2.28.2007

Sources & S.H.I.T.: Pondering Bachmann's Partition Claim

In her already-infamous podcast interview with St. Cloud Times reporter Larry Schumacher, U.S. Rep. Michelle Bachmann, R-Minn., sounded pretty certain Iran had "already decided" to partition Iraq. "There's already an agreement made," she said, to "create a terrorist safe haven zone" in the northwest part of Iraq. While iffy on the details, she even offered a name for the state that Iran would create: "The United... um, I'm sorry. I can't remember the name of it now, but it's going to be called the Iraq State of Islam, something like that."

Despite pressure from newspapers statewide to clarify the source of her allegations, Bachmann's only official comment was that she's sorry if her "words have been misconstrued" (what the Star Tribune's Eric Black, who broke the story, calls "a classic of the genre where you give the impression that you are retracting, apologizing and clarifying but do none of the above"). Since she offers no credible explanation, speculating on where she got her information is fair game.

So, what distinguishes Bachmann's claim from other partition plans that have been floating around for years? Her use of the specific name, the "Iraq State of Islam." Any guess about her source should start there — and one such explanation, be forewarned, is full of S.H.I.T.

Bachmann's own explanation for her podcast admission suggests she was merely repeating much-discussed plans for a three-way partition of Iraq along ethnic lines. According to a report by Gary Halbert at Global Research, in 2002 the United States prepared a pre-invasion plan that included separate territory for Sunnis, Kurds, and Shiites. The central state — and not "northern, western," in Bachmann's words — in that plan was to be called the "United Hashemite Kingdom." It's not all that close to the Iraq State of Islam, but is one of the few cases where partition states are named.
Another possible explanation: Bachmann misconstrued satire for hard news, just as China's Beijing Evening News did in 2002 when it earnestly reported a made-up story from The Onion about U.S. plans to put a retractable roof on the Capitol. It's possible Bachmann read the essay, "Blood Borders: How a better Middle East would look," in the Armed Forces Journal.

The piece is written by Ralph Peters, a retired Army lietenant colonel whose ideas about Iraq frequently appear at FrontPageMagazine.com, a site where Bachmann-style conservatism is heralded. As he did in the 2003 New York Post essay Break Up Iraq Now!, Peters called for a three-way division of Iraq. "A Frankenstein's monster of a state sewn together from ill-fitting parts, Iraq should have been divided into three smaller states immediately" after the fall of Baghdad. In fact, he calls for the redrawing of national boundaries across the region: Iraq's Shiite southern zone would be the heart of the Arab Shia State, whereas the House of Saud's turf would be dubbed Saudi Homelands Independent Territory.

Bachmann, who might've read the piece, might have missed Peters' joke: He was editorializing through the sophomoric acronyms A.S.S. (which he describes as "rimming much of the Persian Gulf") and S.H.I.T. (which is "confined to a rump" around Riyahd).

A more likely (but less funny) explanation is offered by conservative blogger Jay Reding. Arguing that Bachmann is both wrong and right, he wrote, "Bachmann is actually correct, except she's confusing Iran and al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda did indeed declare their own Islamic State of Iraq." There are holes in that theory: al-Qaeda, a terrorist group, made a rogue declaration of statehood, a far cry from Iran's "agreement" Bachmann claims knowledge of. And if it was a mere slip-up, why won't Bachmann say as much? Maybe she's simply using the rhetoric her party employed to launch the Iraq war, lumping together the perpetrators of 9/11 with Saddam Hussein's ilk. Another name she uses often in the St. Cloud Times podcast, after all, is that favorite catchall, the Global War on Terror.

[Cross-posted at Minnesota Monitor.]

2.27.2007

House of Shame: Legislators and Citizens Address Emotional, Legal Sides of Predatory Lending

Glarushia Davis blames "Minnesota Nice" -- and herself -- for falling prey to predatory lenders. A few years ago, she refinanced her mortgage in hopes of using the extra money to get new siding for her St. Paul home. She assumed her lender had the best of intentions and agreed to a loan with an 8.5 percent interest rate that would convert to a fixed-rate loan at the end of two years. But by the end of those two years, she said, the rate had swollen to 14 percent, and that promised fixed rate never materialized. Instead, she struggled with monthly payments that rose from $759 to more than $1,400.

"I'm embarrassed to admit I was that stupid," she said. She was one of several Twin Cities residents who discussed their experiences with predatory lenders at a town hall meeting in north Minneapolis Monday night. Such mortgage brokers offer quick and easy access to loans that benefit the lender while often leaving the borrower with unmanageable debt or hidden costs.

Organized by ACORN and Jewish Community Action, the meeting of about 150 community residents and leaders also included testimony by Guisela Dominguez, who bought a house in Columbia Heights two years ago. As her monthly mortgage payments ballooned from $1,200 a month to $1,500, she fell four months behind in paying. Speaking through a translator, she said the lender told her she'd need to come up with $10,000 in cash, plus an additional $700 in back payments to save her house. She lost her home four months ago. Likewise, Ignacio Garcia purchased a home through a major Twin Cities-based realty company, but within 15 days of closing, he was told the place was uninhabitable, and utilities were shut off.

Their stories illustrate what ACORN organizers and state legislators say are common tactics among predatory, or "sub-prime," lenders: granting loans without verifying the borrower's income or long-term ability to pay, deceiving borrowers about hidden fees that jack up monthly payments, and using "negative amortization loans," ones with payments so low, borrowers actually owe more at the end of a year of payment than they did at the start of the year.

