Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Roman Polanski Purge

In which I vomit out all of my feelings about Roman Polanski, in hopes that I never have to think about him again.

I don't give a rat's ass about Roman Polanski. I have no stake in this battle. I've seen one or two of his movies, yeah yeah. He's done some stuff.

But this is about a crime that he committed. I'm not going to go into detail about what he did, because there are extremely graphic details about it all over the internet. You can find the details if you want them.

My problem with the whole Roman Polanski discussion is that there's a couple of points that are being completely ignored. So here's my attempt to correct the record.

Point #1 - This is not about whether Polanski is guilty. It's about him fleeing the country.

There is no question about whether Polanski is guilty of a crime, so quit with all the cute dithering about how it wasn't rape-rape and the age of consent in California. Polanski pled guilty in a court to unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor. By his own words, he is guilty.

Because of some stuff that happened between the judge and the prosecuting attorney, Polanski thought his plea bargain might not hold up, and so he fled the country. Let me say that again. He left the goddamn country because he thought that the judge might not give him a fair shake. He is a fugitive from justice. The whole legal discussion underway right now is about whether he should be brought back to the United States to face justice. It is not appropriate to be rearguing the merits of the case, because the case is not the issue. Polanski's flight from justice is the issue.

And that brings me to my second point -

Point #2 - The Roman Polanski discussion is all about class privilege.

Think about the case itself. Why was the victim anywhere near Polanski? He was a successful director, a rich man, a famous man who traveled in posh circles. He had been asked to guest-edit the French edition of Vogue, and he was taking pictures of "women" - ostensibly for the magazine. The victim - a "woman" who was only thirteen years old at the time - hoped to be featured in the magazine.

The private photo session that led to the rape happened at the home of his buddy Jack Nicholson, who left him the keys while he went out of town.

I don't know what Polanski was thinking at the time, whether he thought he could get away with it because of his fame, his connections. But the whole scenario happened because he was a rich man, a powerful man, and that was probably the reason why the victim's mother trusted her with Polanski. That was why the two were in the same room at the same time.

And then he was arrested, and then he pled guilty, and he was offered a plea bargain. Circumstances changed, the plea bargain appeared to be crumbling, and he made a decision. Did he ask for a new judge? Did he go public with his charges that the prosecutor was up to no good? No. He left the country.

Most of us do not have the option of leaving the country when it suits us. We have to face our crimes, our mistakes, our failures. Not so for Polanski. He could start over again. He could use his wealth and his good friends in Hollywood to continue in his chosen career.

Who are his defenders now? Harrison Ford. Woody Allen. Harvey Weinstein. Martin Scorsese. Debra Winger. There are more. Some see it as artists defending a fellow artist. Or you could see it as the rich and comfortable, defending the rich and comfortable.

Think about it. Think about what's not being said in the news stories. Now think about your average poor defendant. Would he have the choice to flee the country, set up a comfortable home in Europe, continue to practice his trade in a very public way for three decades? Not on your life.

Judges change their minds frequently. Miscarriages of justice occur. There are people who die in prison after being convicted falsely. People are identified by mistaken witnesses. People cry for DNA tests and are denied them. This happens in our country. It is not a perfect system, but it is our system. It needs to improve. This is a true statement.

The phrase "throwing yourself on the mercy of the court" is for the poor. For the rich, like Polanski, there are other options. If you don't like what the judge has to say, just skip the country and set up shop somewhere else. Those who can afford to ignore justice will ignore it.

Those who will defend Polanski need to think about this. If you believe in the justice system of our country, you believe that no one is above the law. If you support Polanski in this, you believe that the justice system is only for the poor unwashed masses, and that the rich are not obligated to accept justice when they can simply find another country who will treat them better, somewhere else where they can wipe their slate clean, where they can start over as an artist instead of a felon.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Dragging ACORN Through the Mud

It's a damn shame what's being done to ACORN.

Disclosures:  Most of you know that I'm a former community organizer.  I have never worked for ACORN, but I have worked for organizations that worked with ACORN.  I worked along the same territory as them - fighting for the rights of low-income, disenfranchised people.  

