Category Archives: Criticism

A Police Shrink Who Gives Up on Nobody – Part I

Police killings and Black Lives Matter had begun to dominate the news in 2013 when I walked into an independent bookstore and found a paperback mystery called Burying Ben.

Ordinarily I wouldn’t make a big deal of this because Burying Ben is “only” a generic mystery — nothing literary or momentous about it. But looking back on the enormous pressures this first novel stood up against — as have the second and third in the series — I’m astonished at what the author continues to teach us.

Though unknown as a mystery writer at the time, Ellen Kirschman was famous in her field as a retired police psychologist who worked with the Palo Alto CA Police Department for 25 years.

Ellen Kirschman

Her nonfiction books (I Love a Cop: What Police Families Need to Know; I Love a Fire Fighter, etc.) keep selling in the hundreds of thousands, and she’s much in demand as keynote speaker at police and family conferences from Singapore and Hong Kong to Toronto. First responders suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and other injuries swear by her workshops and retreats.

Kirschman has joked that mystery fiction is a way for her to “get back” at various foes and blowhards she’s run into in police work, and we do see stereotypes skewered here. At the same time it doesn’t appear that Kirschman exaggerates what one of her characters calls the “cowboy culture” of cop life.

When, for example, the new “little lady” psychologist is introduced to a roomful of FTOs (field training officers), someone asks, “Is that why she’s so short, because she’s a shrink?”

“It’s an old joke,” the psychologist knows. “I laugh to be polite.” But things are going to escalate. When it’s announced that she’s written a book about police officers and family life, another cop yells, “Can I get two copies, one for my wife and one for my girlfriend?” This kind of humor appears to be expected.

Burying Ben came out years before the Harvey Weinstein scandal and its aftermath, so reading such an exchange rings a familiar bell. Making a brief appearance is the police chief, who’s been standing behind psychologist’s chair.  He “bends to my ear with a mock whisper. ‘The more they rag on you, the more they love you. When they stop teasing, that’s when you should be worried.’ ”

Well, it’s not teasing, we know, and it’s hardly love — perhaps the word “humiliation” would be closer. While the psychologist understands that “trust doesn’t come easily to cops, especially when it comes to mental health professionals,” the chief’s uncomfortable nearness feels calculated, his patronizing remarks intended to keep the new lady shrink in her place.

Just as Black Lives Matter launch protests against police behavior from the outside, Kirschman’s fiction explores the roots of it all from the inside. She may be writing a light mystery, but on the way we get an expert’s view of the dark side of police station life — its competitive atmosphere, deep strains of misogyny and racism, cruel hazing of new recruits and overall resistance to change.

Burying Ben

Still, it wasn’t Kirschman but the jacket illustration of Burying Ben that called to me that day in 2013. There on the cover was something unthinkable in the mystery genre — the chalk outline of a victim who appeared to be male.

Kirschman’s first mystery, ‘Burying Ben’

Whoa: No voluptuous babe sliced to pieces in some ghastly James Patterson bunker. No kidnapped women chained to radiators eating dog food off the floor. It was so refreshing.

The subtitle leaped into view: A Dot Meyerhoff Mystery. The name of the sleuth sounded so hokey and yet so genuine that I thought she must be adorable, and decided to investigate further.

Sure enough, the fictional Dot is very much like the author, a trusted police psychologist with decades of real-life experience and a peppery sense of humor. The difference between the two is that Kirschman, now in her 70s, keeps Dot — newly hired at the Kenilworth (Bay Area) Police Department — in her robust 50s.

If you’ve wondered what it’s like for cops — mostly male cops — to work with a female psychologist, Dot’s observations are worth the price of admission. As she notes in the third book in the series:

“Police officers are not eager consumers of therapy. They think it makes them weak to have problems. I think it makes them human. Almost every cop at Kenilworth PD regards me with skepticism, worried that I’m reading their minds and getting ready to report them to the chief as unfit for duty. They are not as standoffish as they were when I started three years ago, but it’s still an uphill battle to win their trust, let alone put a dent in the male-dominated culture of rugged individualism.”

We’ve seen that “male-dominated culture” in countless detective novels and police procedurals — and by the way, aren’t we all tired of every movie and TV show sticking a lady shrink in front of every star? Even Tony Soprano kept his sessions with Dr. Melfi secret because he didn’t want to seem emotional or weak.

In Burying Ben, what makes an embittered cop named Eddie so intriguing is the profane, unfiltered hostility he levels at the new female therapist.

“I don’t need you or anyone else picking through the turds in my head. I got my own doctor, Doctor Jack Daniels … As far as I’m concerned that [mental health] debriefing crap is just a big circle jerk where everybody cries, says their feelings and leaves feeling worse than when they started. … Listen to me, Florence Nightingale. You can shove your mail order Ph.D. right up your ass … Hasta lumbago, Doc. Have a nice day.”

Goodness. Do cops really talk that way? Well, when backed into a corner, they do, Kirschman reveals. Although readers may dismiss Eddie — alcoholic, racist, sexist, near retirement — as a lost cause, the joy of this series is that Dot doesn’t give up on anybody.

Dr. Melfi and Tony Soprano

Not a “Fun” Murder

Burying Ben is a doozy of a story, though painful: A rookie named Ben not only takes his own life, he leaves a suicide note blaming Dot Meyerhoff, the new female psychotherapist at Kenilworth (read Palo Alto) Police Department.

Dot realizes she has to find out why Ben killed himself before she herself is fired.

To do this, she must 1) gain the trust of cops who aren’t speaking to her (they blame Dot, too), 2)survive a painful divorce while enduring one unexpected (of course) hot flash after another, and 3) prove her worth to the chief, who’s suspicious of lady shrinks to begin with.

And mystery author Kirschman has to prove her mettle, too. Statistics show that suicide is the number-one killer of police officers — in fact, cops are three times more likely to kill themselves as to be killed by criminals. Police don’t like to talk about it; mystery novelists don’t like to write about it, and it’s certainly not the kind of “fun” murder we mystery fans usually go for.

But Dot’s narration offers a different perspective. For one thing it’s a relief that she’s not the gorgeous hotshot female narrator so often seen rising up the murder-mystery ranks with fists and hormones a’flyin’.

Dot is rather a middle-aged hotshot female whose practice of patience and empathy allows her to slow down, observe and listen. We see how she notices things in a flashback, when Dot first meets Ben at a grisly suicide scene, where the gentle rookie is trying not to faint:

Police psychologist Elizabeth Olivet on ‘Law and Order’

“Ben’s eyes are fixed on the body that lays like a discarded cornhusk doll. His lips are clamped together. He looks as though he might cry. Crying on scene is forbidden. One tear would be enough to earn him a jacket as weak, sentimental and undependable in an emergency.”

One Tear Could Ruin a Career

Dot knows that cops depend on each other not to fall apart under pressure: Their very lives can hang in the balance. But does this mean they must constantly prove how tough and unfeeling they can be?

Apparently the sergeant in charge thinks so when he orders Ben to return to the corpse and “put in your report whether this guy was a Q or an A,” meaning whether the dead man’s tongue sticks out of his mouth in a straight or circular direction.

Dot happens to see the other cops stifle their laughter as Ben earnestly goes off to measure, so she realizes some kind of initiation rite is taking place. Soon her talk with Ben — compassionate and instructive at once — takes us a past the locker-room atmosphere to unveil the real mystery addressed by this novel.