These practices are partly to blame for today's near-record home foreclosure rates here in Minnesota and the country in general, where there were around 1.2 million foreclosures in 2006. According to Michael Calhoun, president of the Center for Responsible Lending, "2.2 million sub-prime home loans made in recent years have already failed or will end in foreclosure. These foreclosures could cost as much as $164 billion -- an amount that could send more than 4 million children through college." Closer to home, there were fewer than 1,000 home foreclosures in Hennepin County six years ago, according to ACORN statistics, but in 2006, there were more than 3,000. In Ramsey County, that number jumped from 300 to more than 1,400 in the same time span.

State Reps. Jim Davnie and Joe Mullery, both DFL-Minneapolis, attended the meeting to discuss the predatory lending bills they'll each be introducing this session. The bills aim to do away with "no-document loans," explained by Davnie as loans "where they don't know what you can afford but they sell you the mortgage anyway." They also aim to rein in negative amortization loans, abolish penalties for borrowers who repay their loans early and ban what the lending industry calls "yield-spread premiums," bonuses paid to mortgage brokers who get borrowers to sign up for loans at a rate higher than what they qualify for.

"The best analogy I can come up with is, if at the end of the day the grocery store owner looked at the till and split with the cashier anything extra she was able to charge you on the bag of carrots," he said. "They've been kicking back some of that over-charge to the broker who sold you the mortgage."

Mullery's bill aims to give citizens the "private right of action"; that means a loan recipient can hire a lawyer who then gets the same legal rights the state attorney general has in defending individual rights. It also criminalizes predatory lending, in some cases. "If it's clearly a violation of the law, then they can be held for crime," said Mullery. "That's a lot more scary to them than a civil action where they may lose some money."

Like Davis, Dave Snyder, an organizer for Jewish Community Action, referenced "Minnesota Nice," admitting that the stories he heard Monday night made him "pissed off." Fair access to credit on reasonable terms is a basic tenet of his organization and his faith tradition. "A 13th-century biblical scholar and philosopher called Moses ben Maimonides teaches us that that highest ethical thing you can do to rebuild the world is to give somebody a fair loan so they can become self-sufficient," he said. "What a diminishment of that principle, what a defilement of that principle, what a corruption of that principle to have somebody giving a predatory loan that promises somebody to fulfill the American dream and then takes their home away."

U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., capped off the evening with information on a federal predatory lending bill that is now being drafted. He expects it will be similar to -- and possibly stronger than -- a version introduced last year by Reps. Mel Watt and Brad Miller, both D-N.C., along with Barney Frank, D-Mass., new chair of the House Financial Services Committee. He says he'll work to incorporate features of the Minnesota bills in the federal draft.

Ellison, a longtime north side resident and former state senator, said "abusive mortgages" target people in districts like his -- and they contribute to the overall decline of neighborhoods. "In the sub-prime mortgage market, it's estimated that 20 percent of them -- one out of five -- are going to result in a foreclosure. They don't happen evenly everywhere. Yeah, there's a few out in Eden Prairie and Minnetonka, but they tend to cluster," he said. "You'll see multiple houses on the same block that are boarded up. That says this neighborhood is vulnerable. It says to some people who might want to buy there that maybe they might not want to buy. It says that if they turn around and re-rent these units, maybe the landlords will have to lower standards for who lives in those units. And before you know it, it has a negative spiral on the whole neighborhood. We will not allow the creation of slums in our neighborhood."

Vital neighborhoods, he added, rest on citizens supporting each other to expose and resist such lending practices. Bookending Davis' remarks early in the evening, he concluded that action, not shame, are key to defeating "well financed" opposition to lending reforms.

"We were raised to always want to pay our bills, and we get a little embarrassed when we find ourselves in a financial tough spot. We're saying, 'How can we be so dumb?' And we're taking all this shame upon ourselves, and we don't ask for help," he said. "Don't stand alone in this situation. When our friends and our neighbors and relatives tell us they got into a bad loan, we can't engage in shaming behavior. We've got to say the blame is not on the person who wanted to get a good loan, who expected to get a good loan, who had every right to believe they would be treated fairly, but is on the avaricious people who sold them this bad loan in the first place."


Photos: Keith Ellison and Jim Davnie confer (top); Ellison addresses the audience.

Courtesy of TobinRussell.com

Cross-posted at Minnesota Monitor.

2.26.2007

Newspaper Blackout Poems

Nice! Comic book artists and librarian Austin Kleon takes inspiration from the news, creating found poetry from news clippings and a Sharpie. This one's entitled, "Time Travel in a Domestic Car."

2.22.2007

Campaign 2.0: Obama's Social Network

According to the Federal Elections Commission, 109 people had filed to run for president before the end of 2006. Of those, how many have a clue about Web-based campaigning?

Over the next weeks, I'll be looking at the Web sites of major-party candidates who are considering running for president. I'll look at the trends and technology, design and branding. I'll track puns (Mrs. Clinton calls her faithful "Hillraisers," while Chris Dodd commands "The Dodd Squad.") and patriots (Tommy Thompson and Mitt Romney appear in heroic relief against the flapping furls of the flag), the ominous (Tom Vilsack's flying V logo) and the oblivious (Tom Tancredo goes all Ted Stevens on us, confusing a Web page for an e-mail: "Dear Friend, I am writing to you as a fellow believer in the cause of securing America's borders.")

First up, Barack Obama's site...


If you don't believe Barack Obama is a contender, check out his Web site. It's million-dollar look (and, I'm guessing, development budget), is crisp and clear, filled with some of Web 2.0's best doodads, but thankfully without the telltale Web 2.0 design cues (i.e., his name isn't ObamrTM and the word Beta appears nowhere). The logo is all heartland chic: patriotic, rural and optimistic without wrapping itself in the flag; it conjures a "morning in America" feel as Obama's "O" rises over plow furrows that double as flag stripes. The look is restrained and tasteful — in sharp contrast to the man he hopes to succeed, whose tough-guy design has mimicked an interstate highway sign, NASCAR motifs, the colors of local NFL teams (at a Wisconsin rally, Bush's campaign signs took on Packer green and gold, while here in Minnesota they shifted to VikPublishings purple), and a bold flying W.

