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:

edwin-lyngar-green-behind-the-ears_v03c

Blowhard blogger Edwin Lyngar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Howard

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


Sidebar: Foghorn Leghorn in “Weasel While You Work”

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

* * *

Is PIX11 News Making Your Kids Dumber?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PIX11 News Four Roses Bourbon segment:

PIX11 News Bombay Sapphire Gin segment:

PIX11 News Spooky Spirits segment:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Children and marketing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deeper implications of native advertising

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

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

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

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

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.

skid-row-2

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:

https://www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov/#&panel1-1

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:

WPIX-TV
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”
http://www.cjr.org/behind_the_news/sponsored_content.php

“Native Advertising Examples: 5 of the Best (and Worst)”
http://www.wordstream.com/blog/ws/2014/07/07/native-advertising-examples

“Five Tricky Ad Trends to Watch for in 2015”
https://www.truthinadvertising.org/five-tricky-ad-trends-watch-2015/

“Native advertising and sponsored content: Research on audience, ethics, effectiveness”
http://journalistsresource.org/studies/society/news-media/native-advertising-sponsored-content-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.”

PIX11-larceny-bourbon

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.

pix11-news

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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.

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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.”

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