This is: Do macho white guys like the sergeant start out mean-spirited, or do they learn the small cruelties via peer pressure along the way? Can’t the police department’s hiring process cull out candidates who suppress their feelings, like hatred for women and people of color? Or do most rookies begin innocently like Ben and “turn bad” as they move up the ladder?

How Dot sees it

We get some answers from Dot, who shows us how elaborate the application process has generally come to be, and how the instincts of a police psychologist can make a difference. But she also suggests it’s an imperfect system that requires fine-tuning long after cops have earned their badges.

I have to warn my mystery-reading colleagues that Burying Ben has a number of first-novel problems: It’s too busy, the pace bogs down, there’s a sameness to the dialog, odd redundancies occur and Dot’s unorthodox methods strain credulity.

And yet these days when police behavior has come under such intense scrutiny, I’m less interested in the success of the story than fascinated by its revelations. And I was really anxious to see how Kirschman had grown in her second (2015) and third (2017) Dot Meyerhoff mystery.

Next: Part II, The Right Wrong Thing

 


 

Ten Thoughts for the Nice Guys

May I ask the famous male actors who say they’re “utterly disgusted” by Harvey Weinstein to take the next step?

I’m talking to the nice guys of the industry — George Clooney, Ben Affleck, Benedict Cumberbatch, and others.  Don’t wait until people say you knew about Weinstein all along. Speak out when bad acts happen.

Here are some ways to do it:

1) The next time an actor like Seth Rogen declares he’s “trying to conceal massive erection” because Kate Beckinsale is standing next to him on the stage of the Golden Globe Awards, speak out.

Kate Beckinsale, Seth Rogen at Golden Globes

Tell the Seth Rogens everywhere to shut up with that stuff. It just opens the door for the next Harvey Weinsteins who are surely on the way.

2) When you see a young woman like Kate Beckinsale pretending to laugh so she’ll be perceived as a good sport, speak out again.

Talk to your men friends about empathy. How do you think it feels to be the butt of some 6-year-old’s “dick joke” in front of millions?

Now Seth, you can be a good guy, too. At a recent round-table discussion hosted by the Hollywood Reporter, you said that Harvey Weinstein was guilty of “horribly inappropriate behavior.”

Well, don’tcha see, at the Golden Globes, so were you.  Now every time say or hear a sexual remark denigrating women, you can do something about it.

3)  I think it’s true that George Clooney would never embarrass women to get a cheap laugh. But let’s revisit that same Golden Globes when Clooney congratulated fellow nominee Michael Fassbender for having a huge penis.

“You could play golf like this, with your hands behind your back,” Clooney said, taking an imaginary “swing” as though a long club were hanging between his legs.

George Clooney

Okay, come on, guys: George, do you think your remark was just a harmless bit of bawdy humor? Do you want your daughter, now 3, to grow up in an atmosphere of  “dick jokes” and other he-man stuff that make her feel like a lesser person?

4) These kinds of jokes are never a one-time thing. As one Hollywood website commented,  “George isn’t the only actor who’s helped Michael score a few more holes-in-one, if you know what we mean.”

Sorry to say, we do. Referring to women as “holes” sets the bar pretty low. It means if you don’t stop polluting the social climate with relentless genital/toilet/sexual humor, you’re again contributing to the rise of every Weinstein/Cosby/Ailes/O’Reilly etc.in the future.

[DRIB (Don’t Read If Busy): It’s true that emcee Ricky Gervais gets away with sexually offensive commentary when he hosts programs like the Golden Globes. This is what he’s hired for — to blatantly shock and disgust for the sake of higher ratings — so people can decide ahead of time to watch or not. To me, that’s a First Amendment matter, and I have to say, sometimes he’s genuinely, caustically, tellingly witty. What I’m asking celebrity actors to address is that everyday locker-room humor that inspires images of groping and raping and doing whatever intrusive males can get away with. Fellas, talk about this. You can change it.]

5) Remember, guys, “dick jokes” may be funny to YOU. Recently on HBO’s Last Week Tonight, satirist John Oliver ran a segment called Dicks in which TV reporters were shown drawing symbols on screens and maps to predict traffic patterns, storm systems, construction zones and the like.

These directional graphics resembled everything from arrows to canons to flat kitchen knives and rounded batons with an occasional circle or two at one end. Some looked like male genitals but really, most didn’t. The message was: “Look everybody: dicks!”

John Oliver

Now fellas, consider: If these same TV announcers had drawn balloon-like images showing the spread of fire or influenza or drought, would it have been funny to point and say, “Look, everybody: breasts!”

I bet John Oliver, one of the most astute and incisive commentators on television — also one of the most foul-mouthed — would be the first to say No. He knows this kind of humor is not only disrespectful to women, it’s immature and boorish to boot.

[DRIB: So why did he run the segment? I think some advisor has told Oliver to lard the show with the word FUCK, egregious dick jokes and sexual references having nothing to do with satrizing the news. It’s ironic that this emphasis on “swearing and screwing” not only gets in the way; it weakens the very strengths that make the show unique.]

6) Now men, let’s also watch out for you-get-it-but-you-don’t-get-it moments, as in this interview that George Clooney gave to the Daily Beast:

“A lot of people are doing the ‘you had to know’ thing (about Weinstein) right now, and yes, if you’re asking if I knew that someone who was very powerful had a tendency to hit on young, beautiful women, sure. But I had no idea that it had gone to the level of having to pay off eight women for their silence, and that these women were threatened and victimized… “

Wait, George, wait: You’re at the center of things in Hollywood, so you do know. Men who are powerful don’t just “hit on young, beautiful women” — as though “hit on” is another term for “flirt.”  Men like Harvey Weinstein overpower young women and force them to perform sexually.

So George, you have every idea about the way Hollywood works, as was also apparent when you told People magazine that Ryan Gosling didn’t attend the awards ceremony because he was “in Thailand or something. And you know what you do in Thailand.” Snicker snicker!  Let’s ask the 10-year-old girls in Thailand what they think.  Or let’s just cut that kind of remark.

7)  Still, there’s hope, George! You also said,

“… this (the Weinstein revelation) isn’t a right or a left issue. This is a moral issue. We’re all going to have to be more diligent about it and look for any warning signs.”

Attaway, guy! And now that you realize you too are a warning sign, you’re going to speak up, right? And encourage others to join you.

Courtney Love

8) It must now be a given that a lone woman who protests Weinstein-like behavior risks being “eternally banned.” Courtney Love says Creative Artists Agency did that to her back in 2005 when a reporter asked if she had any advice for young women trying to break into Hollywood.

“I’ll get libeled if I say it,” she replied, adding, “If Harvey Weinstein invites you to a private party at the Four Seasons, don’t go.”

She was right, but there was a price to pay, which is why you guys have to step up. Be feminist men.

9) Granted, it’s not easy. Let’s take a moment to ponder what any of us would have done after a Sundance screening in 2010 of a movie called The Killer Inside Me starring Casey Affleck.

Jessica Alba at the start of the movie

The story is about two beautiful women (Kate Hudson, Jessica Alba) who fall in love with a seemingly mild-mannered law enforcement dude (Affleck) who beats them horribly. It turns out they like to be beaten, so the camera focuses on cheekbones being crushed, eyeballs smashed, etc. But the women keep asking for it because they forgive him. After all, there’s a “killer inside” him. The little love, he can’t help it.

