend to present a stereotyped view.

According to media critic Ken Sanes: “The fake landscape Truman [of The Truman Show] lives in is our own media landscape in which news, politics, advertising and public affairs are increasingly made up of theatrical illusions.”

In a society which has become highly materialistic, there may be a confluence of interests who want to preserve the notion that the main purposes of life are production, consumption, and procreation. Such interests typically act to drown out the alternative view that the main purposes of life are self-knowledge and self-giving. This effort need not be coordinated; materialists tend to instinctively reject spiritual doctrines, and to vilify people who question whether all this thing-craziness is really making people happy.

In “Understanding Media: The Smear Campaign” I write:

Why is it a problem if news and entertainment become indistinguishable? The simple answer is that news is ideally supposed to give us factual information which we need, while mass entertainment is more like bread and circuses — something to please the popular taste by pandering to the lowest common denominator of appetites and prejudices.

When news is tailored to please the popular taste, this can lead to a feedback loop in which people and events are portrayed not as they are, but as people want to view them, according to ingrained stereotypes. Likewise, there may be special interests who want to foist their world view on the general public in order to gain economic or political advantage.

Society has increasingly come to resemble a motley collection of interest groups in conflict, each of whom presents a different tableau of reality coloured by self-interest. Where self-interest reigns supreme, there is no such thing as an immaculate perception! Reality is socially constructed, and facts become more fluid than solid.

“The very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common: they don’t alter their views to fit the facts; they alter the facts to fit their views. Which can be uncomfortable if you happen to be one of the facts that needs altering.” — Doctor Who as played by Tom Baker, “The Face of Evil,” January 1977.

If we are deep-thinking people, we may despair of finding objective truth in the mainstream media. What we tend to find are different flavours of information tailored to appeal to different target populations who are wedded to particular beliefs which they want to see confirmed. Reality itself becomes an object of falsification, and this problem is neither liberal nor conservative, but universal.

[We should reject] the notion that only popular things are right and true and protected by human rights. Make an idea or group look unpopular, and no one will care what is done to its advocates. Excessive populism can therefore pose a danger to political, religious, and artistic freedom. It can lead to lazy thinking in which no one bothers to lift a finger to stop grave injustices, as long as the injustices are being done to some depersonalized Other who is rarely seen in mainstream media and not portrayed sympathetically.

In a populist society, rights, freedoms, and the enforcement of laws intended to protect people come to depend on popularity. If you can make a group appear unpopular, you can do a great many things to them before anyone will sound a note of protest. That’s why accurate definitions, descriptions, and information are not merely of abstract interest to scholars. These things affect how people are treated (or mistreated) every day in society. Where hate material is successfully injected into the public discourse, this spurs acts of hatred and harassment, and also encourages local law enforcement to ignore pleas for help from victims, despite top-level policies intended to foster respect and tolerance.

The mechanics of the smear campaign are remarkably similar regardless of the different ethnic, political, religious, or gender preference groups being targeted.

The glut of cheaply produced infotainment tends to cheapen the nature of reality itself, or at least how reality is perceived (as a series of shopworn memes). Just as a cardinal rule of commercial television is to keep the viewer glued to his or her set until the next commercial, the net effect of the pervasive secular media space is to keep people ensconced in a materialist world view where science, politics and business are the ruling factors, and the pursuit of pleasure is the primary leisure activity.

Does anything else exist? Yes, there are (and always have been) spiritual alternatives. But these alternatives become harder to see, hear or reify when we are thoroughly ensconced in the secular media space.

The American media space is governed by market principles like supply and demand. There is, quite simply, a market for material smearing spiritual teachers and groups, just as there was once a market for virulent anti-Catholic material in the mid-nineteenth century. … Personal vendettas, ideological obsessions, and economic greed can all move false accounts forward along the publishing conveyor belt.

And in “Better Reporting on Religious and Ethnic Minorities” I write:

I greatly respect journalists and journalism, and know there are practical reasons why some journalists don’t get a story quite right. There are time pressures, and difficulties making sense of an unfamiliar subject. Particularly if the story is considered low priority, there’s always the temptation to simply cut-and-paste material from the Internet, or to invoke a familiar meme rather than doing careful research. There’s also the problem of “false balance.” Rem Rieder writes:

“No matter what the news media’s many critics believe, most journalists endeavor to be fair, to give both sides rather than choose sides. In that effort, there’s a tendency to print what someone says, print what the other side says and call it a day. The trouble is, there isn’t always equal merit on both sides. So, in instances where one side is largely fact-based, and the other is spouting obvious nonsense, treating both sides equally isn’t balanced. It’s misleading.”

[Read the full article for more quotes about false balance from Katrina vanden Heuvel, Margaret Sullivan, James Fallows, and The Economist.]

Some journalists blindly trust social media sites without recognizing that such sites are often cesspools of false and hateful depictions of religious and ethnic minorities. The Internet is particularly prone to socially constructed realities (i.e. hoaxes or fake news) which simply don’t jibe with the fact-based reality journalists are supposed to be concerned with.

The practice of creating false balance by giving equal weight to disreputable sources yields particularly destructive results when some of the claims are of an extreme and libelous nature, tending to overshadow any positive view.

When general assignment reporters on deadline cut-and-paste material from the Internet, they often produce this type of result about minority spiritual figures: “Somebody said he did this, somebody said he did that… We don’t know. [[shrug]] NEXT!” Assembly-line journalism with no sense of responsibility and no truth value.

When reports which are a confused hodgepodge of unevaluated claims are published by the media, this leads to a confused, frightened, and angry public.

The problem when journalists fail to identify hate material as such, and include it along with more reputable material under cover of “balance,” is that such hate material can easily spur a moral panic in which the targets of the hatred are irreparably harmed — if not physically, then emotionally and psychologically. The Society of Professional Journalists lists several pillars of journalism ethics, one of which is to minimize harm.

Checks and Balances

Clearly, my complaints about mainstream media are manifold. Because we have (for now) a free press, I am able to lodge them. I would add that one can watch cable news for weeks on end and never see a story critical of the pharmaceutical industry, because that industry is a huge sponsor of cable news channels. Media consolidation means that the range of viewpoints one gets from mainstream media tends to be much narrower than the actual diversity of viewpoints which exist. These are all serious problems.

Despite such problems, mainstream media remain an important component in the system of checks and balances which helps keep our nation from descending into outright tyranny. Just as government reports need to be examined critically, so do media reports. Through insight, we can gradually come to recognize different types of bias we may encounter in different types of media. There are also alternative media with which we can supplement our diet of news. These too have their problems, but they are mostly different ones not discussed here.

While there is no such thing as an immaculate perception, by interpolating between different sources of information available to us, we can often get a close approximation of the truth. This is only possible in an open society, and the notion of a free press implies considerable leeway for reporters, editors and publishers to make mistakes. That’s the distill from landmark Supreme Court decisions such as New York Times v. Sullivan. There, Justice Brennan’s 1964 opinion hearkened back to a 1925 opinion by Justice Brandeis stating:

Those who won our independence believed … that public discussion is a political duty, and that this should be a fundamental principle of the American government. They recognized the risks to which all human institutions are subject. But they knew that order cannot be secured merely through fear of punishment for its infraction; that it is hazardous to discourage thought, hope and imagination; that fear breeds repression; that repression breeds hate; that hate menaces stable government; that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies, and that the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones. Believing in the power of reason as applied through public discussion, they eschewed silence coerced by law — the argument of force in its worst form. Recognizing the occasional tyrannies of governing majorities, they amended the Constitution so that free speech and assembly should be guaranteed.

— Justice Louis Brandeis, concurring opinion in Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357, 375-376

In Sullivan, Justice Brennan quotes James Madison as saying: “Some degree of abuse is inseparable from the proper use of every thing, and in no instance is this more true than in that of the press.” Brennan then continues:

In the realm of religious faith, and in that of political belief, sharp differences arise. In both fields, the tenets of one man may seem the rankest error to his neighbor. To persuade others to his own point of view, the pleader, as we know, at times resorts to exaggeration, to vilification of men who have been, or are, prominent in church or state, and even to false statement. But the people of this nation have ordained, in the light of history, that, in spite of the probability of excesses and abuses, these liberties are, in the long view, essential to enlightened opinion and right conduct on the part of the citizens of a democracy.

— Justice William Brennan, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254


Some of the problems with mainstream media are institutional or corporate in nature. The individual journalists hired are often intelligent, hard-working, decent, principled people who are committed to doing the best job of reporting the facts that they can within the existing structure.

Donald Trump’s bullying of individual reporters such as MSNBC’s Katy Tur (and others since) is one of the reasons I characterize the press’s dislike for him as well-earned. Katy Tur is a person of intelligence and grace. Yet after she was publicly targeted by Trump at one of his 2016 campaign rallies, she needed Secret Service protection to make it safely to her car. Bully pulpit indeed.

I myself can be a harsh critic of the media, but you have to understand the context: I am one, lone, non-commercial blogger who often sticks up for the rights of spiritual minorities. Compared to any mainstream outlet, my readership is small and non-threatening. Even if I shout, few members of the mainstream media will hear me or heed me. I will never be president, but if I were then I would certainly tone down my (occasional) rhetoric and not use a (virtual) megaphone as Mr. Trump does. As I’m fond of saying, sharp criticism should thrust up.

In 2015, I produced a short documentary (or mashup) on the topic of media smear campaigns:

But my thesis was not that every negative story is a smear. Rather, we can identify a smear campaign by certain indicia, such as lack of corroboration and use of unreliable sources who all inhabit the same echo chamber.

The bête noire of the video is a character from an old Colombo episode, played by William Shatner of Star Trek fame. He’s the epitome of the muckraking reporter intent on going for the jugular. But I would never suggest that all reporters are like him. As I state in the video: “Some people have high ethical standards, and won’t plant a false story in the media or participate in a smear campaign.”

The video presents a contrarian view of mainstream media, but such a view is helpful when we consider the power of mainstream media to shape our world. I end with a quote from cultural historian Todd Gitlin, who opines: “People have especially become aware that there’s developed a blur between entertainment and news. There’s no cavalry to come and rescue you, because the cavalry is also watching television.”

Of course, the politicians are also watching television. Most people are watching television, including the people who produce, write for, and appear on television. So there’s a hall of mirrors effect. How can we blame any particular person or media outlet for what is really a top level phenomenon? This all tends to confirm Marshall McLuhan’s central thesis about media, which is that they shape our perceptions and relations in ways which we do not control, and usually fail to understand.