I have written pretty bluntly about ACORN's failures in the past, so you know I'm not a cheerleader for them.  They have screwed up massively in the past, and like most large organizations or companies, they will probably screw up again sometime in the future.

Having said that, they don't deserve what's happening.

For those who haven't been following the stories, there have been a series of videos supposedly showing ACORN workers giving two individuals - a "pimp" and a "prostitute" - advice on setting up a brothel.  The videos have been shown repeatedly on Fox News and have been picked up to a lesser degree by other media.  The "pimp" was O'Keefe, wearing a completely ridiculous outfit.  The "prostitute" was Giles, masquerading as a prostitute who apparently favored the name Kenya.  (There's nothing racist at all in her using that name, I'm sure.)  

This is character assassination, plain and simple.  Two people with a hidden camera are targeting ACORN offices, recording embarrassing videos of staff members.  Both of the participants, Hannah Giles and James O'Keefe, have admitted to having a political agenda.  They're not out to find the truth.  They're out to get ACORN.   They're out to get ACORN, because in the feverish minds of some conservative activists and writers, ACORN is at the heart of Obama's election and bringing down ACORN will inevitably lead to Obama's collapse.

Look, I've worked as a door-to-door canvasser and I've worked as a community organizer.  I've walked into some situations I thought were a little sketchy.  I'm pretty sure that if someone wanted to catch me on video saying something embarassing, and they followed me around for long enough and caught me off-guard, they might be able to do it.  It might happen.  And so it's gone with ACORN that they've caught some workers saying some fairly embarrassing things. 

Do the videos show the truth?  Well, some staffers probably said some things they shouldn't have.  But we don't know the whole story, because the full unedited videos haven't been released and probably never will.  They could be edited.  They could have manipulated the audio, or the video, or both.   We don't know what actually happened in those rooms, and we will almost certainly never know.

Is the behavior of the ACORN workers criminal behavior? There have been no criminal charges filed in any state in connection with these videos.  Why?  Well, O'Keefe and Giles aren't police officers, they're private citizens.  They have no legal authority to conduct "sting" operations.  They aren't out to find criminal behavior - they're purely interested in embarrassing ACORN, and they have.

What criminal activity?  All of the criminal ideas came from O'Keefe and Giles.  They posed as a pimp and a prostitute and talked about setting up brothels.  They talked about bringing in underage immigrant women to work illegally as prostitutes.  All the criminal activity came from their own twisted minds.

As it turns out, there has been one lawsuit filed in Maryland in connection with these videos.  ACORN filed it.  Turns out that it's illegal in Maryland to record audio of another person without their permission.  Guess our cutting-edge filmmaker didn't take the time to check out wiretapping laws before swooping in with his super-fantastic sting operation.  

One ACORN worker, after giving them advice on setting up their house of ill imagination, allegedly confessed to having murdered her husband.  That got her a call from homicide detectives and the local newspapers, where she admitted that she made up the whole story because she know that they were trying to set her up.  (She also mentions conversations she had with O'Keefe and Giles that never made the video tape that ran on Fox.  Big surprise.)

Another worker called the police after the clowns/filmmakers came to them with a story about smuggling underage immigrants for sex work. 

Think about this:

  • We know that one of the videotaped workers lied to the filmmakers/clowns deliberately. We don't know how many others may have made up stories, or deliberately given false advice, because they knew they were being had.
  • We know that one worker called the police on them after his visit.  We don't know how many others called the police.
  • We don't know how many offices the filmmakers/clowns visited in order to get their supposedly incriminating videos.
  • We don't know how many offices threw them out without a second glance.
  • We don't know how many staff members they actually talked to.
  • We don't know what actually happened on the tapes, because no one except O'Keefe and Giles has apparently seen the unedited videos.

And over all this, Congress has seen fit to withdraw all federal funding going to ACORN, an organization which has been helping people of color low-income people in this country for thirty years.   Over all this, people have been declaring ACORN to be a criminal enterprise.  Over all this, ACORN has been denounced by left and right and in the halls of our Congress.  