After the screening, a woman stood up and yelled, “I don’t understand how Sundance could book this movie! How dare you? How dare Sundance?” The director was there for a Q&A and said later he was “in shock” at the reaction. He thought it was “more moral” to show what beating the shit out of women really looks like than to leave the violence offscreen.

Jessica Alba after expressing her love in the movie

Well, somebody really relished that job.  Now remember fellas, nobody’s talking censorship here. In fact it’s the opposite — the hope is that today, Weinstein/Cosby/Ailes etc. disclosures will launch a wider discussion than ever. Maybe Weinstein didn’t produce “S&S”(suck ’em and slice ’em) movies as a rule, but at the center of the film world, it’s important to remember, he did rule.

Women critics have tried to dig more deeply into the reason misogynistic violence appears in movies and TV, not just occasionally but as a steady diet that seems to stimulate an appetite for more. They constantly challenge “sadistic movie violence against women” and the film industry’s assumptions that audiences “are happy to watch their heroines being beaten and gagged,” not to mention “cut and splayed and killed.”

It’s time to listen to them. As Rachel Cooke of the Guardian points out, it’s “unpalatable” to have to watch the “complicity of these women in their own destruction.” Yet it’s a theme that appears often.

So guys, the question is, if you’re in a Sundance audience where a woman gets up and shouts her objections to a movie like this, what do you do?  Would you see it as an opportunity to at least talk about what’s happening in film all over the world?  Would you insist in the Q&A that the director recover from his “shock” and answer the tougher, more revealing questions?  You could always retire to a coffee shop with a handful of film buffs. You could write up the matter in your blog or emails or Facebook or Twitter.  You could do something.

The fear right now is that after the Me,Too campaign dies down and the Weinsteins get fired or sent to jail and replaced, the film industry will again turn a deaf ear to women who are the prey of sexual predators, and the women who speak up.

And guys, here’s the truth of it: Pretending that women aren’t targeted and don’t speak up means you condone “the way Hollywood works” as the Weinsteins of the world define it.

10) See what I mean, George? And Ben and Benedict? Saying you’re disgusted by Harvey Weinstein is just a start. The whole issue of difference, sexual and otherwise, is complicated and dense and deep. Don’t make fun of it as though you’re in a school yard.

And bring a little compassion to the table.  Trevor Noah, the savvy and big-hearted host of The Today Show, recently apologized to feminist writer Roxane Gay because he himself used to make “fat jokes” about women.

Roxane Gay, Trevor Noah

The problem came later when Noah turned around and made a “runt joke” about Attorney General Jeff Sessions. (And it was a cliche runt joke at that: “Oh, I didn’t realize you are standing,” said Noah about the “tiny” man stepping up to take the oath.)

If you read Noah’s riveting autobiography Born a Crime, you know he’s much too discerning to make a schoolyard blunder like that. But this is another case of knowing-and-not-knowing: To Noah’s mind, the assigned villain of the hour has no humanity. All the guys get to pile on.

That’s almost just as bad. Let’s call in those laugh-a-minute Weekend Update guys on Saturday Night Live who seem to believe that because Harvey Weinstein is the current sexual boogeyman, they get to be mean. And nasty.

Michael Che on Saturday Night Live describing Harvey Weinstein

“It’s so easy to make jokes about a guy who looks like this,” said Michael Che, referring to a photo of Weinstein. “I mean he looks like chewed bubble gum rolled in cat hair.”

HaHaHa, hilarious, no? If the same man had been a Nobel Prize-winning philanthropist, would you have said the same thing?  Or compounded the error by calling him “a well-dressed skin tag,” just to get another laugh?

Granted, Saturday Night Live is hardly a bastion of sophistication and class, but that’s not the point, is it?

Think about this, fellas — Kate Beckinsale may be conventionally  beautiful, and Harvey Weinstein may be conventionally unattractive, but it’s their hearts and souls that matter in our everyday dealings with them, wouldn’t you say?

Take away issues about looks — skin color, ethnic features, disability, height and weight, national/religious garb — and what’s left is the person’s humanity. Aren’t we all seeking a world of equality?  To get there it’s nice to remember: Looks never matter.

Except maybe in one way: Recently Kate Beckinsale, now 44, disclosed that Harvey Weinstein ambushed her in his hotel room when she was all of 17.

Kate Beckinsale, age 17

If looks did matter, that picture of her as a young person with her whole life in front of her has got to melt the heart of many an adult.

The thought comes: Maybe we lost our chance for civility when Hillary Clinton lost the election. But let’s honor her message in It Takes a Village. If we don’t stand up for the youngest and most vulnerable among us, who will?

So come on guys! It may be too late to stop what happened in the past, but surely you can be among the counted for the next teenage girls who are about to be “interviewed” by the next Harvey Weinsteins all around us.

 

 

 

 

She’s Our Gladiator

I’ve never read a book by a woman with so much male ego as Settle for More (Harper) by former Fox TV News anchor Megyn Kelly (who’s soon to go to NBC).

On the cover of “Settle for More”

Confident and inspired even in childhood, little Megyn radiates entitlement as she asks the universe, What greatness does my future have in store? (my paraphrase).  How will my inner gifts define my destiny?

Learning  that girls’ baseball teams don’t exist in her neighborhood, Megyn tells her mother to sign her up for boys’ baseball with no fuss or fights or lawsuits (yet).

She has her vulnerable moments, too. There was a time in school when she was bullied by very cruel kids. But today, Megyn thinks it was a good thing. It toughened her.  “Adversity is an opportunity,” she tells us, “and one that has allowed me to flourish. It has made me stronger, my skin a little thicker.

When Megyn Kelly becomes one of a few women attorneys hired by a prestigious law firm, she refuses to copy case files. It’s not fair, she writes, to charge the client an associate’s fee when a paralegal can do it. What she means: I didn’t compete my ass off in law school to stand in front of a Xerox machine. 

Those tight tight tight cocktail dresses

Overall, her mantra — “I never say no to hard work— serves Kelly well as she carves out her path to Fox TV News. We see her prepping hard for interviews into the wee hours, dressing for combat in her fashionable, tight tight tight cocktail dresses. Kelly rises quickly to become the King of TV News with “the most successful news show in all of cable.”

Now readers, please don’t confuse matters by asking, Shouldn’t a woman be called the queen instead of the king in all of cable? Goodness, no. Power has no gender for Megyn Kelly, who with her Womb of Steel seems to have conceived and delivered three children by herself. No wonder their names — Thatcher, Yardley and Yates — sound vaguely like fancy soaps from a hotel called Downton Abbey.

It’s no wonder, too, that Megyn Kelly refuses to be called a feminist. What does being a woman have to do with ambition?  She advises women, “the less time talking about our gender, the better.” Take the other path:  “Be so good they can’t ignore you,” as a poster advised her news team at their pod at Fox.

Kelly says she wasn’t bothered a bit when an executive showed her into an office decorated with photos of nude women.  Quoting Gwyneth Paltrow, who’s said that modern women can be “nurturing, maternal, sexual,” —  Megyn Kelly says she, too, can be “playful and sexy,” as she was for GQ Magazine, or when she appeared “sophisticated and feminine” on the cover of Vanity Fair, or when she answered questions about her bra cup size and sex life during pregnancy on the icky Howard Stern radio program. “Even during the third trimester?” he asks as she sits there forcing a smile. Oh yes, that and more, she tells him, but in a YouTube clip she looks more like a sex slave than a news professional.