In the era of Trump, I want to be clearer than ever that despite problems with mainstream media, their existence is essential to the functioning of our democracy. Though they are ripe for reasoned criticism, they are also worthy of staunch protection.

The average American rarely has access to high government officials. Reporters asking tough questions of the president are really standing in for the public, seeking answers where the public has a right to know and need to know.

When the present administration tries to turn the public against the press, this represents an authoritarian power grab, usurping the rightful function of the press, and implying that people should get their information solely from government officials, or from handpicked media friendly to the administration and not challenging its views. That is a prescription for tyranny.

I fear it is only a matter of time before Trump’s insane tweets identifying the media as “the enemy of the American People” lead to violence against reporters or news outlets. If Mr. Trump cannot be taught the social graces or the responsibilities of high office, someone should at least take away his smartphone. 😉

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

Of Further Interest

“Donald Trump and the Enemies of the American People” in The New Yorker
“‘Enemies of the people’: Trump remark echoes history’s worst tyrants” on BBC.com
“Donald Trump Had The Most Extraordinary Press Conference Of His Life, Clearing A High Bar” on huffingtonpost.co.uk
“Daily News” as sung by Tom Paxton (YouTube) — a 1964 satire on right-wing populist media which still resonates today.

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NBCUniversal orders YouTube takedown of Birdie Sanders clips

NBCUniversal: “All your birdie are belong to us!”

If you’ve read my post “Put a Bird on It!” you know that it’s a work of art criticism which explores bird paintings and drawings, bird symbolism, and gives props to the original put-a-bird-on-it guy, Sri Chinmoy, who did it and meant it and lived it long before Bernie Sanders or Portlandia.

It was a post I enjoyed writing, but it was also hard work lining up all the resources which ultimately went into it: quotes from George Gamow’s book One, Two, Three…Infinity, from The Upanishads, from art collector Robert Scull, artist Paul Jenkins, and memoir writer Sumangali Morhall; also videos carefully selected to illustrate the points I was making and connect the cultural dots, so that the reader is not only entertained, but informed and educated.

The conceptual glue holding it all together is the idea that birds (especially doves) symbolize peace and freedom. This is even brought home with a video of spiritual master Sri Chinmoy playing the dove ocarina — a blue ceramic instrument in the shape of a dove.

The smooth progression of ideas flows through the famous “Birdie Sanders” incident where a little bird kibitzed on a speech given by the presidential candidate, and through Porlandia’s comedy sketch about putting birds on things.

I did not escape unscathed from the experience. NBCUniversal tried to clip my wings, but didn’t really succeed in doing anything other than shooting themselves in the tail.

“We are not here to sing, we’re here to kill the dove.” — NBCUniversal (actually Jacques Brel)

It’s apparently my fault for being a Rachel Maddow fan. On the day of March 25th, the “Birdie Sanders”/Portlandia meme went viral, and when Rachel came on at 9 PM she reported on it, as countless others had done. There are plenty of videos of both “Birdie Sanders” and the Portlandia sketch on YouTube and elsewhere, and combining them as Rachel did wasn’t exactly the soul of originality, but it was certainly the essence of convenience. Since I like Rachel, a couple months later I thought, Why not elevate two birds with one stone by embedding a YouTube of the Maddow clip? O my sad brother, will you never learn?

I thought I made “fair use” of the clip by including it in a broad presentation on the subject of bird paintings and drawings, bird symbolism, etc. After all, it’s only 4:23 from a 60-minute show, and of that 4:23, 3 minutes is a clip of the Bernie Sanders speech (which ran 1 hour 8 minutes), and 1 minute is a clip from a 2011 Portlandia episode (which ran 22 minutes). Rachel Maddow is visible on screen for all of 30 seconds and is heard commenting in places. It was old news in late May when I uploaded it.

The Bernie Sanders footage used by MSNBC was apparently taken from station KGW Portland, which is owned by Tegna Media  (Gannett spinoff). The identical footage (with its unique framing and panning) appears here on KGW.com. The Portlandia sketch is owned by IFC/AMC Networks.

But I get it that because Rachel Maddow commented on the speech and the sketch, NBCUniversal can claim copyright on the resulting segment. Still, the use I made of it was fair use because it was transformative — it included new ideas not present in the Sanders speech, the Portlandia sketch, or Rachel’s brief comments. It connected the existing meme with a 40-year history of bird paintings and drawings by Sri Chinmoy. It juxtaposed the short news segment with artwork and videos from gallery exhibitions, so that the resulting work of art criticism is something fresh and new.

My WordPress account and YouTube account are both non-commercial. Now, I realize that when you sneeze on the Internet, somebody in Mandalay gets 1/1000th of a cent. Everything is being monetized by somebody or other, but that somebody is not me. Nevertheless, I got a DMCA takedown notice courtesy NBCUniversal and a strike on my YouTube account. I’ll be filing a counter-notice establishing fair use, but it’s a nutty system where you only have 200 characters (about the length of a tweet) to ‘splain yourself. So I may point interested parties to this blog post for complete details.

I wasn’t the only victim of NBCUniversal’s draconian takedown policies. It turns out one other fellow posted the same “Birdie Sanders” clip I did. In fact he had posted several clips, so his YouTube account was terminated outright. Sad really.

NBCUniversal’s idea of putting a bird on it

The good news is that it was easy to replace the Rachel Maddow clip with two higher quality clips. This footage of “Birdie Sanders” posted by The Oregonian has gotten nearly 2 million hits, and this upload of the full Portlandia sketch has gotten 80,000. The uploaders are reaping the benefits of connecting with memes that people adore.

birdie-sanders-bye-bye-birdieNBCUniversal could have gotten some of that good karma, but due to their selfish attitude they get bupkis (other than a good dressing down on my blog). Kinda makes you wonder what the NBCUniversal legal dept. is drinking:

See also this interview with attorney Wendy Seltzer discussing how NBC “seems to be shutting down its own best advertising.” (The Seltzer may help cut the taste of the Thunderbird.)

On my blog, I’d rather promote The Rachel Maddow Show than The Oregonian, and include comments from Rachel in my piece about bird art. But if NBCUniversal punishes fans and denies legitimate fair use, this has the effect of freezing Rachel Maddow out of the conversation.

rachel-maddow-duct-tapeIsn’t it ironic?

There are a number of ironies to NBCUniversal’s off-putting, counterproductive behaviour here. Let’s take a gander at Kathleen O’Donnell’s note in the Duke University Law & Technology Review explaining the purpose of fair use:

Fair use has long been considered a critical component of the monopoly protection provided by copyright. In Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc., the Supreme Court stated that, “from the infancy of copyright protection, some opportunity for fair use of copyrighted materials has been thought necessary to fulfill copyright’s very purpose, ‘to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.’” The fair use doctrine recognizes that most expression is not strictly original, but rather borrows from the wealth of literature and art that came before it. Therefore, the monopoly granted by copyright is restricted to allow for “a limited privilege in those other than the owner of a copyright to use the copyrighted material in a reasonable manner without the owner’s consent.” Through this limited right to use copyrighted material, fair use “encourages and allows the development of new ideas that build on earlier ones, thus providing a necessary counterbalance to the copyright law’s goal of protecting creators’ work product.” In this way, fair use preserves and fosters the same creativity that copyright law was created to encourage. [Footnotes omitted.]

According to The Center For Democracy and Technology, short news segments containing excerpts from political speeches are highly privileged under the fair use doctrine. So one irony here is that NBCUniversal appears to be benefiting from fair use by “borrowing” the Bernie Sanders clip shot by station KGW/Tegna Media, and the Portlandia clip owned by IFC/AMC Networks. Add a few words from Rachel Maddow and it’s magically transformed into NBC content! But when a blogger adds far more that’s new and original, suddenly NBC no longer recognizes fair use. The appropriately named Andrew Lack — Chairman of NBC News and MSNBC — seems to lack understanding of fair use, at least as it extends to people outside the Comcast/NBCUniversal monopoly.

For those old enough to remember the NBC peacock, another irony is that NBC’s concept of putting a bird on it is sort of the opposite of Portlandia’s: NBC puts their peacock on things to make them non-free, and therefore ugly. It’s easy to picture a satire on the Portlandia sketch which goes something like this:

Hi, I’m Steve Burke. Hi, I’m Matt Bond. And we put peacocks on things! What a sad little Bernie Sanders speech. I know! I’ll put a peacock on it. Now it’s pretty. Now it’s ours!

A decent site for MSNBC? Not if Comcast can help it…

The Rachel Maddow Show is part of MSNBC’s programming lineup. MSNBC is owned by NBCUniversal, which is owned by Comcast. The acquisition of NBCUniversal by Comcast is an example of vertical integration, since Comcast is also a major ISP and cable provider in many markets, with major complaints about its quality of service.

According to Nate Anderson writing in Ars Technica, four months after the controversial Comcast-NBC merger was approved by Federal Communications Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker, she left the FCC for a top lobbying job with the newly combined Comcast-NBC entity.

When a media behemoth owns both the content and the “wire,” this can be a nightmare for consumers, resulting in rate hikes and paywalls. Indeed, while consumers could once watch complete video podcasts of The Rachel Maddow Show and other MSNBC fare on MSNBC.com, such complete podcasts are now only available to cable subscribers or via a paywall.

As for the MSNBC website itself, it’s notoriously non-user-friendly and tortuous to navigate. See this link for a cavalcade of bad reviews in which “horrible” and “awful” are the predominating adjectives.

The MSNBC website seems to reflect twisted priorities or an underlying conflict of interest. If you’re YouTube, your primary mission is to make sure that everyone who visits the site can play the videos, even with a slow Internet connection. That’s why YouTube offers a low bandwidth version of every video, tries to adjust to the end user’s connection speed, and lets users choose between 144p, 240p, 360p, and higher resolutions. YouTube also makes it easy for WordPress.com users to embed YouTube videos in blog posts, because YouTube implements the popular oEmbed standard also used by Vimeo, DailyMotion, and other popular video sites.

But on MSNBC’s site, videos often don’t play, or choke the end user’s Internet connection, or take over the entire screen. Comcast’s self-serving message appears to be: Your connection isn’t fast enough to use our site. Better upgrade to a more expensive plan! MSNBC.com does not implement the oEmbed standard for embedding.