But what's most impressive is the site's technology. The Obama campaign appears to be using custom-designed, proprietary social-networking software that falls under that favorite Web 2.0 prefix, My.BarackObama.com (interestingly, while Obama has a mySpace account, there seems to be no link to the Rupert Murdoch-owned networking site anywhere on his home page: coincidence?). After users create a free account, they can start a blog, invite friends, publicize events, and — get this — do "personal fundraising" for the candidate. That is, you can customize a page, complete with a fundraising thermometer and room for a photo you can upload (my test-page, entitled "Let's Go Sledding!," features my frantic dog chasing my wife and I down a winter hill), and invite people to pitch in for Barack.

Users can create groups, and according to the site's blog, more than 1,000 groups already exist, from the Pasadena-based Macs for Barack (for Apple users) to the local Minnesotans for Obama. With a nod to hipsters and open-sourcers, there's a Creative Commons bug at the bottom; for the youngsters, a link to Obama's Facebook and Flickr sites. For the deeply interactive, there's YouTube; for the literary, speech transcripts; for the non-voter, a link to a registration site. Truly, whatever way you want to access information, this rich site has it: XML syndication; a store, where one can buy union-made T-shirts for the cutesy price of $20.08 apiece; and a campaign blog that gets both updated and comments, lots of 'em.

Conclusion: Obama's site is excellent, aesthetically and tactically. For a young candidate early in his political career, it's filled with rich content, from his political platform (available in mulitiple formats) to videos where voters can get a feel for less content-based factors like his demeanor and body language. For voters turned off by the Bush Republicans' machismo, it offer a stark distinction, nodding to national pride without veering into flag-waving, lapel-pin patriotism. And, while it uses the tools of pop culture, it doesn't dumb down politics. Best of all, it leverages the social networking phenomenon (and relationship marketing practices) Obama's campaign has already benefitted from: his fans have created numerous Wikis for him, he's got nearly 50,000 MySpace friends, and supporters have created several Draft Obama sites. That last group needn't waste its energy: the site makes it clear, this isn't an exploratory committee site, it's an online campaign hub.

[Cross-posted at Minnesota Monitor.]

Gandhi and Gunners

Amazing shot by Jerusalem-based AP photojournalist Muhammed Muheisen, via Wooster Collective.

2.20.2007

Purple Heart-winning amputee told not to wear shorts at Bush event

Support our troops? From the Washington Post's explosive expose on conditions at Walter Reed:
Sgt. David Thomas, a gunner with the Tennessee National Guard, spent his first three months at Walter Reed with no decent clothes; medics in Samarra had cut off his uniform. Heavily drugged, missing one leg and suffering from traumatic brain injury, David, 42, was finally told by a physical therapist to go to the Red Cross office, where he was given a T-shirt and sweat pants. He was awarded a Purple Heart but had no underwear.

David tangled with Walter Reed's image machine when he wanted to attend a ceremony for a fellow amputee, a Mexican national who was being granted U.S. citizenship by President Bush. A case worker quizzed him about what he would wear. It was summer, so David said shorts. The case manager said the media would be there and shorts were not advisable because the amputees would be seated in the front row.

" 'Are you telling me that I can't go to the ceremony 'cause I'm an amputee?' " David recalled asking. "She said, 'No, I'm saying you need to wear pants.' "

David told the case worker, "I'm not ashamed of what I did, and y'all shouldn't be neither." When the guest list came out for the ceremony, his name was not on it.

ThinkProgress has more.

Matthew Barney, can I have my autograph?

My autograph project, Signifier/Signed, keeps growing: I've now got 45 posts up by celebrities who did or didn't (ahem, Ray Charles) sign my name, including this one by Cremaster creator and Mr. Bjork, Matthew Barney, obtained by a former Walker curator and scrawled on a cocktail napkin.

Other recent additions: filmmaker Wim Wenders, No Logo author Naomi Klein, and jazz great Dave Brubeck.

Spank.

A float depicting U.S. President George W. Bush being spanked by the Statue Of Liberty passes by during the Rose Monday carnival parade in Mainz, western Germany, on Monday, Feb. 19, 2007. Thousands of spectators attended the traditional street carnival parade in the state of Rhineland-Palatinates’s capital. (AP Photo/Bernd Kammerer)

Australia bans incandescent bulbs

Australia will be the world’s first country to ban incandescent lightbulbs in a bid to curb Greenhouse gas emissions, with the government saying on Tuesday they would be phased out within three years. Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull said yellow incandescent bulbs, which have been in use virtually unchanged for 125 years, would be replaced by more efficient compact fluorescent bulbs by 2009.

2.18.2007

Masky, mammalian zeitgeist

Regine posts images of Spanish designer Carlos Diez's new fashion line, featuring dapper plaid suits and black dresses topped by horny mammal masks. Maybe it's just me, but it seems... familiar.
Artist Adam Helms' tined and masked militiamen are members of the New Frontier Army, a fictitious group whose appearance hearkens mythology, historical separatist movements, and revolutionary heroes.

Cameron Jamie's horned, fur-faced beasts aren't his own invention: his film Kranky Klaus documents the mayhem wreaked by Krampus, St. Nick's alter ego who runs amok in Austria's Bad Gastein Valley every year on December 6 (see the Krampus masks he had created by Austrian crafters below). While not exactly mainstream, the film has been making the rounds; it screened at the Whitney Biennial and his Walker retrospective last summer.

Is this just art influencing art? Or is there something else, something masky and mammalian, in the zeitgeist these days? In Orwellian times, who can't confess a desire to conceal one's identity once in awhile—or, even, to appear more fierce than we really are?