Sexy and playful in GQ magazine

All that is simply contributing to “a new archetype for women,” she writes, “that thankfully we’re seeing more often: multidimensional.” Or more testosteronal, or something. “I had just one path forward,” she writes.

How do we know this is true? Because Megyn Kelly seems fated to become the one journalist to stand up to Donald Trump in that male-to-male way he can’t tolerate, especially since it comes from a woman.

Seeing her rise at Fox, Trump first tries to woo her with gifts (Megyn returns them), flowers (she refuses them), even a vow to pay for a weekend she spent with girlfriends at the Trump Hotel (she pays it herself).

And so he gets miffed when Kelly is the only news anchor at Fox to realize that it’s wrong for a news program to cover “Trump being Trump: unscripted, unguarded, and fun to watch,”  meaning not newsworthy. Too much of that Trump, she realizes, is the equivalent of “television crack cocaine.”

Giving Trump air time might raise ratings, she says, but featuring the crack cocaine Trump on a news show before the Republican primaries became a “questionable choice.”  With Tom Lowell, her executive producer, Kelly issues a new directive —  “no more gratuitous Trump coverage.”

Mr. “Television Crack Cocaine”

So that’s good, right? It shows us that Megyn Kelly has  standards. Running clips of Trump actually saying something substantive, news-wise, is “a call to remember our journalistic duty, to provide balance and be judicious in our coverage, not to sell our souls for ratings or for our own entertainment.” But there is a price: When she makes sure that her own show, The Kelly File, sticks to that kind of hard news, Trump is furious.

This is where the book turns into a real surprise. For the first time that I know of, we learn the extraordinary lengths to which Trump goes to malign, ridicule and demean Kelly behind the scenes as well as in public; the phone calls he makes to Fox’s chiefs, including his pal, the now-fallen CEO Roger Ailes, to get her removed from the network’s host team at the Republican debates; the Tweets and e-mails he sends out to stir up his followers, who in turn bombard Kelly with hate mail, death threats and obscene texts.

Kelly refuses to relent, and the  scary stuff gets worse — cars showing up at her house, strangers approaching her mother, retweets (by Trump Organization VP Michael Cohen) of a Trump supporter saying “we can gut her”  — and soon Fox hires body guards for the whole family. When Trump tells her he knows about the top-secret question she’s planning to ask him at the first Republican debate (“You’ve called women you don’t like ‘fat pigs,’ ‘dogs,’ ‘slobs’ and ‘disgusting animals’ … “), she realizes he’s infiltrated Fox with undercover spies, and they’re targeting her.

“You’ve called women you don’t like ‘fat pigs’…”

But wait: Is Trump also capable of dirty tricks? On the morning of the first debate, a suspicious case of food poisoning (apparently from the cup of coffee brought to her by an unknown driver) nearly sends Kelly to the hospital. She recovers in time for the broadcast, where she asks Trump the question about women, and after that, he famously goes on the attack:  “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.”

More than demeaning Kelly, the comment reveals to millions that Trump is disgusted by natural functions of women’s bodies (Hillary urinating, Kelly menstruating). But he seems to think all men feel that way, so he uses it as bait.

“Trump wanted me to respond, so he got worse,” she writes, “I was a woman with power and couldn’t be brought to heel. I think he believed I could help or hurt him more than Anderson Cooper or Chuck Todd, both of whom also covered Trump with skepticism.”

Kelly “takes the high road” by following a “policy of dignity,” and remains silent. Reporters, however, dog her with questions about her “feud” with Trump.  Again Kelly seems capable of focusing on the principle at stake. “I was still covering the news, but I was also being covered. Although I did nothing to stoke or even respond to it, the Trump-vs.-Me storyline was still regularly in the press.”

This is her hard-won truth: When a reporter gets in the way of the story — and in Kelly’s case becomes the story — legitimate news suffers. Kelly insists on following her goal: “To cover Trump fairly and without fear.”

Out and about with husband Doug and kids

We get the feeling that Fox would have loved Kelly to appear victimized by Trump, but she sees the damage starting when her young daughter tells her, “I’m afraid of Donald Trump. He wants to hurt me.”  That’s enough for Kelly. She vows to put a stop to it.

How Kelly confronts Donald Trump personally without telling the Fox bosses makes for an eye-opening chapter. But doubly intriguing is the way she finally acknowledges that for years, Fox CEO Roger Ailes was guilty of sexual harassment.

It ranged from inappropriate jokes and comments about her bra size to chasing her around his office and demanding sexual favors. Facing that familiar dilemma — blow the whistle and get labeled a troublemaker; keep quiet and he’ll get worse — Kelly talks to “a supervisor” who seems to help Ailes see the error of his ways. For the next ten years, “Roger never sexually harassed me again.”

Roger Ailes, after chasing Kelly around the desk

Kelly, then, could keep quiet when allegations by other women at Fox begin to surface.  But realizing how precarious their jobs become when Ailes lines up supporters to defend him, Kelly the Gladiator — the Fox star who’s so established she can’t be fired — is born.

It’s Kelly who makes the call to the Rupert Murdoch second-in-command (his son Lachlan) and says, “You need to get your general counsel on the phone. I have something to tell you.” And it’s Kelly’s testimony that pretty much cinches Ailes’ resignation.

I’m not a fan of Fox News so I never saw Kelly in action until I looked up a few of her interviews on YouTube. Heavens. She has an irritating habit of interrupting and arguing when she should be listening and guiding the conversation for the sake of viewer clarity. So it will be refreshing, I hope, to see what Megyn Kelly will do when, freed from the conservative hijinks of Fox News,  she takes the reins in a more professional way at NBC.

I finished Settle for More still laughing at Kelly’s king-sized ego, but I came to admire her, too. She believes in her principles as honestly as her ambitions, and she’s got an iron will that functions as delicately as a Sherman Tank.

That’s what we need and should demand from every journalist in the next four years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Woody Allen’s Latest Excuse for Lechery

I’m late reading the New York Times Book Review from Sunday 1/1/17, so pardon the delayed outrage, but heavens:

Just what we don’t need on the front page is Woody Allen drooling over the purported sex life of a long-gone movie star as he (poorly) reviews Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936 by Edward Sorel (Liveright).

Mary Astor with Humphrey Bogart in “The Maltese Falcon”

The book tells us that Astor apparently wrote about her sexual affairs in an explicit “purple diary.” In Los Angeles, her estranged husband discovered and threatened to use it in a custody battle while Mary was having “four-times-a-night workouts” with playwright George S. Kaufman in New York.

How do we know this? Bad reviewer that he is, Allen never quotes from the diary, alluding only to accounts in tabloid newspapers, which aren’t quoted either. He prefers to snicker and chortle over “her hormones tintinnabulating” and the reason “deep kissing with a hot partner always trumps bacteria.”

The review mistakenly tells us that “the tabloids ran excerpts from the portion of the diary allowed in evidence” during the trial. But we learn from other sources that the diary was never entered in court. The trial judge ordered it sealed and impounded in a bank vault, where it was removed after 16 years and destroyed.

(This last from Wikipedia, a doubtful source, I know, but it does footnote its claims. Meanwhile shame on you, New York Times: Readers of a book review should never have to fact-check on their own.)

Woody Allen

But wait: Why does Woody Allen believe the author?  Because  “in the midst of everything,” Allensays about Sorel, “he suddenly channels the departed Mary from the beyond and converses with her as she candidly reveals personal feelings in a novel interview.”