So people don’t want to go to MSNBC.com to watch a video or make a comment, because it’s just too user-unfriendly an experience. They want to go to a site like YouTube that’s easy to use, and is supported by blogging platforms like WordPress.com. They want to go to a site where the video is streamed to end users at a bitrate they can handle.

Punishing people for YouTubing short segments won’t solve this problem; it will only ensure that bloggers turn to alternative sources (e.g. The Oregonian) for clips of the same news events. Instead of feasting on sour grapes, MSNBC should create a site that people actually want to visit and that implements the oEmbed standard, so WordPress.com can easily support it. Make your site better and people will actually want to visit it or link to it as a source of embedded videos on blogs. Declaring war on fair use (in addition to being illegal) is a poor excuse for figuring out why people hate your site and finding ways to make it more user-friendly.

How fair use applies in today’s media marketplace

Today, vertically integrated conglomerates like Comcast/Xfinity/NBCUniversal (which also owns Hulu) may attempt to monetize the same content in a bewildering variety of ways, in effect dominating the marketplace.

nbc-universalThough the same content may be sold from a number of different media “stalls,” this must not be allowed to undermine fair use.

Even if a short news segment containing a portion of a political speech is being deployed commercially in multiple venues, this should not preclude a blogger from uploading a clip to YouTube for purposes of comment, criticism, or “the development of new ideas that build on earlier ones.” The public good from such fair use greatly outweighs the very minor market disruption.

Where a short news segment is embedded in a blog post along with commentary reflecting obvious transformative value, NBCUniversal needs to respect such fair use. It must not be permitted to abuse the DMCA takedown process until only restricted versions of a short news segment exist. This would have the effect of creating a monopoly on ideas contrary to the intent of the fair use provisions of copyright law.

In deciding Lenz v. Universal, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals made clear that media companies need to carefully consider whether something qualifies as fair use before issuing a DMCA takedown notice. Where a media company shows willful blindness to fair use, they may be liable for damages under section 512(f).

Final thoughts

The nature of a meme is that it propagates through multiple iterations, and there’s a snowball effect. So aside from legal considerations, NBC violated social media etiquette by capitalizing on a meme, but then saying “The meme stops here — I call copyright.”

If you can get the site to work, you may still be able to view the short Rachel Maddow clip on MSNBC.com here. The whole segment is her cooing over footage of the Bernie Sanders speech and the Portlandia sketch, which is fine. (I like the sound of cooing.) What’s not fine is NBCUniversal smacking down bloggers who continue the meme by uploading a portion to YouTube and blogging about it.

Michael Howard

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


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:

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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.”]

* * *

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”

* * *

PIX11’s Mary Murphy: So You Think You Can Lie

5 Pinocchios are the latest awards racked up by this tabloid TV reporter

With my wee personal blog, I sometimes go up against the lies told by big evil money. Not that money is always evil, or big media always lie. But with conglomeration in the media industry, there are whole segments concerned not with truth-seeking, but with pandering.

Like Donald J. Trump, New York’s PIX11 apparently loves the poorly educated, perhaps because they’ll believe anything — from Syrian Muslims invading Louisiana, to a mysterious cult discovered in quiet Jamaica Hills. Who can say it didn’t happen? PIX11 likes exploiting the poorly-educated by running hoax news stories, or stories which are actually paid advertising. Read on for examples of both.

Truth-seeking is what journalists are supposed to do; it’s the highest ethic taught in j-school. But an article in The Economist notes that “Journalism is a commodity. There is always a need for more ‘inventory’ on which to place ads. Journalism, real journalism — the pursuit of truth — also creates inventory, but not as much, and it is difficult, costly and time-consuming.” So just as we become accustomed to eating junk food with no nutritional value, we also become accustomed to consuming infotainment with no truth value, served up on the cheap.

PIX11 doesn’t only film news stories, but also commercials for sponsors, referred to euphemistically as “native advertising,” or “sponsored content.” PIX11 gives this material the same visual treatment as actual news stories, and uses the same voice-over announcers or on-air personalities, so some viewers wouldn’t know they’re watching a commercial. This just in: Depending on your mood, you can now choose the perfect cocktail made with Larceny Bourbon. Wow! Isn’t that interesting? I bet that would give Craig Allen something to do on a rainy night. His mood often changes with the weather. Not that he’s a manic-depressive or anything, but– [continue disarming banter, then cut to ”story” about cocktails made with Larceny Bourbon].

PIX11 even brags how easy it is to produce “native advertising” consisting of “man-on-the-street” interviews. Their gentrified guide doesn’t mention Mary Murphy’s time-honoured tactic of being rude as hell, cornering the target, and shouting insulting questions. If the target can’t run fast enough, that apparently constitutes “implied consent.” 😉

Anyway, we’ve gotten so used to information meant to entertain us, pander to us, or sell us stuff that we’re unable to locate truth when we really need it. It’s a little like the old saw that even the worst sinner will go to heaven if he or she thinks of God at the moment of death. The problem is that at the moment of death we will have no control over our thoughts. Whatever we spent our whole lives filling our minds with, such will be our thoughts at time of death. So if a man spent all his life lusting after gold, then at the moment of death he will think: “What is going to happen to all my beautiful gold?” He is still consumed by thoughts of gold, and since he has never thought of God, God is like a complete stranger to him.

In the same way, when we come to depend on media which don’t reflect or seek after truth, but merely entertain us, pander to us, or cleverly target our consumer selves, then how will we locate truth when we need it? Truth will be like a complete stranger. Why is truth even important? After all, you can’t eat it, drink it, or smoke it. Does truth have any value in a consumerist society?

The answer is that truth is important — I’ll leave it to the reader to discover why. Try listing some reasons and see what you can come up with. If you’re stumped, think about why truth is important in a jury trial, or in a claim about whether a foreign nation possesses nuclear weapons, or in a relationship based on trust.

Journalists ask us to trust them, but not all are equally trustworthy. In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, I began discussing the problems which ensue when tabloid media reproduce false first-person accounts intended to discredit a spiritual figure or group. To recap:

A 15-second teaser for the PIX11 News boasts that Mary Murphy will expose a mysterious cult found right here in New York, and closes with a salacious sound bite. The only problem is that the “mysterious cult” is a respected spiritual group with a 45-year history of good citizenship and strong roots in the community. It conducts its benign spiritual, athletic, and cultural activities in full daylight, and anyone wanting accurate information about them can easily acquire it from reliable sources.

According to The New York Times, Jamaica Hills is a tranquil haven for many ethnic groups. A synagogue, a Greek orthodox church, and a meditation garden are each attractions to different people who live side-by-side in peace. Residents say that followers of the late spiritual master Sri Chinmoy are good neighbors because they’re quiet and law-abiding. Community Board 8 has nothing but praise for the group, crediting them with cleaning up an area which the city had abandoned, keeping it safe, clean, and crime-free.

Sri Chinmoy was originally from India, but moved to New York City in 1964 and soon began teaching a philosophy based on meditation, inner peace, and service to the world. By 1971 he had garnered praise for his meditations at the United Nations for diplomats and staff. (See “Many at U.N. Find Guru’s Message Brings Peace” in The New York Times.)

A 1976 People Magazine article lauded the guru’s genuine achievements, and noted that his followers opened up a row of businesses on Parsons Boulevard, including a health food store, a stationery store, and a café. Forty years later, those businesses are still standing and have been joined by a constellation of others. Over the decades their presence has become a familiar, non-threatening staple of life in a diverse community, a point of interest in articles describing local color.

These are facts, and these facts point to an “established truth” about Sri Chinmoy and his followers. They live a clean lifestyle based on meditation and inner peace. For decades they’ve contributed to the low crime rate and economic revitalization of the Queens neighborhood where they reside. They have zero history of criminal activity.

Why then the teaser from PIX11 News promising to reveal something sleazy and sexual? Why Mary Murphy chasing an elderly woman down the street and shoving a camera in her face?

Due to religious bigotry, and low ethics at a tabloid.

In going up against the lies told by big evil money, I recently had occasion to produce a short documentary (or mashup) which helps illustrate the mechanics of media smear campaigns:

Don’t you love it when William Shatner plays a baddie? His character in the Colombo clip reminds me a lot of Mary Murphy preparing a hoaxer in advance, then ambushing an unsuspecting victim and going for the jugular.

When innocent people are maligned through this type of smear, it represents a corruption of the democratic process and an abdication of the media’s responsibility to engage in truth-telling — not lie-telling. Sadly, Mary Murphy is one of those corrupting the process, leading to the dumbing down of America and the rise of vigilantism. If followers of Sri Chinmoy are harassed or their shops vandalized due to the totally false claims in her story, Mary Murphy bears considerable blame.

The anti-cultists she interviewed — who circulate salacious material on the Internet — are what are commonly known as kooks and cranks. No one at WPIX bothered to check whether any of them were on psychiatric medication, or had ever been fired from a job for sending threatening and abusive e-mails, and therefore bore an obsessive grudge. The answers to such questions would have been revealing. These are people who try to harass a spiritual group by spreading disinformation.

In a populist society, rights, freedoms, and the enforcement of laws intended to protect people come to depend on popularity. If you can make a spiritual group look unpopular, you can do a great many things to them before anyone will sound a note of protest. That’s why accurate definitions, descriptions, and information are not merely of abstract interest to scholars. These things affect how people are treated (or mistreated) every day in society. Where hate material is successfully injected into the public discourse, this spurs acts of hatred and harassment, and also encourages local law enforcement to ignore pleas for help from victims, despite top-level policies intended to foster respect and tolerance. That’s why truth matters.

In her Washington Post series “What was fake on the Internet this week,” Caitlin Dewey observes:

Where a willingness to believe hoaxes once seemed to come from a place of honest ignorance or misunderstanding, that’s frequently no longer the case. [False] headlines go viral via old-fashioned schadenfreude — even hate.

There’s a simple, economic explanation for this shift: If you’re a hoaxer, it’s more profitable. Since early 2014, a series of Internet entrepreneurs have realized that not much drives traffic as effectively as stories that vindicate and/or inflame the biases of their readers. Where many once wrote celebrity death hoaxes or “satires,” they now run entire, successful websites that do nothing but troll convenient minorities or exploit gross stereotypes. Paul Horner, the proprietor of Nbc.com.co and a string of other very profitable fake-news sites, once told me he specifically tries to invent stories that will provoke strong reactions in middle-aged conservatives. They share a lot on Facebook, he explained; they’re the ideal audience.