President Obama was right.  There needs to be an investigation into these videos.  There needs to be an investigation into these malicious filmmakers and their gutter tactics of manipulation, distortion, and character assassination.  

ACORN has made mistakes in the past.  That is different that what's going on here.  What's happening now is that someone with great friends in the media has gone on a personal crusade to destroy a social justice organization.  He's doing it for ratings, for personal glory, to raise his own profile as an "activist" and as a "cutting-edge filmmaker."   Well, he can call himself anything he wants.  What he's doing is shameful, despicable behavior. 

Sights Not Meant to Be Seen

(Photo taken by swift447)

It was the strangest thing.

The mornings are getting later, and so this morning as I was driving to work, I saw the sun coming up. I could just see it peeking over the clouds, and it was the most startling blood-red sun I had ever seen. It was astonishing, almost unearthly.

See that picture above? (That's not today's sunrise, for the record, and it's not even Seattle.) It was weirder than that. The color was darker, more viscous. You could practically see it dripping.

I tried to find a spot to pull over. The sun rose in seconds, the blood-red crown rising into a full scarlet sun burning the sky, menacing all of us down below. And suddenly, before I could snap a picture with my cell phone, the otherworldly color was gone. It had transformed.

And then the sun was its normal color - that lovely friendly goldenrod yellow that we all think of as the sun's true color. But for a moment, it was the color of nightmare, warning, fear. I felt the way you'd feel if you caught a glimpse of a werewolf changing back into its human form. I had seen something I wasn't meant to see - the sun in its true diabolical form. The sun as a wild snarling beast of nature, warming us not for our pleasure but for its own amusement.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

TBTL - a New Beginning? Or the Beginning of the End? (Part 1)

The show was, indeed, too beautiful to live.

One of the greatest radio shows ever (ever!), TBTL (short for Too Beautiful to Live) has been cancelled as an on-air broadcast. The show will be turned into a web-based podcast. So it's losing the regular built-in audience of a major talk radio station in Seattle, and throwing itself on the mercy of the notoriously fickle internet audience. The website, the community, and at least two of the three major players will remain. The new show, such as it is, will be broadcast not from a radio studio, but from a room in the home of host Luke Burbank.

So this is the end of the world. Right?

Or is this really a new beginning? Is it possible that TBTL is going to be one of the new faces of the transformation of the medium of radio?

Here's the thing, friends and neighbors. Radio is changing. Example 1: me. I hardly ever listen to terrestrial radio anymore. I listen most Saturday mornings. I listen to NPR sometimes in the morning, and for about ten minutes while I drive to my job. Sometimes. Sometimes I just plug in a podcast and listen to that instead.

But am I missing NPR? Am I missing key stories? I doubt it. I listen to no less than eight NPR podcasts. I listen regularly to the NPR Story of the Day podcast, the NPR Shuffle podcast and the NPR Music podcast, and that captures most of the content that interests me.

I podcast Wait Wait Don't Tell Me, On the Media, and the magnificent WNYC show Radio Lab, and I never miss an episode of the latter two. Oh, and of course I podcast This American Life, because all of us radio geeks do. It's a rule.

But wait, there's more! There are two NPR podcasts that only exist in podcast form, and they are my favorite NPR productions: All Songs Considered and It's All Politics. Bob Boilen worked for years as a producer for NPR programs over the air, and on the side, produced a music podcast called All Songs Considered. It's eccentric, very personal, and absolutely fascinating, and I have picked up so many new favorite artists from it.

It's All Politics, fairly obviously, is a political podcast produced by NPR's Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving and Political Editor Ken Rudin, who both know entirely too much about the Beltway and are always happy to show off all the maddening Washington insider trivia stuck in their craniums. It's weekly, it's funny, the analysis is always sharp and often brilliant. I learn something every time I listen.

So that's my NPR listenership.

So am I an NPR listener?

I don't think I show up on the Arbitron ratings, because I'm not an over-the-air listener. Even though I listen to 15-20 hours of NPR content every week, I don't count as a listener.

And also, significantly, I don't count for their standard advertisers. I don't listen to the pre-broadcast sponsorship messages. I am not their audience in the traditional way. I'm still inflicted with lots of advertising on the podcasts, but not over the air.