Ain’t that great. The author “channels” his subject. The reviewer behaves like a lecherous old man. And Mary Astor is proclaimed by Woody Allen to be “a foulmouthed, hard-drinking, sex-hungry carouser.”

Of course you could say the same thing about many of Astor’s male co-stars, but where is the fun in that?  Woody Allen believes his view is titillating, so he gets to have his way and himself in front of us.

I’m sure the trial was scandalous and coverage at the time amusing. But nothing about this review is credible, and all of it is a waste of time.  Maybe the book was worth a passing mention in our nation’s “book review section of record.” The Times gave Woody Allen three full pages.

Remaindering “The Art of the Deal” for … $184?

Remember a few weeks ago when Donald Trump announced that he raised $80 million in the month of July alone? And most of it came through “small dollar donations”?

Original edition, 1987

Original edition (with manly turned-up collar), 1987

I chalked it up as another Trump exaggeration to put it kindly until recently, when those fine and funny reporters on NPR Politics Podcast mentioned receiving phone tips from multiple “Trump entities” that Trump’s first book, The Art of the Deal (1987), was newly available.

That was strange. A month ago I wrote about The Art of the Deal as a big bestseller 40 years ago but an embarrassment today, the first indication that Trump sold out to corporate media. Even Ballantine, publisher of the shoddy 2015 reprint, has soured on him.

Blurred photos from shoddy 2015 reprint

Blurred photos from shoddy 2015 reprint

So what was new on the NPR podcast?

“On my phone yesterday,” one reporter said, “I got five different appeals from five different Trump entities, all offering to sell me a copy of The Art of the Deal for … ”

“$184!” piped up another.

Stranger than strange, since anyone can pick it up on the Internet for ten bucks in paperback. The podcast folks joked that Trump “has got to give up his entire basement stash” of leftover originals. But it turns out the campaign is offering the book as a reward to donors of — ta da — $184 and more. The question is, what book is being offered?

Webpage for the "very limited edition issue"

Webpage for the “very limited edition issue”

The Art of the Deal is now out of print,” Trump writes on the website, “so this is a very limited edition issue and only available through this special offer through my campaign. I want you to read about the unique leadership and business acumen I will bring to the White House.”

I love that term “very limited edition issue.” It’s like those authentic-looking gold coins you see advertised to old people with poor eyesight. Something’s being commemorated that must be worth it for the unaffordable price they’re charging, but what exactly?

Well, by a “very limited edition issue,” Trump seems to mean he’s taken the shlocky 2015 reprint and slapped a signature plate on the front to dress it up as something worthy. The text is the same, so at least you get to see just how “unique” Trump will be as president.

Trump supporters probably don’t care about this, and neither do I if it’s just a ruse to get more donations. But the NPR reporters smelled something sinister about it, and so should we. Why would “Trump entities,” who ordinarily are religious about cultivating journalists by leaking secrets from inside a campaign, irritate those same contacts about an overblown, overpriced, decades-old book nobody wanted anyway?

I bet they were ordered to. I bet Trump wanted to bamboozle the press by saying he raised $80 million in small donations during a single month, and even if he had to launder his own money under the table, the campaign could point to $184 donations-with-the-book-as-a-prize and say, See? That’s how we did it.

You can subscribe for free through the Podcast app on your phone

You can subscribe for free through the Podcast app on your phone.

Oh, this is conjecture, of course, but we’ll never get a straight answer from Trump, and that’s why I’ve come to love the NPR Political Podcast: Here are four Washington insiders — I’ll list them with the full quote below** — who seem to have so much fun together it sounds like they’re at a bar after an incredibly fertile day for news.

So it’s fun for us, too, to listen in. Away from their keyboards, they challenge rumors, talk too fast, dig out facts and analyze strategies. They’re informed, opinionated, observant, gossipy and incredibly knowledgeable. They can’t give you a reason for something like a no-good book for $184, but they can toss around the data to see what has meaning and what doesn’t.

Alec Baldwin: Fuck or Walk

Alec Baldwin: Fuck or Walk

I think the meaning here goes as deep into Trump’s philosophy to put it kindly as we can get. It involves his gusto for winning every point in the short run and his fear of building a successful campaign in the long run. Who can blame him? It’s as much fun to watch Trump’s glorification of Self as it is to, say, witness Alec Baldwin berating his underlings in that famous “Always Be Closing” scene in the 1992 movie, Glengarry Glen Ross.

Remember that? A merciless sales manager (Baldwin) harangues his salesmen to the point of evisceration in a speech that’s so cutthroat and so Trump, it’s almost poetic. As with Trump, we can’t take our eyes off him. He’s, powerful, dangerous, cold-blooded and perverted. Here’s what he sounds like in this a partial and condensed quote:

(People are) sitting out there waiting to give you their money. Are you going to take it? Are you man enough to take it? Winner, that’s who I am. And you’re nothing. Nice guy? Good father? Fuck you. Go home and play with your kids. You know what it takes to sell real estate? It takes brass balls. If not, you’ll be shining my shoes. (I’d) fire your fucking ass because a loser is a loser. … You can’t close the leads you’re given? You are shit. You are weak. You can’t play in the man’s game? Go home and tell your wife your troubles. Only one thing counts in this life: get them to sign. You hear me, you fuckin’ faggots? It’s fuck or walk.

Trump on the cover of his failed magazine, Trump

Trump on the cover of another he’ll-fire-us-all book

Okay, he’s a little coarser than Trump at the podium, and yet Trump is the one who called John McCain, an authentic war hero after five years of torture in North Vietnam, a “loser” for getting caught. The Alec Baldwin character would never go that far. Trump does because he doesn’t care how you judge him. When the spotlight stays on Trump, he wins.

That tradition of the dictatorial boss whipping his inferiors into shape always has the same outcome. Trump is most comfortable as the swaggering alpha male. I know it’s a tradition because Ben Affleck makes nearly the same speech to stock market trainees in the 2000 movie, Boiler Room.

Ben Affleck: fuck you, Mom and Dad

Ben Affleck: fuck you, Mom and Dad

You are the future big swinging dicks of this firm. Anybody who tells you money is the root of all evil doesn’t fucking have any. I have a Ferrari, a ridiculous house, every toy you could possibly imagine and best of all, kids, I am liquid. We want winners here, not pikers. People work at this firm for one reason: to become filthy rich. We’re not here to save the manatees. You want vacation time? Go teach third grade public school. Parents don’t like the life you lead? Fuck you, Mom and Dad. See how it feels when you’re making their fucking Lexus payments.

Well, say. Haven’t we all met someone like this in our lives? Years ago at a book publishing panel I was placed next to Ishmael Reed, a talented author of experimental novels who was well known in the Bay Area for his outspoken political views. Ish, as he’s called, abruptly began speaking very loudly, pounding the table in outrage about the book trade, which he thought was rigged (not his word but he was right), interrupting everybody and drowning me out when I disagreed with him.

Ishmael Reed, c. 1980s

Ishmael Reed, c. 1980s

The audience sat there stunned; the moderator couldn’t get a word in edgewise, and I felt mowed over by a man whose books I admired. At the end, Ishmail turned to me and laughed as though we were in on some kind of joke. “Hey, you were a great sport,” he said, holding out his hand. And what did I do, pillar of righteous feminism that I saw myself in those days? Of course I shook his hand. I wanted to be the gracious one, remembering my mother emphasize peace in the family, believing that the book industry needed people who pound the table — and giving him, I’m sure he thought, the win.