Walter Quattrociocchi, the head of the Laboratory of Computational Social Science at IMT Lucca in Italy, explained: “Institutional distrust is so high right now, and cognitive bias so strong always, that the people who fall for hoax news stories are frequently only interested in consuming information that conforms with their views — even when it’s demonstrably fake.”

So is PIX11 News now jumping on the bandwagon with its fake story about a “mysterious” (NOT!) “cult” (NOT!) in the middle of Jamaica Hills? Apparently. The story gets 5 Pinocchios because it’s based on the claims of serial fabricator and well-known net kook Anne Carlton (a.k.a. Joyce Carlton, Betty, Ladyliberty13, Penny1300, Satyahara2002, Monalisa19011, Phulela, et al.). One of her scams involves starting a sexual rumor under one alias, then pretending to “confirm” it under a different alias. Her theatrics remind me of this classic X-Files clip:

Fake as it is, and old as it is (it’s been festering on Internet message boards for 15 years), Anne Carlton’s story was pushed by PIX11 News because it panders to hate and attempts to vindicate and/or inflame the biases of viewers — to troll a convenient minority and exploit gross stereotypes. And while the story may have whizzed by quickly on broadcast TV or cable, leaving only a cloud of funk behind, true to form it brought a Facebook audience of haters out from behind the wainscotting, celebrating the fact that Mary Murphy finally told the truth about a secret conspiracy — a conspiracy so secret that no evidence of it can be located. (And aren’t those just the best kind for tabloid TV?) The same people probably tried to convince Murphy that if you type “Google” into Google, you’ll break the Internet (while laughing into their hands).

As unkind and untrue as was the original Mary Murphy story, its offense is compounded by the Mary Murphy Mystery page on Facebook, which embeds the video and welcomes comments from a clique of anti-cult ideologues. Any negative, tabloid-style story about a spiritual minority is going to have the boo birds descending from their eyries, dropping their guana, and flocking in support of negativity. It’s the nature of the Internet to amplify such negativity. Mary Murphy’s Facebook page became a focal point for expanding what was already a false and unjustified attack on a small, defenseless minority.

Murphy might claim she’s not legally responsible for the libelous comments which appear on her Facebook page, or the links to extreme hate material containing lurid sexual depictions. But no one could deny she’s morally responsible. The same lack of moral compass which led her to become a surrogate stalker also results in her Facebook page being used to escalate the harassment and compound the original libel with additional allegations of a sci-fi nature.

The form taken by this harassment is use of the Internet and tabloids to endlessly recycle false allegations under different aliases, where there is not one shred of evidence of wrongdoing. This robs the targets of due process, since the goal of the harassment is to convict them of crimes in the media when there is not even a complaint in the real world.

The latter fact can hardly be overemphasized. Sri Chinmoy taught meditation for over 40 years in the heart of New York City, where there is no lack of police or lawyers. He has a clean record because he lived a clean life. Ask community leaders and they’ll tell you that Sri Chinmoy was an upstanding citizen. Needless to say, he was never under investigation for any kind of crime, and indeed received much praise for his contributions to American life and the world culture of peace.

If there were crimes being committed, why wouldn’t anyone file a complaint? The answer is simple: Filing false police reports is a crime. Lying under oath is a crime. Feeding nonsense to the tabloids or Internet machine people sometimes get away with, and that is how some anti-cultists spend their time. It’s similar to political dirty tricks like leaving flyers on car windshields falsely claiming that a candidate was embroiled in scandal, as was done to Sen. John McCain during the 2000 presidential campaign.

Unfortunately, Mary Murphy’s standard is Someone said it on the Internet — it must be true! It’s time she learned that a mountain of hearsay or postings on anti-cult message boards doesn’t add up to one true fact. There are danger zones on the Internet where people create their own alternate reality by endlessly repeating and embellishing the same nonsensical claims, e.g. that President Obama is both gay and Muslim. These people are not truth-tellers, but attention-seekers.

Obviously, there are good journalists who risk life and limb to bring back truthful stories which need telling. These journalists are genuine heroes. Others who broadcast garbage are not merely rare, misguided individuals. There are whole segments of the media whose economic model is based on pandering to the lowest common denominator of viewers — a form of institutionalized corruption ratified by awarding Emmys for tabloid TV.

Such Emmys demonstrate that the dogs like the dog food; but wouldn’t it be better to treat people like human beings and insist as a matter of professional pride on giving them news which doesn’t pander to their worst prejudices, but instead raises them up and reflects their noblest ideals? For every Emmy awarded to a slop-peddler like Mary Murphy, somewhere there’s a good journalist whose truthful stories aren’t being heard, no less rewarded.

There’s a difference between journalists who simply aren’t that good at what they do, and those who expertly manipulate the devices of telejournalism in order to get the biased results they’re after. Mary Murphy is of the latter type. In “Better Reporting on Religious and Ethnic Minorities,” I discuss the problem of false balance:

According to Katrina vanden Heuvel in The Washington Post, the distorting effect of false balance entails “presenting fiction on par with fact.” In USA Today, Rem Rieder writes: “There isn’t always equal merit on both sides. So, in instances where one side is largely fact-based, and the other is spouting obvious nonsense, treating both sides equally isn’t balanced. It’s misleading.” Margaret Sullivan, Public Editor at The New York Times, says that “In general, The Times tries to avoid letting two sides of a debate get equal time when one of them represents an established truth.”

The established truth about Sri Chinmoy is given by reputable sources such as those I’ve linked to, including articles in bona fide encyclopedias of religion like the Encyclopedia of Hinduism.

False balance may occur when a reporter lacks the resources to locate the established truth, and inadvertently lets fly with a lopsided story. But at its most venal, false balance is the result of intentional manipulation by an unscrupulous reporter. In Mary Murphy’s case, she carefully prepped the anti-cultists she was interviewing ahead of time, to make them look sympathetic and their absurd claims appear credible. Those she interviewed actually have a history of mental illness, substance abuse, cyberstalking, and posting extreme hate material on the Internet. She cleaned them up and gentrified the material they’re peddling, so they would look less like crackpots. She interviewed Anne Carlton in her home with a wood fire burning, as if to say “fireside chat” (though “padded cell” would have been more appropriate).

By contrast, Murphy then ambushed followers of Sri Chinmoy as they were walking down the street, or barged into their shops demanding immediate answers. This was intended to give a false appearance of balance. When someone from Sri Chinmoy Centre knowledgeable about the issues approached her, Murphy flatly refused to interview them. She didn’t want to speak to someone who could provide a detailed rebuttal to the false claims she was promoting. She pretended instead that Sri Chinmoy Centre was unavailable for comment.

For this type of fraud upon the general public, Murphy deserves unemployment not Emmys. She intentionally rigged her piece to mislead and misinform. The real “mystery” is why fellow journalists don’t drum her out of the profession. The real “secret” is that as long as she keeps viewers glued to their seats until the next commercial, few people care that she’s selling a pack of lies.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but there aren’t enough Pinocchios in Gepetto’s workshop to award Mary Murphy the requisite number here. You don’t do a story this biased and this hateful by accident. You do it because you want to, because you think you can get away with it, because you think you can lie. You do it because you think your bosses won’t notice or won’t care because they’re preoccupied with other matters…

What’s keeping WPIX execs so busy?

Richard Graziano, President and General Manager of WPIX-TV, certainly can’t be bothered checking up on reporter Mary Murphy, making sure a hoaxer’s story isn’t aired. That ought to be News Director Amy Waldman’s job. Waldman, considered “clueless” by some, is reportedly more concerned with ordering lunch. But her actual brief may be to continue the trend at PIX11 of using “native advertising” as a new (if ethically questionable) revenue stream. Not to be confused with Maasai carrying signage, native advertising is advertising disguised to look like news:

The partnership between a news station and an ad agency brings together different types of media companies that historically have maintained a wall of separation but are increasingly intertwined, as news outlets seek alternative revenue streams and marketers try to embed their messages in the programs and pages people want to consume — a strategy known as native advertising or sponsored content.

The growing use of native advertising threatens to leave viewers confused about whether they are watching unbiased reporting or promotional material, according to some media specialists.

“What they’re doing is blurring the lines between news, entertainment, and advertising,” said John Carroll, a former advertising and television news executive who is now a professor of mass communication at Boston University. “The whole idea is to keep it up in the air: What exactly is this?” The format is just newsy enough to disarm people who have built up a subconscious defense against marketing.

— Callum Borchers, “Advertising? Journalism? You be the judge,” in The Boston Globe

According to The New York Times, a too-cosy relationship with advertisers — one that interfered with news-gathering — was already a problem at the Hartford Courant — Rich Graziano’s old stomping ground and another Tribune Media/Tribune Publishing property. Now, at PIX11 News things have gotten so bad you almost expect Kaity Tong to open the broadcast by singing the Rice-A-Roni theme song.

PIX11 produces sponsored content for brands like Four Roses Bourbon. September just happens to be National Bourbon Month, and PIX11 News feels that any kids up at 6:56 in the a.m. need to know how to mix cocktails using Four Roses and nothing but Four Roses — bottles and bottles of the stuff! Comments heard in the following PIX11 News segment include:

Kori Chambers: Be patriotic here and have some bourbon.
Franky Marshall: It’s never too early for a little bourbon!

View the video on PIX11.com for now. (I’ll embed it in the post when I have time.)

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?

I understand that for the cable version, PIX11’s Kori Chambers is wearing nothing but a slingshot thong emblazoned with the Four Roses logo. “Although I’m not allowed to drink on air,” he reportedly says, “I’m going to inject this delightful concoction intravenously. Mmm mmm good!” (Just kidding.)

PIX11 does brag that 400,000 Facebook users have seen this ad they produced for Larceny Bourbon, which features icons that look like cartoon characters. It was posted on YouTube by PIX11 News, which claims that “These three amazing cocktails made with Larceny Bourbon are so good, it’s a crime.” (I can think of others!)

The ad equates “feeling playful” with afternoon drinking and getting “a rush you’ll remember.” If the voice-over guy commanding you to “Get some Larceny wheated bourbon” sounds familiar, it’s because he’s the same guy who does the teasers for PIX11 News. Does this strike anyone as a tad incestuous?