I do still pay for my membership. And once I'm solvent again, I plan to send something into Chicago Public Radio and WNYC for all the great content they're producing.

Can TBTL still exist as a radio show without being an over-the-air radio show? Sure. Why not? There are plenty of podcasts that make a good go of it. Brian Ibbott somehow manages to eke out a living producing Coverville, by selling ads on his website and doing testimonial ad pitches doing every podcast. The Moth has only recently become a radio broadcast, but has existed for years as a brilliant podcast. Other examples come to mine - the Sound of Young America, Ask a Ninja, Rocketboom, This Week in Tech. There are lots of free-standing podcasts. It's a tried and true medium.

But TBTL is the first show I know that has made the jump from on-air to podcast exclusively. (The only parallel I can think of is Howard Stern, jumping from terrestrial radio to satellite, and that is such an apples-to-kumquats comparison that it's hardly worth the effort.)

The jump could spell trouble. They somehow have to hold onto their loyal audience as they make the switch. Luckily (or not so luckily), the overwhelming majority of their audience was listening to the podcast and not the over-their-air broadcast. Most of their listeners are Time Bandits, in the language of the show. They didn't listen the same day, or even the same week. Sometimes, Time Bandits reported falling months behind and catching up in a mind-melting glut of shows.

In other words, the audience of TBTL is already used to downloading the show, not tuning it in. We listen on iPods and on our computer and in streams. We are already an online audience. As Luke Burbank said, this latest move by KIRO's management might be stripping away the worst weaknesses of the show - its on-air audience - and playing to its greatest strengths.

TBTL has always been a show that relies feverishly on its audience. Audience members are often guests on the show, bringing great ideas or unusual perspectives on news shows or just serving as available talent and the in-studio voice of the audience. Some of the greatest ideas on the show have come from its listeners. The blog is ferociously active, and the TBTL audience - the Tens - are a passionate lot, showing up for roller-skating events, baseball games, karaoke nights, concerts held in the back of Mexican restaurants, and other seemingly preposterous gatherings. There are at least 18 groups on Facebook dedicated to TBTL.

On its last night on the air, over 1300 viewers tuned into the webcam to see - what? The hosts singing karaoke and Luke Burbank heroically dancing in his underwear, fulfilling a promise to the audience. This was the essence of the show. No matter how ridiculous, how absurd, the show kept its promises to its audience. The love between show and audience is more pure and heartfelt than I have ever seen for a radio show. It is a beautiful thing. It was clearly not planned, but the love affair between TBTL's audience and its makers is the true center of the show.

The show was not killed. Let us all remember that. KIRO is still putting money behind the show in its new form. As Jen Andrews pointed out, the typical procedure when a radio show is cancelled is that it's pulled off the air immediately, the hosts not allowed to broadcast a final show for fear they'll say something reprehensible on the air about their former employers. With any other show, the hosts would have been ushered out the door by security guards, not allowed on the air. In this case, the TBTL hosts were given six solid hours of airtime to say a proper farewell to their audience. It was a remarkable statement of confidence, definitely not the sort of thing you do for people who you want to boot out the door as quickly as possible.

Let's hope the new format of the show proves that TBTL does not need to be on the FM or AM dial to drew listeners. Maybe it will take its new wings and soar. We can make it happen. We, the TBTL audience, need to prove ourselves worthy.

If you ever listened to TBTL, you owe it to the show to listen on the first day and tell your friends. Post it on Facebook. Send messages on Twitter proclaiming your loyalty. They need an audience that is there from day one and announces themselves loudly. They - we - need to be there for the show. The ratings will not be measured by the standard numbers. It'll be tabulated by downloads of the podcast, comments on the blog, tweets mentioning TBTL, web traffic.

This is a new experiment in radio and it will succeed if the Tens stay faithful and give KIRO a reason to keep funding it. Radio can survive without the ties to an AM or FM frequency. With a strong audience, an active online presence, talented hosts, and enough moxie, this show could become a completely new example of the new face of radio. Let's make it happen.