(It goes without saying that Hillary is wise not to react when Trump so blatantly lays out the bait. Hillary co-founded Isis? Really, she can’t be bothered. Let him hang himself.)

I’ve thought of that panel many times since Trump started his run because I don’t think he wants to be president at all. Realizing he can’t win must be a big relief. His obsession starts and stops with winning in the short term– in speeches, tweets, interviews, debates — because that keeps him in the center of attention. He doesn’t mind being seen as a racist, a woman-hater, an ignoramus, a bully or a coward. To him, taboos exist to bring the spotlight back.

In terms of winning the whole shebang — well, look what happened to Trump the big businessman. He got tired of fighting the thousands of lawsuits, bankruptcies, labor problems, tax audits, the constant burden of accountability. That’s what The Art of the Deal tells us 40 years later: becoming a caricature of himself, making a million dollars to say “You’re fired,” reselling his books of dreck — well, who wouldn’t choose celebrity over responsibility?

as long as I'm not fired.

as long as I’m not.

That’s the role Trump likes to play now. He’s an accuser, a punisher, a winner of the moment. But eight years in the White House?. The TV series House of Cards couldn’t state the lesson more plainly: The candidate may be interesting as he bludgeons, manipulates, kills and screws his to the top, but once in the White House, he’ll have to placate, he’ll have to convince, he’ll have to lead.Let Hillary have the headache. Trump has already accused the national election of being rigged, so he can’t lose. Come January, when Trump can’t be blamed for the next president’s mistakes, he wins.

Anyway, I’m not saying Trump lined up campaign workers and tore them apart for not selling more of The Art of the Deal at $184. I’m saying he didn’t have to. Word came down that the boss had another scam going, and everybody fell into place. Whatever their contribution to the $80 million in “small dollar donations,” they helped him look like a winner, at least for the month of July.

**About that NPR Politics Podcast, which ran August 4, 2016

In this episode the speakers were host/White House correspondent Tamara Keith, campaign reporter Sam Sanders, campaign reporter Scott Detrow and editor/correspondent Ron Elving. I can’t tell most of the voices apart so no one is identified, but here’s the full excerpt about the calls they received regarding The Art of the Deal:

Judging by what I get on my phone — yesterday I got 5 different appeals from 5 different Trump entities, or agencies that were working for the Trump campaign — all offering to sell me a copy of The Art of the Deal for —

$184!

For 184 …

Whoa.

… every single one [of the calls was] the same, and they just kept coming in and coming in and coming in. There’s a little bit of expense involved in that, plus of course he’s got to give up his entire basement stash of old copies of The Art of the Deal —

Yeah, I bought The Art of the Deal on Kindle earlier this year for a story we did —

Did you like it?

It cost a lot less than $184 —

Gonna bet it did —

I think it’s important to bring the context back with the Trump fundraising.

Yes!

The fact is that two months ago he had the amount of money in his campaign account that was less than a typical House (of Representatives) candidate. He had basically no money..

He had less than Ben Carson at one point, right?

Yes, everybody was freaking out about this. Shortly after those headlines, the Trump campaign kicked it in gear, actually made an effort to start making money. They’ve now had two months in a row where they’ve raised a decent amount of money. It’s still not as much as Hillary Clinton, but we’ve also not seen them actually take that money and spend it on things.

Hillary Clinton still has a huge advantage in terms of the number of ads that she’s going to be running over the next two months. The Trump campaign just has not bought that much advertising, and the fact is, for all the stuff that we’ve talked about high-tech outreach, you still get to the most voters with big TV ads.

This is the place to acknowledge that … is how Donald Trump gets away with spending so much advertising and winning primary after primary. He’s the master of social commentary, he gets a lot of free television, and I think he might just be thinking he doesn’t need to buy the kind of ads that Mitt Romney or John McCain bought, because he isn’t sure [advertising] did them much good, and he might just thrive without them.

It’s actually something he talks about in ….

THE ART OF THE DEAL!

(they all chime in)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dumbness and Pornography at the New York Times

I used to enjoy the Sunday Magazine of the New York Times, in particular a page called The Ethicist. The writers there grappled with tough, snarly questions about ethics and moral clarity in our increasingly complicated times.

But something’s happened in recent months that make me want to toss the thing out the window. This once intelligent and thoughtful bastion of good writing has dumbed-down its content so much that kindergarten kids would laugh if they could read it.IMG_1938

Take this typical question: “Is it O.K. To Come to Work When I’m Sick and Sneezing?” Oh gosh, let me think. Answer: No.

Here’s another from a recent issue: “Should My Rich Friends Apply for Financial Aid?” You need an expert for this? Answer: No.

And Another: “Should I Help a Classmate Who Sexually Harassed My Friend Get a Job?” Are you nuts? Do you live on this planet? Answer: No.

And here’s one from the “Bonus Advice” column on the Ethicist page: “My husband complains that I use too much toilet paper. (We measured. I use approximately 20 squares per — .)” Answer: Never write to this column again.

IMG_1941Elsewhere, the New York Times Sunday Magazine has started a weekly survey that is so stupid and so appalling, I can’t believe anybody working there isn’t in jail.

The survey asks readers questions like this: “Would You Be an Anonymous Porn Star?”

That took my breath away. The editors write: “If you could star in a pornographic movie neck down and get paid handsomely for it, would you do it?”

To be kind, maybe the person who dreamed up this question is an older gentleman from the Penthouse/Playboy era who still believes that pornography portrays men getting laid by women who enjoy servicing them. Maybe this person thinks it’s fun to sidle up to guys like himself and say: Hey, it’s about anonymous sex with plenty of babes. You never get caught and it even pays well, so why not?IMG_1943

I’ll tell you why. We’re talking about the New York Times! Didn’t anyone research the fact that even 40 years ago, women “porn stars” were treated like sex slaves — beaten up behind the scenes; made to copulate with animals, submit to simulated and real gang rape, endure primitive breast implants and humiliating ejaculation scenes?

Remember “porn star” Linda Lovelace? She said the oral sex scenes in her famous movie, Deep Throat, were performed “with a gun to my head the entire time.” But let’s say women “porn stars” aren’t coerced — let’s say they need the cash and choose to appear being strangled or whipped while raped. Is this the kind of image you’d want your son to see at age 11 (average age of boys first viewing pornography), or your daughter to aspire to as a “porn star”?

411vFXivT2L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Plus, that was 40 years ago. As any New York Times assistant editor would have discovered through a cursory search on Google, today, thanks to competition on the Internet, the pornography industry is much worse — much more brutal, cruel, ruthless and jaded.

As documented by Wheelock College professor Gail Dines in her book, Pornland (Beacon, 2011), escalating forms of violence in pornography have made the sight of ripped vaginas, bloody anuses and faces blinded by ejaculate lure younger and younger male viewers.

So the problem isn’t only dumbed-down information. It’s the New York Times Sunday Magazine pimping out women as objects of sick fantasies. Who takes responsibility for this? Ultimately, it has to be the publisher, Andy Wright.

Andy Wright

Andy Wright

And look, he’s not an elderly gentleman at all! Just a nice-looking white guy, like your typical John.

Granted, Andy Wright gets to take credit, too, for an excellent article elsewhere in the magazine just last Sunday (January 5) called “To Catch a Rapist.” It describes SVU (Special Victims Unit) detectives in New Haven working through a huge caseload of sex crimes.