With a wink and nod, PIX11 notes that of course those 400,000 Facebook viewers of the bourbon ad are all over 21. But according to ABC News, Consumer Reports says that 7.5 million Facebook users are under 13. So I guess you’re never too young for a little bourbon, either! (See also this iMediaEthics story: “WPIX-TV airs ‘Best Sex Ever’ Sunday at 10 AM when kids seek cartoons.”


Am I annoying department: PIX11’s Larceny Bourbon ad (modified version)

For other examples of PIX11 News using “native advertising” to promote hard liquor in the a.m., see this segment for Bombay Sapphire Gin, or this segment specifically targeting kids with Halloween cocktails, or this Earth Day segment hawking Casa Noble Tequila (and matching accessories). Starts to look like the Home Shopping Network, doesn’t it?

Here’s a page where PIX11 News mixes a heady cocktail for kids that includes Facebook, baseball, and a fun meetup with sportscaster Andy Adler:

PIX11 sportscaster Andy Adler

PIX11 sportscaster Andy Adler

Sponsored by Larceny Bourbon, the meetup takes place at American Whiskey, which claims that it caters to curious amateur drinkers by offering over 375 different varieties of booze.

Now, I like baseball and used to watch the Yanks on WPIX-TV back in the day. I’ve even been known to hoist a glass or two. There’s always been a strong connection between the liquor industry and sports, but I wonder if things have gotten out of hand.

These days, it seems like even news stories are trying to sell me something — if not a product, then a point of view. Drinking is good, baseball is good, minority religions are bad. Start drinking Four Roses at 7 a.m. and by the time 5 p.m. rolls around, you’ll be so stoned you’ll believe Mary Murphy when she says she’s uncovered a mysterious cult in quiet Jamaica Hills. The poor viewer or consumer (is there a difference these days?) is placed in the unfortunate position recounted in this immortal anthem from the 90s:

Smelly cat, smelly cat,
What are they feeding you?
Smelly cat, smelly cat,
It’s not your fault.

Why is it that PIX11 News has a seemingly infinite budget to promote drinking and sports, but can’t be bothered fact-checking a libelous story about a minority spiritual group? Mr. Graziano? Ms. Waldman? Anyone?

From left to right: President and General Manager of WPIX-TV Richard Graziano; News Director Amy Waldman; and reporter Mary Murphy

From left to right: President and General Manager of WPIX-TV Richard Graziano; News Director Amy Waldman; and reporter Mary Murphy (here shown giving her cell phone the stink eye)

Still, I suppose once you’re in bed with Larceny, libel seems like sauce for the goose. Having made its bed of Four Roses, I hope PIX11 is prepared to stew in it. Perhaps its executives need to “rejigger” their priorities.

As a lone citizen, I try to make sense of the media behemoth that’s out there — the nature of the beast. With vertical integration between news, entertainment and assorted industries, the world view we get from mainstream media tends to occupy a narrow frequency band that centers around production and consumption, and is hostile to spiritual groups. Our founding fathers believed in an America where the secular sphere and the religious sphere could complement each other, but today it seems like the secular sphere often wages war against the religious sphere, viewing spiritual groups as a threat to the primacy of secular materialism. Maybe they don’t drink enough bourbon. 😉

Anyway, a handful of people meditating, singing spiritual songs, and leading a pure lifestyle in Jamaica Hills are no threat to PIX11 News and its pixilated sponsors, so there’s really no reason to harass them with hoax stories or send witchy woman Mary Murphy to chase them down the street. Such social control measures are unnecessary and uncalled for.

As for where PIX11 News should hold its meetups, instead of seedy bars how about a really classy location like the Tomb of the Low Information Viewer? That’s the entity upon which PIX11’s ratings ultimately depend.


* * *

This post is Part 3 in a series. Read Parts 1 and 2 here:
“Mary Murphy and WPIX-TV, Part 1”
“PIX11’s Mary Murphy: Stalking The Truth (but lies will also do)”

After a break, I hope to be back with Part 4, where I’ll give some examples of deceptive framing and faulty reasoning used by Mary Murphy to “cook” a false story. Some might say, “Why bother? She’s a bigoted jerk, leave it at that.” Still, when big evil money lies, all we can do as individuals is to stick up for truth, and tell the truth in detail so that other people of intelligence and conscience would see the truth for themselves.

Michael Howard

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

PIX11’s Mary Murphy: Stalking The Truth (but lies will also do)

Part 2 in a series on tabloid TV (Part 1, Part 3)

An elderly woman is walking a dog in the tranquil neighborhood of Jamaica Hills, Queens when suddenly she’s chased down the street and accosted. Is this some new menace plaguing a generally low-crime area? In a way. It’s PIX11’s Mary Murphy practicing her peculiar brand of ambush journalism. What makes it especially peculiar is that in this case she’s become a surrogate stalker.

Anne Carlton and Gary Falk have been cyberstalking Sri Chinmoy and Sri Chinmoy Centre for 25 years between them. Neighborhood residents or readers of local Queens papers would recall that Sri Chinmoy was the kindly, genial spiritual leader who lived in the area for the last 35 years of his life. See “Kids learn to help others at Sri Chinmoy Centre,” in Newsday, or “So Sorry To Lose Sri Chinmoy” in the Queens Courier.

According to The New York Times, Jamaica Hills is a tranquil haven for many ethnic groups. A synagogue, a Greek orthodox church, and a meditation garden are each attractions to different people who live side-by-side in peace. Residents say that followers of Sri Chinmoy are good neighbors because they’re quiet and law-abiding. Community Board 8 has nothing but praise for the group, crediting them with cleaning up an area which the city had abandoned, keeping it safe, clean, and crime-free.

Sri Chinmoy was originally from India, but moved to New York City in 1964 and soon began teaching a philosophy based on meditation, inner peace, and service to the world. By 1971 he had garnered praise for his meditations at the United Nations for diplomats and staff. (See “Many at U.N. Find Guru’s Message Brings Peace” in The New York Times.)

A 1976 People Magazine article lauded the guru’s genuine achievements, and noted that his followers opened up a row of businesses on Parsons Boulevard, including a health food store, a stationery store, and a café. Forty years later, those businesses are still standing and have been joined by a constellation of others. Over the decades their presence has become a familiar, non-threatening staple of life in a diverse community, a point of interest in articles describing local color.

Followers of the late guru are health & fitness buffs, and hold many races in the area, including the Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race. In 2011, the Wall Street Journal did a video piece about the race, including an interview with a local resident who said she felt safe with the runners and support staff out from 6 a.m. to midnight. Writing in the Queens Free Press, Vejai Sahadeo noted that this “Ultra Marathon is a Winner for the Neighborhood” because “the determination, resilience, and endurance the runners exhibited motivated some people to search their own life for meaning and inspired them to reach a goal they thought was not achievable.”

Sports isn’t only for the men at Sri Chinmoy Centre. The women have been breaking records right and left, including ultra runner Suprabha Beckjord and channel swimmer Abhejali Bernardová. In fact, the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team has racked up numerous channel swims by both women and men. Consummate sportswoman Vasanti Niemz speaks about her experiences in this YouTube interview.

But there’s more going on here than road racing or channel swimming. Art, music, and poetry play an important role in the guru’s “path of the heart,” and he was known to be prolific in these areas. In August 2008, nearly a year after his passing, followers held a 10-day exhibit of his “Paintings for World Harmony” in the lobby of the U.N. Secretariat building:

World leaders sent letters of support, art curators eagerly attended, and singer Roberta Flack spoke of the guru in glowing terms:

Sri Chinmoy is a man who came to walk the talk. Everything that he said, everything that he proposed, every solution that he imagined as a way for us to get closer to each other was in fact a part of his entire being. It was not a struggle for him to lead us and to guide us as artists and as thinkers. Sri Chinmoy indeed gave me the opportunity to prove that art and music are the most eloquent balms for the challenging times that we live in. His work you see here tonight is an indication that he was a creator of peace. So he was walking the talk. Again, through his words, music and art he lived every day, every second, every minute of every hour of every year of all the time striving for world harmony — he never tired. And he also never tired of encouraging everybody to do the same. I look at his art with you tonight and I hope you can see and feel as I do his strong message of peace, his ability to walk that talk, his message of peace and harmony, and love that will always be here and will continue to ring clearly and purely for generations to come.

So what’s with the cyberstalking by Anne Carlton and Gary Falk, and physical stalking by Mary Murphy? Well, almost since its birth America has partaken of a dual nature: strong ideals of religious freedom, but also a strong nativist backlash against newly arrived religious groups, including Roman Catholics in the mid-nineteenth century. The burning of convents, synagogues, and black churches is a shameful aspect of American history, even as the hope and striving for religious tolerance is a proud one.

When John Fitzgerald Kennedy ran for president in 1960, he had to overcome a tide of anti-Catholic sentiment. Speaking to a large group of Protestant ministers who were initially hostile to him, Kennedy said:

I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end; where all men and all churches are treated as equal; where every man has the same right to attend or not attend the church of his choice; where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind; and where Catholics, Protestants and Jews, at both the lay and pastoral level, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.

Even before coming to America, Sri Chinmoy was a great admirer of President Kennedy, and wrote of him:

Hope is strength. Hope is progress. When the sun of hope is eclipsed, the inevitable fear of bondage looms large. Kennedy, with his breadth of outlook and depth of insight, can help immensely to restore this hope to man.

— Sri Chinmoy, Kennedy: The Universal Heart

On the subject of tolerance, Sri Chinmoy wrote:

True religion has a universal quality. It does not find fault with other religions. Forgiveness, compassion, tolerance, brotherhood and the feeling of oneness are the signs of a true religion.

— Sri Chinmoy, World-Destruction: Never, Impossible! Part 1

Sri Chinmoy was active in the interfaith community, and often met with leading figures of other faiths, from Mother Teresa to Pir Vilayat Khan. He composed songs honouring both of them, as he also did for his friends Monsignor Thomas Hartman and Rabbi Marc Gellman, whose respect he earned.