Or is there something here about wildness? We've got no-fly lists and surveillance cameras that record our traffic infractions, neighbors snitching on Muslim neighbors and the regimentation of the military illustrated on the evening news every night. Like Krampus' mischief and the New Frontier Army's independent force, perhaps the animal metaphor stands for some other kind of wildness--some kind of untamed lawlessness...

2.16.2007

Denis Darzacq's La chute

"When the social elevator is broken you have to know how to bounce. Between the take off and the fall, the man parachuted in the city learns to control his trajectory. In the rough manner of architecture, he opposes the elasticity between his body and his desires. This gravitation exercize requires Discipline, even if it's not the one we've learned in classrooms. After the riots of last autumn, the photograph Denis Darzacq realized 16 of those perilous shots, that says the turbulences and the life in precarious balance."

2.15.2007

Chris Jordan runs the numbers

Interesting new project from Chris Jordan: using existing photos he illustrates statistics—from spending on the Iraq War to purchases of GMC Yukon Denali SUVs—using repeated imagery. In this case, he's depicting the 2.3 million Americans who were incarcerated in 2005, representing them through folded and stacked prison uniforms.
Earlier: An image from Jordan's Intolerable Beauty series.

Wrong on several levels

I've never been a fan of wearing your patriotism on your quarter panel, but this twist on the "Support our troops" car ribbon is just wrong. Especially considering the "Support Pimpin'" ribbon was spotted on my street in north Minneapolis, the local neighborhood hardest hit by gang violence and prostitution. I invite those who call me out as humor-impaired to join me next time I pick up the telltale signs of pimpin', used condoms dumped on my kerb.

2.13.2007

Annarama! Anna Nicole Smith and the Experience Newspaper

Where were you when you heard about Anna Nicole Smith's death?

An odd question, for sure, since it seems to put the tragic end of a Playboy/Guess model's life last Thursday in the same category as, say, John F. Kennedy's assassination or the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

But seriously, where were you? I was at work, and a friend who gets CNN's breaking headlines via email told me about it. I definitely didn't learn about it by cracking open a newspaper. Yet, 12 or so hours later, when the morning edition of the Star Tribune came out, there was the news I — and the majority of the Web-connected, cable-news-watching, SMS-enabled, or e-mail-alerted world — already knew, right on the front cover.

But on Feb. 9, my morning paper wasn't alone. Of the 300 U.S. papers whose covers are recorded at the site Newseum each day, all but two dozen — not even 10 percent of the papers — deemed it big enough news to merit front-page coverage. Some used the photo to tease readers inside to learn more on Smith's demise, while many began telling of her collapse and death right there, along with the killing of American GIs in Iraq and whatever local happenings were deemed cover-worthy.

Why did the majority of these papers deem Anna Nicole Smith among the most important news of the day? Is a celebrity's death more "newsy" than, say, the power-sharing deal brokered by Fatah and Hamas in Palestine (which appeared on A3 of the Star Tribune that day), or developments in the case of the cab driver who was brutally gunned down in Brooklyn Center (reported on B4)? How come Smith, whose intellectual contributions to culture paled in comparison of those of writer Molly Ivins (who died Jan. 30), got front page placement when Ivins, who began her career as an employee of the Minneapolis paper, didn't?

Before the whys, here's the how-much: On a day that four Marines were killed and the sixth U.S. helicopter in three weeks was shot down in Iraq, Smith gobbled up the majority of cable's news programs. She was mentioned on CNN 522 percent more frequently than Iraq and 708 percent more often on MSNBC, according to ThinkProgress. And both the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post gave cover prominence to the story. The New York Times didn't — but it did purchase a "sponsored link" to "Anna Nicole Smith" on Google.

To state the obvious, America tunes in to lurid tales of rises and falls, rags and riches, T and A — a fact not lost on those who work in media. They just couch it in different terms.

Star Tribune managing editor Scott Gillespie acknowledged that Smith's death was a "talker," the stuff of proverbial water-cooler chat the next day. That talk factor "was helped — helped in a horrible way — by the recent death of her son, which is still mysterious," he said. Kate Parry, the paper's readers' representative, blogged on Thursday afternoon that "it was instantly the top-read story on startribune.com," echoing CNN's Larry King who, en route to capturing the coveted 25- to 54-year-old demographic that night, reported (or prophesied?), "The death of Anna Nicole Smith — it’s the number one story around the world tonight."

But what makes it news? A journalistic judgment on the part of editors or the public's insatiable demand for voyeuristic details? At the Los Angeles Times, Tim Rutten offers an answer: "[M]ainstream journalistic coverage of Smith's death is among the first such stories driven, in large part, by an editorial perception of public interest derived mainly from Internet traffic."

I'd argue with Rutten that this is the first such story: the Star Tribune's focus-group-tested redesign of October 2005 seems to be based in large part on "editorial perception of public interest." The paper partnered with Northwestern University's Readership Institute to reshape its content to better appeal to under-30 readers. Key to its success, they learned, was "intensifying" three experiences of readers: "Gives me something to talk about," "Looks out for my interests," or "Turned [me] on by surprise or humor." Outgoing editor Anders Gyllenhaal explained this so-called "experience newspaper" this way:
"Experiences are a way of converting traditional news judgment from editors’ definitions (what’s most interesting, what’s most important, what you just can’t believe happened) to readers’ definitions of how they react (what makes readers feel informed, what gives them something to talk about, what tells them the paper is looking out for their interests.)”
This trend toward consumer-driven news is what former Pioneer Press writer Jim Walsh seemed to reference in his final column for City Pages, his most recent gig, which ended abruptly when corporate bosses at New Times/Village Voice Media fired him two weeks ago. The piece, which never ran, chronicles the meeting of old-guard Pioneer Press writers at a St. Paul bar, where they lamented the death of journalism as they knew it:
The optimists talked about how there will always be a need for storytellers and good writing, no matter what the format or who/what owns/runs it. The pessimists talked about newspaper management’s desperation to woo younger readers with intelligence-insulting writing, blurbs and big graphics, and corporate ownership that values byline counts over originality, creativity, and flesh-and-blood connection with readers.