But that’s all the more reason for the entire staff to keep professional standards high in every article and item, including — ta da! — a page called The Ethicist. Or maybe they’re counting too many toilet paper squares to notice.

Amazon: The Spoof and the Store

Here’s a fictional job interview from a recent novel about Amazo — pardon, a retail book giant on the Internet with the made-up name of Scroll. See if you recognize this novel:

Tell me, Alice, how do you like to read?

Oh well, I love to read!

I mean, do you use an e-reader or ?

She leaned forward slightly, like she wanted to reach over and catch my answer in her hands.

Of course. I have a Kindle, first generation. I also read galleys, manuscripts, hardcovers, basically whatever I can get my hands on.

“So youre agnostic.

Actually I was raised Catholic, and Ive fallen pretty far from the flock, but I still consider myself a spiritual person, if that makes any sense? (Why was she asking about religion? Was this even legal?)

Good to know. But I meant platform agnostic, meaning you toggle back and forth between your device and carbon-based books.

If you spotted this as a scene from A Window Opens by Elizabeth Egan, published by Simon & Schuster in August, you’re right.

"A Window Opens," hardcover edition.

“A Window Opens,” hardcover edition.

Egan, who once worked as an editor at Amazon’s New York publishing office, has given us both a cautionary tale and a spoof about the horrid place. Instead of parodying the book publishing efforts that she witnessed for about a year, A Window Opens envisions what might happen if Amazon were to climb down from its e-Ivory Tower and open an actual brick-and-mortar bookstore.

And so, ta da! That very thing happened just last month, when the online retail giant Amazon.com opened Amazon Books, a 5500-square-foot retail bookstore in Seattle. Rumor has it this might be the flagship for a coming chain of retail bookstores across the country, but we won’t know for a year or so.

Amazon's first bookstore (not a Benihana)

Amazon’s first bookstore (not a Benihana)

In the book, Egan’s vision of Amazon’s first retail effort is different from the reality, as we’ll see. But in both cases, the store and the spoof, observers get to see how easily the language of e-everythinge-readers, e-books, e-devices, e-families, e-marriage, e-idiocy and e-tyranny — affects modern life.

A Window Opens is about Alice Pearce, a happily married mother of three kids in upscale New Jersey, who holds a part-time job as book editor for a popular women’s magazine called You.

This is the first of several parallels linking author and character. Egan is also a mother of three living in suburban New Jersey, and You sounds like a combination of the real-life magazine Self, where Egan once worked as book editor, and Glamour, where she reviews books now.

Alice loves the fact that she can commute to Manhattan part-time and be a stay-at-home mother most of the time. When, however, her husband Nicholas is passed over for partner at his hotsy totsy Wall Street firm, he figures his only option is to start a firm of his own. With no start-up money, no office and no clients, he needs Alice to step up and find a high salary-paying job of her own.

Author Elisabeth Egan

Author Elisabeth Egan

Facing that all-too-common terror of the long-out-of-work “soccer Mom” leaving a cushy fun employer like You and returning to full-time work, Alice finds out fast that she’s practically unemployable. Then almost out of the blue, she’s asked to interview for a job as content manager at Scroll, a new chain of bookstores that may quickly dominate the retail landscape.

Our mission is to reinvent reading the way Starbucks reinvented coffee, says the Marketing Specialist at Scroll who discovers Alice not through an employment agency or head-hunter, of course, but by following Alice’s cute literary bon mots on Twitter.

Scroll outlets will not be bookstores exactly. Theyre called reading lounges because for one thing, there will be no physical (carbon-based!) books in the stores. Instead, customers will be able to, as Alice learns, browse e-books on docked tablets and then download files directly to all their devices at once. Plans for the lounges include fair-trade-certified coffee bars and eco-friendly furniture sourced from reclaimed local materials.

Although based in Manhattan to be near the mainstream book industry, Scroll is “tethered to its parent,” a giant chain of shopping malls called MainStreet that “curates” retail needs in one place. “So patrons could buy, say, a wheel barrow along with their gardening book,” Alice tells us.

You can see the authors smart set-up. Words like CURATE, AGNOSTIC and CARBON-BASED all sound like exaggerations that could easily spring from a company like Amazon — or Google, Apple, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter — where workers feel required to use language that sounds visionary, hip and brave.

At a Scroll store, customers can browse e-books in arecliner chair with cup holders that keep their organic beverage warm. And they can sit there as long as they like doing SSR (Sustained Silent Reading).

[DRIB (Don’t Read If Busy):

[I kept thinking that Scroll is the worst idea for a bookstore Ive heard in years — for one thing because its already been done. The very first B Dalton store in Minnesota (late 1960s) looked something like Scroll, with big easy chairs, wide aisles, parquet floors, a helpful-to-obsequious staff and muffled quiet to inspire as much SSR as people could handle.

Pickwick Bookshop, founded 1938

Pickwick Bookshop, founded 1938

As I recall, that first B Dalton nearly failed until a management scout visited the noisy, congested Pickwick Book Shop on Hollywood Blvd. in Los Angeles. The aisles were covered with ratty flooring and crowded with so many piles of books that customers had trouble walking anywhere, let alone sitting down for SSR. Shopping was entirely self-service and the lines at the cash registerswere packed with people buying (not reading) books by the armload.

The lesson at Pickwick was that bookstore customers didn’t want to interact with a sales clerk who might ask embarrassing literary questions they couldn’t answer. And they didn’t like SSR in a retail setting too much like a library. They preferred to do their reading at home or in a crowded coffee shop.

B Dalton mall store

B Dalton mall store

So B Dalton’s management adapted to this model by not learning anything in particular. It simply bought and closed the venerable Pickwick Book Shop and its small local chain, copied the Pickwick approach and charged publishers for every inch of display space it could get away with. As a result, B Dalton’s junky, commercial-books-only shopping mall stores did well for a time, as did its competitor, Waldenbooks.]

Egan is clearly aiming her expose at Amazon, but she’s too smart to quote CEO Jeff Bezos’ icky coined words, like “customer-centric.” Instead she turns to his other icky ideas, such as “the empty chair.” When Alice notices that at least one chair is left empty no matter how crowded the meeting, a Scroll colleague explains: “The empty chair is for the customer,” because the customer, nobody should forget, “always has a presence in meetings.”

The "empty chair" theory as adopted by business consultant Gardner Customer Solutions

The “empty chair” theory as adopted by business consultant Gardner Customer Solutions

Yikes, how dumbed-down can Amazon get, you may scoff. But Bezos used the empty chair as “the ultimate boss at Amazon” — and the idea was picked up by so many management consultants for so many years, it became a clich. According to Forbes magazine, Bezos then replaced it with “specially trained employees” — actual human beings called Customer Experience Bar Raisers. “When they frown, vice-presidents tremble.”

In a similar way, Scroll increasingly takes on a kindergarten feel in Egan’s novel. As part of their “onboarding” (orientation) period, workers must learn “the patois of Scroll,” such as “dropping a meeting” on someone’s calendar, or showing team spirit by switching their candy preference to gummy bears made by Haribo, “the leading candy consumed by voracious readers,” Alice’s boss Genevieve declares with authority.

Customer-centric gummy bears: better than books?

Customer-centric gummy bears

True, the pressures on Alice are anything but child’s play. She must “liaise” with 30 agents and editors immediately and select 450 titles for Scroll’s first inventory; she must generate quickie e-books called ScrollOriginals (how close to Amazon’s “Kindle Singles” can you get?); and she must aspire to become a “ScrollCrier” who keeps the world “up-to-the-minute on our mission as it continues to evolve,” says Genevieve.