Yet, even as many leaders were striving for greater tolerance and understanding between religions, and diverse communities were learning to live in harmony, there was also a rise in hate groups based on anti-cult ideology. While hostile to religion in general, these anti-cult groups especially targeted new arrivals who taught meditation and Eastern philosophy. Such spiritual groups varied greatly in beliefs, practices, and quality of leadership, but tended to be lumped together by anti-cultists. Sociologist Dr. Joseph E. Davis writes:

Lumping disparate groups together serves the purpose of creating the specter of conspiracy and of a stereotypical enemy. All of these elements — organized opposition, brainwashing theories, atrocity stories, calls for governmental action, combining of unrelated groups with an overarching xenophobia and religious bigotry — are a part of the anti-cult movement that appeared in the 1970s. Furthermore, with the establishment of formal anti-cult organizations, publishing enterprises, and educational programs, the anti-cult movement now has a considerable stake in keeping the cult scare alive.

In his final years, Sri Chinmoy continued to garner praise for his outstanding achievements in the fields of spirituality, art, athletics, and world peace. Rep. Gary Ackerman, a Queens congressman from 1983-2013, knew Sri Chinmoy personally and visited Sri Chinmoy Centre on numerous occasions. In 2006, he offered this “Tribute To Sri Chinmoy” published in the Congressional Record. In 2007 — the final year of his life — Sri Chinmoy was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. It was not the first time, but the number of people and groups supporting his nomination was larger than ever before.

Yet, Sri Chinmoy also had to contend with increasing levels of harassment from anti-cult groups, some of whom engaged in trademark infringement. The situation got so bad that as a last resort, in 2003 Sri Chinmoy was forced to file a complaint. In it, he attested that he was a celibate yogi, but that anti-Hindu deprogrammers were registering websites in his name, using them to publish false and scurrilous attacks, some of a sexual nature, while at the same time making commercial offers to “deprogram” students of Eastern spiritual studies. Indeed, despite the good reputation which Sri Chinmoy Centre enjoyed in the community, members were sometimes kidnapped and subjected to forced “deprogramming” in what is generally considered a violation of civil rights. According to Shelley K. Parker writing in the Western New England Law Review:

Removing devotees from their chosen sect and unduly scrutinizing their religion violates the first amendment rights of freedom of religion and as­sociation. The free exercise clause of the first amendment protects the right of the individual to hold any religious belief, provided that belief is sincerely held. Beliefs may not be questioned nor put to any test of proof of validity. Even beliefs which seem irrational to most people are entitled to constitutional protection. More important, all religions should be treated equally.

Scrutinizing an individual’s religion not only interferes with the right to religious freedom, but also interferes with an individu­al’s freedom of association. To insure that this right is protected, any state action forcing an individual to reveal, explain, or defend associations, regardless of whether the association is for political, economic, cultural, or religious reasons, should be closely scru­tinized. Denying freedom of association not only frustrates the individual, but also inhibits the growth of religious groups. All reli­gious groups need a climate of full freedom of association to grow and develop. The Supreme Court has recognized that this constitu­tional protection is especially important when the beliefs and ideas which the group advocates are not those of the majority.

The possibility of being subjected to “deprogramming” may deter individuals from joining unpopular religious organizations. Present members may not wish to chance open and continuous devotion to their religious sect. Such a chilling effect is in clear contradiction to the first amend­ment’s purpose of protecting both freedom of religion and freedom of association.

To anti-cult groups, Sri Chinmoy’s actual teachings and record of achievements mattered little, as did the clearly voluntary process by which seekers applied to become his students and subsequently adopted a modest spiritual lifestyle. Rather, the main focus of anti-cult groups was on locating disgruntled ex-followers who could be persuaded to portray the guru in negative stereotypic terms — in effect replacing the real person with a hateful caricature. This is similar to harassment of Roman Catholics in the mid-nineteenth century, when so-called “convent tales” in the form of false first-person accounts were used to portray the life of Catholic nuns as one of captivity and rampant abuse. According to religious scholar James R. Lewis, convent tales “typically consisted of the recounting of one atrocity after another — a litany of evil held together by a thin strand of narrative.”

Today, anti-cult groups continue to circulate atrocity stories in an effort to discredit Eastern gurus, and to send a strong message that notwithstanding ideals of religious freedom written into the U.S. Constitution, participation in minority faiths is still stigmatized. Anti-cult groups may subject the minority adherent to shaming and harassment, using the less reputable media as surrogate harassers. (Hence, Mary Murphy chasing an elderly woman down the street and peppering her with insulting questions, cameras rolling all the while.)

Harassment by anti-cult groups or their surrogates makes the barriers to entry intolerably high, as citizens may fear to follow their conscience in spiritual matters, dreading the punishment meted out by aggressive majoritarians. As Shelley K. Parker noted, “Such a chilling effect is in clear contradiction to the first amend­ment’s purpose of protecting both freedom of religion and freedom of association.”

This highlights the often stark contrast between ideals of religious freedom we learn as schoolchildren, and the reality that when people make minority choices they may be harassed and ridiculed. We teach Frost to schoolchildren, but when someone actually takes the road less traveled by, they’re subjected to name-calling and hatred. Anti-cult groups feed the media disinformation about minority spiritual figures. This material is not fact-checked the way a piece about a Senator or corporate head would be. Such disparate treatment is the hallmark of discrimination.

In a media-dominated society, it’s not necessary to make a spiritual group illegal in order to suppress it and greatly limit its ability to function. It’s only necessary to demonize its leader and followers so as to discourage participation by sending a clear signal that such participation will be stigmatized. This leads to a climate in which peace-loving and law-abiding citizens may be falsely portrayed as criminals in order to feed the media frenzy for scapegoats or “folk devils.” There’s a confluence of interests between anti-cult groups obsessed with discrediting Eastern gurus, and tabloid media who capitalize on fear and suspicion. The net result is to fuel moral panics and inflame a reactionary mindset.

The problem, then, with PIX11’s Mary Murphy is that she often ends up being a crusader for stupidity and intolerance, not for the values of brotherhood which actually make America great. She barges in on a quiet neighborhood which is a model of people getting along, and tries to sow suspicion and religious hatred — based on ridiculous lies which she seems predisposed to believe, perhaps due to some narrowness or bigotry in her own upbringing. She does not see the people she targets as individuals with rights; she sees only a cult meme which she’s intent on commercially exploiting.

Just as it’s joked in Washington that the most dangerous place to stand is between certain politicians and a camera, the most dangerous place to stand in Queens is between Mary Murphy and an Emmy. Her treatment of Sri Chinmoy and his followers was ruthless, heartless, and inhumane. Where she opts to believe serial fabricator Anne Carlton — who is a modern day Maria Monk figure — this is a massive blunder tantamount to believing that the woman stalking David Letterman was really his wife.

A 15-second teaser for the 5 O’Clock News boasts that Mary Murphy will expose a mysterious cult found right here in New York, and closes with a salacious sound bite. The only problem is that the “mysterious cult” is a respected spiritual group with a 45-year history of good citizenship and strong roots in the community. It conducts its benign spiritual, athletic, and cultural activities in full daylight, and anyone wanting accurate information about them can easily acquire it from reputable sources (which do not include PIX11!).

Sri Chinmoy’s followers are people who buy homes or rent apartments in the Jamaica Hills area, and open up small businesses like cafés and flower shops. For decades they’ve contributed to the low crime rate and economic revitalization of the area. They have a well-earned reputation for clean living, inspired by their teacher Sri Chinmoy, who passed away in October 2007 at the age of 76. His loss was mourned by thousands of people worldwide. To state the obvious, he was never under investigation for any kind of crime. Why would he be, since he was a model citizen?

As for those who circulate salacious material (mostly via the Internet), they’re what are commonly known as kooks and cranks. No one at PIX11 bothered to ask whether any of them were on psychiatric medication, or had ever been fired from a job for sending threatening and abusive e-mails, and therefore bore an obsessive grudge. The answers to such questions would have been revealing.

Mary Murphy’s story was untruthful and unfair. Sri Chinmoy got kinder treatment from the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and from the late Sister Nirmala Joshi. Closer to home, he got fairer treatment from the late Monsignor Thomas J. Hartman, born in Richmond Hill and affiliated with the Rockville Centre Diocese. Father Tom penned the introduction to The Wisdom of Sri Chinmoy. So many good people of Sri Chinmoy’s generation who knew him and could speak for him have sadly passed on, leaving his memory open to shark attacks from the likes of Mary Murphy.

Deep in our hearts we all want to live in a world where there is peace and harmony. Sri Chinmoy strove each day to help create such a world. That’s why false material vilifying him is especially offensive to those who knew him, knew his good works, and knew him to be a kindly soul.

Like John F. Kennedy, I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end.

Michael Howard

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

Read Parts 1 and 3 of this series here:
“Mary Murphy and WPIX-TV, Part 1”
“PIX11’s Mary Murphy: So You Thunk You Can Lie”

Mary Murphy and WPIX-TV, Part 1

Why is Mary Murphy chasing an elderly woman down the street? The answer to that mystery next!

Forgive the tabloid TV come-on, but I assure you it’s entirely appropriate to the subject matter, which is muckraking journalism (not the good kind, which I respect). We’ll also be discussing cyberstalking, net kooks, apostate atrocity stories, and how these topics are related. We’ll take a look at a couple of well-known net kooks who engage in cyberstalking: Anne Carlton and Gary Falk. If you thought you knew all about cyberstalking, this article will cover an important angle often missed: the effect of cyberstalking on spiritual minorities. But let’s begin with a few quotes:

Cyberstalking is defined as the repeated use of the Internet, e-mail, or related digital electronic communication devices to annoy, alarm, or threaten a specific individual or group of individuals.

— “A Study on Cyberstalking: Understanding Investigative Hurdles,” D’Ovidio R & Doyle J, FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, March 2003

Stalkers are setting up websites that threaten victims or encourage others to contact, harass, or harm the victim. Some abusers encourage others to stalk their victim by posting erroneous and harassing information on websites.

“A High-Tech Twist on Abuse,” Tucker, Cremer, Fraser, & Southworth

The woman who has stalked David Letterman for five years truly believes she is his wife. She has been discovered on Mr. Letterman’s property numerous times, has been arrested driving his car and has even appeared at his residence with her own child in tow — each time insisting that she is David Letterman’s wife.

Love obsessional stalkers not only attempt to live out their fantasies, but expect their victims to play their assigned roles as well. They believe they can make the object of their affection love them. They desperately want to establish a positive personal relationship with their victim. When the victim refuses to follow the script or doesn’t respond as the stalker hopes, they may attempt to force the victim to comply by use of threats and intimidation.

“Stalking Questions and Answers,” The University of Vermont

But what happens when the victim of stalking is a member of a minority faith?