The rubbing elbows of it all, in other words, was an honest-to-God example of the human element – which, post-Enron, is the sort of grasp for grassroots credibility that corporations of all stripes are suddenly trying to replicate and fabricate (see: "Our Katie Couric" "My Star Tribune"; "My Starbucks"). And currently lost in the discussion about the corporate takeover of newspapers is how the process is slowly severing the intimate connection between readers and writers. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Annie in Andover doesn’t give a shit about who owns her paper; she cares about reading about what’s happening to her neighbors, including people who write for her newspaper.
While the Star Tribune's choice to give Anna Nicole A1 placement had little to do with what's happening in the neighborhoods of Minneapolis and St. Paul, reader's rep Kate Parry said there was fierce debate about how (and if) to include news about "the death of someone whose only claim to fame is a kind of notorious celebrity." She wrote of their conclusion:
Putting that person on page one as a straight obit could look sort of like gossip sheet fascination. But trying to find a story that explains why this unlikely person became the fascination of much of the country becomes an interesting sort of sociological approach.
Hence, the paper found an AP story that asked, "What so fascinates people about Anna Nicole Smith?" Written by Jocelyn Noveck, the story — which included three photos and almost 30 column inches of text — covered familiar terrain: Smith portrayed as the "perfect pop culture icon," "another sexy, tragic blonde" like Marilyn Monroe, and a "perverse Hollywood Horatio Alger story," while sprinkling in biographical tidbits about her days of topless dancing, teen pregnancy, the unexplained death of her son, and her famous marriage to an "89-year-old oil tycoon" (Tycoon? Is this a newspaper or "The Great Gatsby"?).

That have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too strategy seems a not-so-distant cousin to what the Los Angeles Times' Rutten calls "one of the cheapest journalistic tricks going" (and one this writer just might be engaging in): "[T]o get a piece of a mindless, tawdry media frenzy by denouncing it. The writer gets to wallow profitably in whatever gutter has everybody's attention while still being wry and high-minded. The readers get to join the fun without losing their self-respect. It's a win-win sort of arrangement for a certain knowing-wink-and-sly-nod wing of the media culture."

The Strib's coverage, while lengthy, was downright honorable in comparison to New York Spanish language daily Hoy, which devoted nearly its entire cover Friday to an image that featured an unobstructed view of the underside of Smith's breast; the New York Daily News, which included a screaming headline, "Scandal in the Wind"; or Philadelphia's Metro, which showed four Playboy covers and a fifth photo of Smith. (Ever restrained, the Wall Street Journal didn't put Smith on their cover; for contrast, it would've been nice to see Smith rendered in WSJ's trademark pointilist pen-and-ink.)

But compared to others, like West Hawaii Today, the coverage seemed excessive. WHT's editor Reed Flickinger didn't see the story as front-page news at all. "Had she burst into flame, spontaneously, perhaps, but that would be because of the cause of death, not the nature of the deceased," he wrote in an email. "Putting Anna Nicole Smith on the cover is exactly what is wrong with journalism, and to a larger degree, this country, today."

The Strib's managing editor, Scott Gillespie, says this kind of gauging and fulfilling of reader desires isn't new at all. He said, "I think it's wrong to say we at the Star Tribune have just decided in the past couple of years to put 'talker' stories on the cover. We've been doing it for years. In all 15 of the years I've worked here, there's been an effort to find the story people will be talking about."

Call it what you will — Gillespie's "talker," Gyllenhaal's "experience," Larry King's "number one story" — this belief that local audiences are served by papers piling on popular celebrity stories seems to ignore journalism's role to not just provide what readers want, but what they need to know to be active citizens. Editors argue that if diverse content draws readers who, after getting their Smith fix, keep reading about the new ballot initiative or funding for a stadium, the public interest is served. My guess is that while daily papers are enhancing the reading experience with celebrity news, lifestyle tips, and feel-good front-cover fluff, magazines like People and U.S. Weekly won't be reciprocating by upping their local news coverage.
Said Kevin Kaufman, editor of the Boulder, Colo., Daily Camera, where a photo of Smith on the cover ran with a teaser for readers to look inside for more:
I put stories out front that I think are important, newsy, interesting, odd, unusual, etc., and that will attract readers, regardless of whether they involve a U.S. Senate vote on the Bush Iraq plan, the local government moving from parking meters to parking kiosks, recruiting of players for the local college football team, the entertainment industry or an astronaut driving 900 miles in a diaper.
[Cross-posted at Minnesota Monitor.]

2.09.2007

Hearse chaser

Via City Pages' Blotter:

"Good afternoon. As you know, Anna Nicole Smith passed away this afternoon. Over the past few years, she has suffered a number of tragedies, including the recent death of her son, Daniel. Since 1995, Anna Nicole has been in court over her late husband's estate and she was a codefendant in the recent TrimSpa class-action lawsuit... I write to gauge your interest in speaking with Michael G. Pfeifer, a member in Caplin & Drysdale's Washington, D.C. office. His practice focuses on the international tax issues of wealthy individuals, including pre-immigration and expatriation planning, structuring cross-border investments, international deferred compensation and retirement planning, and estate planning, including the use of domestic and foreign trusts."

— excerpt from a Levick Strategic Communications press release received 50 minutes after the Associated Press reported the death of the former Playboy model and reality TV star

Turf war: Street artists v. guerrilla marketers

Via Wooster.