Exploitation by Exit Counselors and Anti-Cult Groups

Most stalking situations are fairly black-and-white. However, the situation is sometimes complicated by societal problems of bigotry and intolerance. Cyberstalkers may be encouraged to continue their stalking behavior by certain therapists and anti-cult groups, provided that the victim of the stalking is a member of a minority faith. The quirky rationale is that the stalker must have become deranged due to “cult abuse,” and that by using the Internet as a virtual weapon, the stalker is regaining his or her self-esteem, and performing a useful function for society, which (according to this rationale) would be better off without minority faiths.

It’s a little like a joke sometimes attributed to Groucho Marx: “This guy goes to a psychiatrist because his brother has a problem. He thinks he’s a chicken. The psychiatrist answers simply: ‘Why not tell him he’s not a chicken and be done with it?’ To which the man responds, ‘I’d like to, but we need the eggs.'”

Like this, some exit counselors and anti-cult organizations exploit former members of bona fide spiritual groups. They encourage delusional thinking and troubled behaviour, as long as it advances their agenda of opposing “cults.” If a love-obsessional stalker going through the hate stage is saying vile things about a minority spiritual figure, some exit counselors and anti-cult groups will publish this material, because it helps create a climate of fear which will boost sales of anti-cult books, videos and “counseling” sessions. Never mind that the material is false, and that it will needlessly alarm parents. A frightened parent is a parent willing to shell out big bucks for a “cult intervention.”

When a member of a minority faith becomes a victim of cyberstalking, this places the victim in a double bind — first, because he or she is being stalked; second, because he or she may be non-white and non-Judeo-Christian. In such cases, the stalker’s method of harassing the victim may be to pander to stereotypes about the victim’s ethnic and religious background, and to try and enlist the less reputable media as surrogate harassers. In other words, if the victim is David Letterman, everyone will believe him when he says, “This is not my wife.” If the victim is non-white, non-Judeo-Christian, and not a media darling, some of the media will side with the stalker!

“Cyber-Stalkers and Net Kooks”

In fact, that’s exactly what happened in February 2016. Anne Carlton and Gary Falk (most recently of Willow, New York) are troubled people who’ve been cyberstalking Sri Chinmoy and Sri Chinmoy Centre for 25 years between them. (This even continued after Sri Chinmoy’s death in 2007.) They recently enlisted Mary Murphy of WPIX-TV as a surrogate stalker. Murphy was actually caught chasing an elderly woman down the street and shoving a camera in her face. The woman being harassed was a devotee of Sri Chinmoy who was walking a dog on a quiet street in Jamaica Hills. She couldn’t run very fast because she was wearing an Indian sari, which is a modest spiritual garment.

So while Anne Carlton and Gary Falk usually use the Internet to stalk and harass their targets, in this case they managed to get Mary Murphy to escalate things to physical harassment. Murphy’s style of ambush journalism is hardly distinguishable from stalking. Emily Spence-Diehl writes:

For many stalkers, the line between fantasy and reality is either blurry or nonexistent. The fantasy themes often revolve around entitlement (“you’re mine”), anger (“you’ll pay for this”), and/or destiny (“we’re meant to be together”). In some cases, the belief that the fantasy is real is so strong that the stalkers may appear more reliable and insistent than the victims. Law enforcement officers may call a stalker in for an interview who very convincingly spins a tale about the love relationship between he or she and the victim, right down to the insignificant details. Yet in reality no romantic relationship ever existed. These particular types of stalkers are referred to by psychological experts as sufferers of “erotomania;” they delusionally believe they’re in a romantic relationship with the victim that does not actually exist.

Stalking–A Handbook for Victims

In Anne Carlton’s case, she makes up a bewildering variety of stories about Sri Chinmoy; and while these stories are ever-changing and mutually inconsistent (not to speak of being inconsistent with reality), they all feature Ms. Carlton in the grand role of love interest. She’s a shameless publicity hound who’s been trying to retail her romantic fantasies to the tabloids for time out of mind. When Sri Chinmoy was approached by a tabloid in 2004 regarding Ms. Carlton, he issued a full denial, stating that he maintained celibacy. “You’re going to have disgruntled people,” said attorney Ed Hayes. “His philosophy attracts many people, and some of them are deeply troubled, some in a sexual way.”

No reputable news outlet will touch the material circulated by Ms. Carlton, but some of her more salacious and hate-filled screeds do appear on anti-cult sites — particularly those run by deprogrammers or exit counselors who charge a few thousand dollars a pop for euphemistically named cult interventions.

One can feel sorry for Ms. Carlton because she’s a troubled and unhappy person, but she is NOT a victim. In truth, she victimizes others with her false accounts, which are used to incite ethnic and religious hatred.

She and her husband Gary Falk are well-known net kooks who are typically unavoidable for comment on the Internet, and will hijack any thread about Sri Chinmoy in order to post nasty comments or links to hate sites. Mr. Falk is the owner/moderator of a site which publishes material referring to the kindly (and much-respected) Sri Chinmoy as a “Bengali bastard” and a “cocksucker,” and which discusses “knocking his little head off clean from his Indian shoulders.”

Simon and Schuster author Sri Chinmoy

Simon and Schuster author Sri Chinmoy

In the twilight of his life, Sri Chinmoy was ruthlessly harassed by such grubby folk. Even as he continued to earn tributes and commendations for his numerous good works, he had to endure harassment forming a consistent pattern: absurd accusations endlessly repeated and recycled under different aliases, but absolutely zero evidence of wrongdoing. (I have elsewhere described this as a form of information terrorism.) This type of multi-year harassment comprising multiple incidents is a violation of civil rights and due process. And it’s not only the late Sri Chinmoy who is harassed in this manner, but the surviving nonprofit which he founded, and living followers by name.

I want to stress that there’s a connection between individual cyberstalkers, and hate groups which base their activities on anti-cult ideology. The group dynamics of hate groups engender victimhood, creating a demand for someone to “come forward” and willingly play the role of a victim, in order to fuel hatred and justify vigilantism. In an anti-cult context, atrocity stories portraying former minority adherents as victims are used to assuage apostate guilt, relocate blame, and justify harassment of spiritual minorities.

The individual strategy of cyberstalkers, who pretend to be victims avenging some imagined wrong, converges with the broader strategy of hate groups, who use atrocity stories as a propaganda tool to influence the media. The following quotes begin to get at the flavour of these interconnected relationships:

Dr. Lonnie Kliever:

There are some voluntary apostates from new religious movements who leave deeply embittered and harshly critical of their former religious associations and activities. Their dynamics of separation from a once-loved religious group is analogous to an embittered marital separation and divorce. Both marriage and religion require a significant degree of commitment. The greater the involvement, the more traumatic the break-up. The longer the commitment, the more urgent the need to blame the other for the failed relationship. Long-term and heavily involved members of new religious movements who over time become disenchanted with their religion often throw all of the blame on their former religious associations and activities. They magnify small flaws into huge evils. They turn personal disappointments into malicious betrayals. They even will tell incredible falsehoods to harm their former religion.

— Dr. Lonnie Kliever, “The Reliability of Apostate Testimony About New Religious Movements”

Christine Gorman:

By all accounts, the descent into delusion is gradual. Everyone has experienced slights, insults or failures at one time or another, and most people find some way to cope. Or, if they don’t, a trusted friend or family member may persuade them to forget the past and get on with their lives. But if they cannot shake off the sense of humiliation, they may instead nourish their grudges and start a mental list of all the injustices in their lives. Rather than take a critical look at themselves, they blame their troubles on “the company,” for example, or “the government” or “the system.” Often these aggrieved people fall in with others sharing the same point of view. The group helps them to rehearse their grievances, ensuring that the wounds remain open, and exposes them to similar complaints. As a result, paranoia blossoms and spreads.

— Christine Gorman, “Calling All Paranoids,” TIME magazine

The Jargon File:

Net kook is a term used to describe a regular poster who continually posts messages with no apparent grounding in reality. Different from a troll, which implies a sort of sly wink on the part of a poster who knows better, kooks really believe what they write, to the extent that they believe anything. The kook trademark is paranoia and grandiosity. Kooks will often build up elaborate imaginary support structures, fake corporations and the like, and continue to act as if those things are real even after their falsity has been documented in public. While they may appear harmless, there are several instances on record of journalists writing stories with quotes from kooks who caught them unaware.

The Jargon File

Matthew Johnson:

Consciously or unconsciously, hate groups draw on a number of basic psychological mechanisms to attract and indoctrinate believers. It’s important to teach young people to recognize the elements that distinguish ideologies of hate from legitimate discourse: the characterization of one or more groups as “the Other,” and a narrative of victimhood.

“The Other,” which is dehumanized and portrayed as being simultaneously inferior and threatening, is at the heart of all messages of hate. These groups justify their hatred by portraying themselves as being victimized by the Other; the ultimate example of this is often the accusation that the Other is responsible for the loss of the group’s proper place in the world at some time in the past. Besides teaching young people critical thinking skills, we can also fight online hate by helping them to develop empathy.

— Matthew Johnson, “Preparing youth to deal with hate on the Internet”

Elissa Lee and Laura Leets:

Increasingly, hate groups have used the Internet to express their viewpoints, sell their paraphernalia, and recruit new members. According to William Pierce, “Fiction or drama gets much more inside the head of the person who is experiencing it because the reader or viewer identifies with a character.” Pierce’s enthusiasm for fiction displays how hate groups have begun to use narratives to influence others and to promote their vision. Historically, narrators have often intended to persuade their audiences of their points of view or the legitimacy of their claims with stories. The power of storytelling lies in its ability to make an argument without eliciting mental resistance. Empirical studies have supported this claim with findings that narratives elicit fewer counterarguments and less resistance to persuasion. Narratives, especially fictional stories, may raise less scrutiny and suspicion through suspension of disbelief and identification with the protagonist’s mental perspective.

— Elissa Lee and Laura Leets, “Persuasive Storytelling by Hate Groups Online,” American Behavioral Scientist

It’s clear that both individual cyberstalkers and hate groups use fictional stories to target their victims. The Internet is particularly prone to socially constructed realities (or hoaxes) which simply don’t jibe with the fact-based reality journalists are supposed to be concerned with. This converges with the problem of “confirmation bias,” in which a reporter buys into a false story because it confirms her ingrained prejudices about a minority group or spiritual figure.