2.08.2007

Pazz & Jop: The local angle

moderntimescvr.jpghold-steady.jpgtapes-n-tapes-loon.jpg77.jpg

Every year, top music critics compile a massive poll on the best music from the previous year. This year's Village Voice Pazz and Jop Poll tallies votes from 494 music writers to come up with a list of the best albums and singles of 2006. From the involvement of local writers Chris Riemenschneider and Jon Bream (both from the Star Tribune) to Minnesota-born Bob Dylan taking top album honors for Modern Times, our fair state gets its due.

Bands with Minnesota connections getting top album votes include: The Hold Steady at number four (featuring members of the former TC band Lifter Puller) for Boys and Girls in America; at 137, Tapes 'n Tapes for their breakthrough album The Loon; and, fresh off his Super Bowl rockfest, Minneapolis' finest, Prince at #142 for 3121.

Other locally affiliated vote-getters for best album:

154. Golden Smog, featuring members of Soul Asylum and The Jayhawks, for Another Fine Day

161. P.O.S., a Rhymesayers up-and-comer, for Audition

399. (TIE) Soul Asylum, The Silver Lining

530. (TIE) Paul Westerberg, Music for Open Season; and Alan Sparhawk of Low for Solo Guitar

720. (TIE) Zebulon Pike, Zebulon Pike II: The Deafening Twilight

756. (TIE) Jessy Greene, A Demon and Her Lovers; and STNNNG, who played at the Walker's Summer Music & Movies in '06, for Fake Fake

2.07.2007

Fox's "Border War" coverage draws fire from immigrant advocates

A few days after Fox News CEO Rupert Murdoch admitted that his network tried to shape the agenda around the Iraq war and "basically supported the Bush policy in the Middle East", Minneapolis affiliate KMSP began running teasers for a Feb. 5 "Fox 9 Investigators" report on Minnesota National Guard troops stationed at the U.S.-Mexico border. The promos — a blur of camouflage and night-vision goggle views — suggested the piece might again be promoting the Bush administration's agenda: in covering Bush's border-control project Operation: Jump Start, Fox 9 sent reporter Jeff Baillon to be "embedded" with Minnesota troops on the "front line" of the "border war."

War has not been declared against Mexico or illegal immigrants, so naturally the two-segment piece took on a different tenor than promised: It linked illegal border crossings with drug crimes here in Minnesota — to the dismay of area immigrants' rights advocates.

The first segment, "Catch 'Em if They Can" [video], which aired during the 9 p.m. newscast Feb. 5, began with an ominous voice-over: "In the secret underworld of Twin Cities drug trafficking, most roads lead south — to Mexico." Then a man in a suit — he's never identified, but viewers might infer he's with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, the only organization named in the intro — tells of an illegal immigrant who was arrested locally in a recent sting for trying to sell "Mexican-made meth." While he was arrested, a voice-over tells us, "It's only a matter of time before someone else sneaks over the border to pick up where he left off."

Cut to: the Mexican border, where, as Baillon said in overdub, "in some places the only thing separating the two countries is an old cattle fence." Eighty National Guard troops from Minnesota work daily surveilling the border with high-tech equipment. But their days are fairly humdrum: In off hours, they play pool and hang out in barracks where, says one soldier, "contracted cleaners come in and clean everything up for us." They commute two to three hours from their base to their surveillance stations. And should they see an attempted border crossing, they're instructed to call the border control as they have no authority. (One soldier gets in a jab at the Bush administration: "The National Guard is finally doing a national mission. We're not overseas, we're over here taking care of the people we're supposed to be taking care of.")

The second piece, "Cat and Mouse Game" [video], aired during Monday's 10 p.m. newscast, had nothing to do with the Minnesota National Guard, but instead attempted to establish a link between illegal immigrants from Mexico and Minnesota's drug crimes. The unnamed man in the suit appears again in this segment, stating that "75 to 80 percent of the drugs consumed in the state of Minnesota come from across the Mexican or Southwest border. Unlike the first report, in which Baillon referred to illegal immigrants as "illegals" four times, he only did so once in the second, which focused on the tricks both smugglers and border agents use in their "game of chess" to outsmart each other. Minnesota content merely bookended the main story, which outlined the creative ways drug smugglers get their product from Juarez to El Paso and, ultimately, to "our twin towns."

So what's the problem?

For one, that use of "illegals," said Alondra Espejel, communications organizer at the Minnesota Immigrant Freedom Network. "For our community, it's a very derogatory term — like using the N-word is for the African-American community. We are indigenous people from this continent. It wasn't until white settlers came in and made laws that anyone could be considered illegal. But we don't believe human beings can ever be called illegal."

On Tuesday, Espejel issued a "media action alert" on the broadcast to the Freedom Network's list-serv outlining the organization's other concerns, including a lack of balance ("all of the people interviewed represented the voice of the authorities") and a connection between immigrants and drugs backed up only by "unproven and sensationalistic statements." She wrote:

It is stories like this [...] that create more problems in our society by fueling xenophobia and negative stereotypes of our communities. If the story contained any real information for folks to be more informed about, it was unfortunately overshadowed by the combat-style images, the negative stereotyping of immigrants as tied to crime, and the lack of a balanced representation of the subject. Indeed, the very "subject" of this report is still unclear to us as many complex themes were whimsically tied together in a journalistically unresponsible manner.
Indeed, Fox's "Fair and Balanced" motto didn't seem to be in evidence anywhere: No immigrants or immigrants-rights activists were interviewed.

Espejel acknowledged Fox 9 approached her organization, but they declined to be interviewed, because, in part, "television has not been good to our community." She recalled how another local TV station, KSTP, treated immigration attorney Susana de Leon in a June 2006 story. Espejel said de Leon was approached courteously by a KSTP reporter and told what the news segment was to include, but when the camera turned on, the story changed. "The questions were very problematic. They put her on the spot in ways no professional journalist would. They got it all on film and used it to craft a very anti-immigration, sensationalized piece that twisted her words." (KSTP no longer hosts the story on its website, but a version of the piece and the station's response to criticisms are cached here and here.)

Why, she asks, didn't Fox ask for comment from one of the scores of "white ally" organizations that work on immigration issues, groups from Affirm and the Office for Social Justice to the Catholic Church's Hispanic Ministries and the American Immigration Lawyers Association?

While the sensational — and militarized — nature of the story and its promo might have more to do with February sweeps, Espejel says there may be something to the notion that the news program is tied to Bush administration goals. Stories like these, she said, like the recent immigration raids at the Swift Co. plant in Worthington, are "very much tied to this idea that certain parties want to make it seem like something's being done. It's as if the Bush administration is saying, 'The immigration system didn't break under us, but we're doing something for it.'"

But the biggest complaint Espejel has is the most direct — and commonplace. The report used a "sensationalised series of images" to embrace an equation that groups like hers have long fought: "people of color" equals "crime."

"We've been hit over the head with it again and again," she said. "You'd think people in the mainstream media would figure it out."

Fox 9 would not reveal how many complaints the station has received and would not respond to key questions I posed: Who is the unnamed man who serves to vouch for the link between illegal immigrants and Twin Cities drug crime? How do they explain the "border war" promotions or the use of terms like "illegals"? Why didn't the report offer "fair and balanced" coverage by including the perspective of immigrants? Who says 75 to 80 percent of Minnesota's illegal drugs come from south of the border?

Reporter Jeff Baillon didn't reply to Minnesota Monitor's interview request, and KMSP's manager of investigations, Kim Kruger, forwarded a query to Bill Dallman, the station's vice president of news.

His reply, which was relayed through a representative at Fox's New York office, in its entirety:

"Fox 9 stands by its reporting."

[Cross-posted at Minnesota Monitor.]

Archived: Logo-izing Abu Ghraib

Learning that talented documentarian Erroll Morris is doing a film on torture at Abu Ghraib--and that his ideas are shaped by Susan Sontag's Regarding the Pain of Others and his own ideas on the rhetorical (or, perhaps, moral) power of photography (read his New Yorker piece on the subject here), I went digging through old Eyeteeth posts--one on Sontag, another on the "logo-izing" of Abu Ghraib. Rereading it, it seems worth another look. So, from the archives:

When I first saw that photo of a hooded man in Abu Ghraib’s sickly light, arms outstretched and fingertips wired, I wondered if I was seeing art – Goya meets Matthew Barney, Hannibal Lecter meets Christ on a crate. But the fact that it was orchestrated by American military men for maximum humiliation, rather than aesthetic effect, intensified its macabre allure. Could they have known that their prankish snapshot would fascinate us so, ending up on front pages worldwide, on folk-art murals in Iraq, on a Los Angeles highway overpass accompanied by the words "The War is Over," a suggestion of its inherent rhetorical force? Advertising’s supercharged images had nothing on this.

So it’s no surprise that’s where it ended up. A series of subverted branding posters in New York included the torture victim’s silhouette among a crowd of grooving hipsters, with white wires running not to imaginary car batteries but to gleaming iPods. Blackened out for graphic boldness, the Iraqi man has become an emblem for a dishonorable war – a logo, of sorts, as iconic as Nike’s dunking Air Jordan or the Playboy bunny. And like its corporate counterparts, it comes with a tagline: "iRaq. 10,000 volts in your pocket, guilty or innocent."

In a country where antiwar sentiment is pushed to the margins, it made me immediately jubilant: opposition to war has gone mainstream! Graphically powerful, intellectually interesting (if flawed: what does Apple have to do with Iraq?), the altered ads juxtapose an American version of freedom – young people expressing their individuality and nonconformity through a trendy consumer good – with another kind of "freedom" imposed half a world away. If this imagery could penetrate our commercial comfort zones and tweak our noses, maybe it could germinate resistance to the war. And how ironic if an image eerily reminiscent of the Crucifixion proved George W. Bush’s undoing – a Christian zealot finished off by pictures of a man strung-up and suffering.

But such thoughts quickly turned to unease. To have this kind of cognitive distance to coolly contemplate the rhetorical mechanics of image appropriation must mean one thing: its gut-level impact has been replaced by a less immediate, intellectual one. Its power has been dimmed. While repetition might be to blame, so might the logo-ization itself. The silhouetting negates details of the victim. Like the inherent meaninglessness of the Nike swoosh, it exists only as a vessel to pour branded messages into. Abu Ghraib’s wired man stopped being a human being when he became an abstraction into which all our antiwar gripes can be loaded. Maybe we can live with that. Like the old war photographer’s dilemma, perhaps activists have to determine whether saving a life or sparing a person greater humiliation outweighs the image’s potential to stop further suffering. That seems to be the logic of Freewayblogger, the creator of the Los Angeles highway banners, who says, "He’s already been through his torture – doing my share to remind people of that doesn’t bother me at all."

But there’s a broader tactical question: even with messages conceived on moral high ground, are we best serving our cause – or humanity – by trafficking in images of cruelty or violence? Can we compete in a media environment populated by Janet Jackson’s nipple, Dick Cheney’s "Go fuck yourself," and web photos of a contractor’s hacked-off head? And by trying, are we complicit in ratcheting up our collective tolerance to suffering? When news broke of the first beheading of an American in Iraq, I was overcome by queasiness. In the absence of an image, I imagined the sheer terror of Nicholas Berg’s last hours. But, weeks later, when I worked up the nerve to view photos of Paul Johnson, his severed head propped between the shoulder blades of his orange jumpsuit, I was calmly numb. The image was less bloody and more clinical than, say, Mel Gibson’s flayed Jesus, dressed up with special effects to leave no doubt about the depth of the man’s suffering.