As discussed earlier, when a member of a minority faith becomes a victim of cyberstalking, the stalker’s method of harassing the victim may be to pander to stereotypes about the victim’s ethnic and religious background, and to try and enlist the less reputable media as surrogate harassers. It’s the duty of responsible journalists not to allow themselves to be used in this manner, and certainly not to actively join in the harassment, as PIX11’s Mary Murphy did. In “Better Reporting on Religious and Ethnic Minorities,” I write:

There are organizations which seek to “educate” the public that minority religions are to be hated, feared, discriminated against, and generally treated like lepers. Journalists sometimes uncritically accept and reproduce this type of material because it resonates with their own beliefs, or because they fail to identify the genre and investigate the source. In short, journalists are sometimes taken in by people who claim to be “cult experts,” but are not regarded as such by bona fide scholars of religion.

As publications have grown increasingly wary of atrocity stories circulated by anti-cult groups, such groups have turned to third party technique  to drive home their message. Particularly where claims are potentially libelous, journalists need to drill down to ensure that sources are credible — not engaged in astroturfing or merely repeating what they’ve heard.

Suppose you locate Internet material claiming that some minority spiritual figure is a “criminal.” Well, in what jurisdiction was the criminal complaint filed, and what was its outcome? If someone is portrayed on the Internet as committing crimes left and right, but in the real world there’s not a single police complaint, then clearly the rhetoric doesn’t match the reality. A person may be portrayed hatefully on the Internet, but articles in local newspapers may establish him or her to be a jewel in the community, through the recitation of facts not rhetoric.

Good journalists know that people claiming to be victims can lie as much as anyone else. Like Elvis sightings earnestly recounted, false stories of abuse take on an increasing air of reality to people who endlessly repeat them to each other within the closed environs of an anti-cult group. This is a psychological phenomenon known as “imagination inflation.”

Claims by individuals who are (explicitly or covertly) engaged in anti-cult activism need to be carefully checked and verified. This is so because activists often take actions which make them major stakeholders in a narrative. They can easily reach the point where they’re so personally invested in a false narrative that they reflexively insist on its truthfulness, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. They may want to be seen as heroes or avengers, but if the underlying narrative is false, then they’re vigilantes harassing an innocent person or group. Their willingness to believe the narrative thus becomes bound up with their own self-esteem and professional reputation.

As in the Tawana Brawley case, some people may incorporate a false narrative of victimhood into their personal biography. This can lead to a web of lies from which they find it difficult to extricate themselves, because the lies have been externalized (there now being an interest group which bases its activism on the lies).

Yet, some people do manage to disentangle themselves and admit that their claims of victimhood were actually confabulations produced by suggestive therapy or support group pressures — or that they hurled false accusations out of anger. In a 1998 New York Times article, Joseph Berger writes:

Stacey Hoehmann said her accusations against her father grew out of a lie she told a friend in her simmering anger at her father’s strictness. That lie, she said, “spun out of control.” Soon, she said, she felt compelled to invent lurid details so she would not be branded a liar. “They kept wanting more and more details,” she said. “I didn’t know what they were looking for, so I made stuff up.”

See also Meredith Maran, “My Lie: Why I falsely accused my father.”

Attorney-activist Alton Maddox, Jr. was eventually suspended from practicing law for his role in the Brawley case, essentially because he continued to push a false narrative even after he had reason to know it was false. See “The Lawyer’s Duty to Check Facts,” where Joel Cohen notes that “a lawyer cannot be ‘intentionally ignorant.’” Unfortunately, reporter Mary Murphy may face little penalty for airing a false story which she should have known was false (since she was unable to confirm it, and it flies in the face of reliable sources). Long live tabloid TV!

Why do reporters keep acting in such a low and unethical manner? Because sensation drives ratings. If we want a more civil society, we need to stop giving out Emmys for crap. We get the behavior we reward.

Note: Anne Carlton and Gary Falk are two of a handful of people involved with anti-cult groups who mercilessly cyberstalk Sri Chinmoy and Sri Chinmoy Centre. Celia Corona-Doran (a.k.a. Suchatula Cecelia Corona) is another about whom I have written previously. Her modus operandi is similar in that she tries to entice journalists into publishing anti-cult hate material which is false, but which appeals to a certain bigoted mindset. See:

“Can Salon Learn From Rolling Stone’s Mistakes? Part 1”
“False Salon Story: What was said at the time”
“Understanding Media: The Smear Campaign”

Michael Howard

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

This post is Part 1 in a series. Read Parts 2 and 3 here:
“PIX11’s Mary Murphy: Stalking The Truth (but lies will also do)”
“PIX11’s Mary Murphy: So You Think You Can Lie”

Sidebar: Reconciling claims made by different Tribune Media properties

Tribune Media owns/has owned a number of different properties. Some of them, like the Chicago Tribune, engage in “legit” news reporting, and have a staff of reporters covering specialized subjects. Others, like WPIX-TV, are more tabloid-oriented and tend to evoke the old line about general assignment reporters being equally ignorant in all areas.

Manya Brachear Pashman is the Chicago Tribune’s religion reporter. Her qualifications include a master’s degree in religious studies from Columbia University. She has covered two Popes, and the Dalai Lama’s visits to Chicago. When Sri Chinmoy passed away in October 2007, she wrote:

Guru inspired harmony, French toast

I am hungry and heartbroken. Victory’s Banner, a popular Roscoe Village brunch spot run by the disciples of a New York-based guru, will remain dark this weekend as the sari-clad restaurateurs observe an eight-day vigil of meditation, song and poetry recitation in memory of Sri Chinmoy, their spiritual leader. The world peace advocate died of a heart attack at his home Thursday while awaiting word on whether he had won this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.

A spiritual guru to thousands around the world, Chinmoy opened scores of centers to spread his gospel of peace and harmony around the world. As a facilitator of peace meditations for the United Nations, Chinmoy was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition that his “ceaseless work … crystallizes his belief in the unity and affinity among nations and the individuals who inhabit them.”

Chinmoy, who was 76 when he died, wrote more than 1,600 books of prose and poetry, composed more than 20,000 pieces of music and played more than 800 Peace Concerts in venues like Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. But he never claimed to be a master musician. In fact, he often would falter and improvise on stage. For him, music was a gateway to meditation. Physical fitness was a path to harmony.

That’s why at the age of 55 he picked up a barbell and soon after founded the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team, which sponsored events that included the world’s longest footrace, the 3,100-mile Self-Transcendence Race.

A tennis player, long-distance runner and eventually champion weightlifter, Chinmoy credited his inner peace and strength to an outer strength demonstrated by his ability to lift thousands of pounds. With the aid of a special contraption, he raised trucks, elephants and single-engine planes inches off the ground. He also lifted celebrities including Rev. Jesse Jackson, comedian Eddie Murphy and several Catholic bishops. The Wall Street Journal labeled him the “Stunt Man of the Spiritual World.”

But more notable was Chinmoy’s ability to uplift people spiritually with his poetry, prose, music, meditation and yes, menus. He promoted a vegetarian diet. In Roscoe Village, his disciples run Victory’s Banner restaurant and a bookstore where they offer meditation courses and friendship.

In fact, few weekends go by when I don’t stop at Victory’s Banner for “my usual,” a tasty tofu scramble called the Eggless Wonder. Not only are their breakfast specials worth the wait, but so are the intriguing conversations that almost always unfold before I pay the bill.

While I never had the opportunity to meet Chinmoy, I have gotten to know his followers over the years. I will miss breakfast on Saturday. But my heart goes out to them as they mourn a man whom they credit for having a profound influence on their lives—a legacy that hopefully will last for many years to come.

* * *

Comment: You see, she just gets it because she has the chops in religious studies and is a genuine seeker herself, whereas Mary Murphy is totally clueless. Murphy’s massive blunder believing Anne Carlton is the equivalent of believing that the woman stalking David Letterman was really his wife.

One of the differences between reputable publications and tabloids is that reputable publications are concerned with accuracy, even when (or perhaps especially when) covering spiritual minorities. But tabloids tend to pander to hateful stereotypes about the religious Other, and to portray minority adherents as “folk devils” in order to spur reader interest.

Tribune Media also publishes the God Squad articles by Rabbi Marc Gellman, which he used to co-write with the late Monsignor Thomas Hartman, affectionately known as “Father Tom.” To see what Rabbi Gellman and Father Tom had say about Sri Chinmoy, please browse to “Father Tom, The God Squad, and Sri Chinmoy.”

* * *

Better Reporting on Religious and Ethnic Minorities

Tips for journalists on overcoming false balance, rejecting hate material, and making sense of moral panics


As someone who’s been familiar with Sri Chinmoy and the Peace Run for three decades, I’ve noticed that press coverage varies widely in reliability and accuracy. Here are some tips for journalists covering religious and ethnic minorities. These tips also apply to Sri Chinmoy, the Peace Run, and related entities (some of which are secular, but are inspired by spiritual beliefs).

Note: Many people would to be quick to point out differences between “religious” and “spiritual” — with “religious” perhaps connoting dogma and ritual, and “spiritual” suggesting a personal quest for meaning. Yet, there is a continuum between the two, and in this article the terms are used somewhat interchangeably.

Near the end, I include a list of resources which I find helpful in understanding Sri Chinmoy and the Peace Run.

The problem of false balance

I greatly respect journalists and journalism, and know there are practical reasons why some journalists don’t get a story quite right. There are time pressures, and difficulties making sense of an unfamiliar subject. Particularly if the story is considered low priority, there’s always the temptation to simply cut-and-paste material from the Internet, or to invoke a familiar meme rather than doing careful research. There’s also the problem of “false balance.” Rem Rieder writes:

No matter what the news media’s many critics believe, most journalists endeavor to be fair, to give both sides rather than choose sides. In that effort, there’s a tendency to print what someone says, print what the other side says and call it a day.

The trouble is, there isn’t always equal merit on both sides. So, in instances where one side is largely fact-based, and the other is spouting obvious nonsense, treating both sides equally isn’t balanced. It’s misleading.

Often journalists are reluctant to state the conclusions that stem from their reporting, out of the concern that they will appear partisan or biased. But just laying out both positions without going further in an effort to establish the truth can create [false balance]. And that doesn’t do much good for the readers and the viewers.

Journalism isn’t stenography. It’s not treating everything the same when it’s not the same. It’s about giving citizens information about public affairs that is as accurate as possible.

— Rem Rieder, “The danger of false balance in journalism,” USA Today

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