Watching Fahrenheit 9/11, I winced at footage of a GI’s bomb-shattered arm, his tendons snaking out in a Terminator-like tangle, but the image didn’t linger long. What did, profoundly, was the story of Lila Lipscomb, a Michigan mom who lost a son in Iraq. Contorted by grief, physically incapacitated by loss, she testified that war’s impact goes heartbreakingly beyond the mere impact of bullets on flesh. Her story doesn’t need to be abstracted or amplified by smart design. When we logo-ize suffering, we forget what it represents: the dark heart of grief and loss that could easily be ours.

2.06.2007

Your money's not good here.

The National Collector's Mint, the tacky company that made commemorative coins, including a pop-up World Trade Center edition, from "the same silver that was reclaimed from the destruction," tried--and failed--to donate $30,000 to the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation. The Foundation, "uncomfortable with the history" of the firm and its coins, refused the gift. National Collector's Mint was fined for falsely stating each coin was made from pure silver.

Rupert fesses up.

In a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last week, News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch confirmed the obvious. Asked by Charlie Rose if his media holdings, which include the Fox News Channel, succeeded in shaping the agenda of the Iraq war, he answered, "No, I don't think so. We tried. We basically supported the Bush policy in the Middle East ...but we have been very critical of his execution."

From "homeless" to "unhoused."

After reading my post about artists' efforts to change perceptions of a Rio favela, Ben Molin points out a story in the San Jose Mercury News. "It's the story of a man trying to change the perception of what it means to be without a home in the shadows of Silicon Valley," Ben writes. The piece describes Norman Carroll's epiphany in thinking of his own struggles to find shelter:

A little boy walking with his mom stared at Carroll, who back then already had the same scraggly, lopsided beard covering a face beaten by the weather, arthritis, heart failure, depression and demons.

"The little boy said to me, 'You don't have a house, do you?' ''

Carroll sticks the butt into a full ashtray and delivers the bottom line.

"That little boy didn't think of me as someone to step over, ignore or push out of town,'' he says. "To him I was just somebody without a house. That's when I realized I was unhoused, not homeless.''

The distinction between being homeless and "unhoused'' may sound meaningless to you and me, but Carroll has been pressing his viewpoint tirelessly in Palo Alto ever since and getting results.

He delivered a speech he wrote, "Please, Don't Call Me Homeless,'' to the town's Human Relations Commission four years ago.

"Palo Alto is most definitely my home,'' the panhandler said to a gathering stunned by his speaking ability. "It's where I'm comfortable, within the limits of my situation. It's where I want to be, though not necessarily how. I am simply lacking a house, walls, roof, doors, locks and the security that comes with them.''

And now, local housing and social service providers are listening to the logic of this bent but unbroken man.

Read "Please, Don't Call Me Homeless."

2.05.2007

US to address global warming... by building giant mirrors

George Bush Sr. must've been right when he said the "American way of life is non-negotiable." That'd explain why US scientists are pushing bizarre technologies such as "giant mirrors in space or reflective dust pumped into the atmosphere" as a last-ditch attempt to cut carbon emissions rather than, you know, signing a global-warming treaty. In fact, after a new report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said global warming is “unequivocal” and that human activity has "very likely" caused most of the temperature increases since 1950, 45 nations signed a pact agreeing to reduce greenhouse gases. The US—producer of about 25% of global warming emissions—did not sign, nor did China or India.

One factor in the US lagging behind the rest of the world in accepting and addressing this problem:

Only 13 percent of Congressional Republicans believe global warming is man-made, according to a National Journal poll. Among Democrats, 94% believe humans exacerbate our climate problems.

2.02.2007

Favela, Before and After

Artists Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn just finished a huge public-art project in—and on—a favela on the outskirts of Rio de Janiero. Aiming to help favela dwellers shift perception of their home, they've incorporated local people in the conception and creation of the piece:

In order for the lives of people living in the favelas to improve, the popular perception of their neighborhoods must improve. The core of our idea is to help this happen by painting an entire hillside favela. Not in a uniform color, but with each house colored according to an elaborate plan so that the hillside will depict a huge image visible from prominent places in the city center. The exterior of every house will first be improved - exposed brick and raw concrete will be covered by a smooth plaster surface, enhancing its look and value.

The work will be planned and executed in full collaboration with the inhabitants of the favela.. a mix of political statement, social project and art. On one hand turning hundreds of slum dwellings into houses and on the other hand giving the creators, the favelados, a chance to show the rest of the world a different, positive side of their world. Since we want them to adopt the project and see it as their own it is important that all major decisions regarding image, design and colors are made by the favelados themselves.

Jesus Loves Osama

"Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." So says Jesus in the book of Matthew. But Australian PM John Howard seems to think that Christian message is too radical: he's told a Baptist church in Sydney he wishes they'd create a less controversial sign than the one that reads "Jesus Loves Osama."

2.01.2007

$337,500 a minute.

Exxon made record profits last year, totaling $39.5 billion.

In other news, oil from the massive Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989, which coated 1200 miles of Alaskan shoreline, "continues to threaten the damaged ecosystem there long after experts believed it would dissipate."

Via Cursor. Images.

Molly Ivins, part 2:

"So keep fightin' for freedom and justice, beloveds, but don't you forget to have fun doin' it. Lord, let your laughter ring forth. Be outrageous, ridicule the fraidy-cats, rejoice in all the oddities that freedom can produce. And when you get through kickin' ass and celebratin' the sheer joy of a good fight, be sure to tell those who come after how much fun it was."