At first, workers at Scroll don’t have to punch in or account for their time, but soon an email circulates that everyone must “run their palms beneath our new Biometric Time Clock” each morning as a way of assisting “trackability.” No matter. Alice’s first email from Scroll arrives at 6:30 a.m. on a Saturday, so she’s on the clock 24/7 anyway.

And Scroll is not just any start-up. Its backed by MainStreet, a hugely successful chain of high-end shopping malls founded by the Rockwell brothers and here the authors description sounds a bit like the brothers who started Borders Books, a now defunct but once tyrannical big-box bookstore chain. The Borders brothers sold out before they could do as much damage as the thuggy Riggio brothers of Barnes & Noble (not mentioned in the book, thank heaven). Still, they left their mark by contributing to the bankruptcy of every independent retailer in Borders’ path.

The first Borders brothers store in Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1971

The first Borders brothers store in Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1971

In any case, Scroll is set to become part of MainStreets new lifestyle centers,” meaning shopping malls called Heritage Towne and thats TOWNE WITH AN E, by the way. (Any time you want to evoke an old-timey feeling, just add an e or other letter, like the Bun Shoppe).

Heritage Townes are thriving, Alice learns, because they “mimic the hometown vibe of the very mom-and-pop stores they put out of business. Cobblestone, gaslit lanes connect Johnny Rockets (hamburger joints) with Hollister (clothing stores for cool guys and gals); phone charging stations are coyly housed inside old-fashioned phone booths; easy-listening renditions of folk favorites are piped to the furthest reaches of the parking lot, for the brave souls who forgo valet service. Heritage Towne has a gym, a movie theater, a band shell, a medical center, and its own Whole Foods.”

Liberty Bell topiary -- who could resist?

Patriotic topiary — who could resist?

Further, Alice notes, “all shrubbery was cleverly groomed with a patriotic theme. In the short walk around the place, I spotted topiaries in the shape of Uncle Sam, the Liberty Bell, and of course, a giant dollar bill.”

Alice doesn’t like the studied kitsch of Heritage Towne, but she is intrigued by Scroll’s boldness, even its vision, in the face of New York’s rickety old publishing industry. “It would be fun to be at the beginning of something,” she thinks naively. “How many years have I been listening to the death knell of magazines?

Or books. “Who doesn’t want to see more bookstores, right?” says Genevieve, also thinking simplistically. Whether Scroll is good or bad for readers, for free speech, for capitalism, or for our democracy doesn’t seem to matter to Genevieve or for the most part to Alice. What gets everyone’s attention is the latest upgrade in buzz. In the “simulated Scroll lounge” that’s been constructed in the New York office, Genevieve points out proudly, “we have a roaster on the premises so we know our beans have been treated humanely.”

What sustains Alice through her exhausting 90-hour weeks at Scroll is that allure so often heard in real life from Wonder Boys like Jeff Bezos — that you don’t just have a job when you work for companies like Amazon; you are changing the future.

Unknown-6Remember Bezos’ 10 business philosophies in real life? Just to dip into them for a moment: #2 is Stick with Two Pizzas, meaning a project team should consist of 5-7 people, small enough to “feed with only two pizzas,” heh heh, pretty sophisticated, right?

Similarly, Scroll abides by its own Tenets of Winners, conveyed through acronyms such as:

WGIR Winners Get It Right

SADYC Surprise and Delight Your Customer

WTF not WHAT THE FK as they say in Internet lingo, but rather Winners Talk Frankly

WATOQ, Winners Answer Their Own Questions.

Using the Tenets of Winners, Alice is told, every problem has a solution: “If you couldnt find the answer you needed, you could file a ‘trouble ticket,’ organized by six-digit numbers. Your manager would be cced on any trouble ticket you filed, so new employees were cautioned to file them sparingly or risk flagging themselves as poor problem solvers.”

At one meeting, the young team leader mispronounces the word Tenet as TENANT, as in the TENANTS OF WINNERS a mistake only someone like Alice (considered an editorial type in this crowd) catches but cant share. Shes older than her bosses and doesnt dare instruct them.

Sandberg and Zuckerman: dress code even for them?

Sandberg and Zuckerberg: dress code for her?

Nor does she change unwritten rules, such as: When visiting MainStreet’s midwest offices, women wear blazers, blouses and skirts, while men come and go in hoodies and jeans. This is so close to the bone (see photos of Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg), you hear yourself groan.

Finally, Alice learns that she must defer especially to Greg, the self-empowered youngest MainStreet brother and founder of Scroll. Greg has his own wisdom statement, often repeated, which is: We have to ask ourselves, by which he means the older generation’s truths may not apply to today’s realities, so “they” were wrong and we Greg and his brothers are right.

In a rare visit to her office, Greg looks at a stack of books on Alices desk that are soon to be released from New York publishers. He should know that Alice is one of the very few people outside mainstream houses to see these books so early, but instead, thinking of that “carbon-based” label everyone at Scroll uses by now, he says,

You really want to pollute the environment with that crap?

Excuse me?

No, seriously, I just got back from a fact-finding mission at the Strand.** That place is a tinderbox waiting to go up in flames. We have to ask ourselves, what kind of impact is all that paper having on our planet? He shuddered.

Alice begins to tell Greg how she’s curating her first list of recommended fiction titles for the Scroll customer, but he interrupts.

All good stuff. But we have to ask ourselves, what does the customer really want, right?

Right. I was still getting used to Scroll speak, which involved a semi-Socratic tic of inserting Right? at the end of every sentence.

Wait, sorry, Greg, what do you mean?

I mean, does the customer really want books with his coffee, or might he enjoy something else?

Like ?

I dont know. Isnt that your job? Greg gazed at me through heavy-lidded eyes. Was he high?

I guess Im not understanding your question.

Ill break it down for you. Whats the best way for us to gain traction in the marketplace?

By creating a bookstore experience like no other? By giving customers something they cant get anywhere else? Beyond that, I havent really thought

Well, start thinking, girl! Greg squinted at the picture on my desk.

Hey, switching gears here, is that your family?

Yes, the kids are older now but “

Let me ask you, what video games do they like to play?

I laughed. Much to my sons chagrin, we dont have any video gamesI want my kids to be readers and to live in the real world not some fake universe. Not to mention the violence. I congratulated myself on adhering to the sixth tenet, WTF: Winners Talk Frankly.

Oh dear. Well, we know where thats going to get her. You only talk frankly to the company founder if his attention span is longer than the three seconds he allows himself to “switch gears.”

[**DRIB: Don’t Read If Busy

It’s worth taking a moment to note that Greg refers to his fact-finding mission at the Strand as though walking into a bookstore is a dangerous, heroic quest. All he sees are stacks of glued and sewn paper that make no sense to him in the Brave New World of e-bookstores he believes Scroll is bringing to life.

But something happens to customers at the Strand — it’s just a thought but it has the power of a thunderbolt — and I wish it had struck Greg when he was there. That is: It’s one thing to imagine the virtual universe of Amazon/Scroll’s access to a million books in the e-atmosphere; but it’s quite another to walk along the Strand’s incredible 18 miles of new, used and rare books that customers can actually see, pick up, open and start reading right there.

These 2.5 million books don’t represent anything — they ARE our reality; they bring to us just about everything humanity knows at this moment (in the English language mostly); and have been valued and traded in this one bookstore for nearly 90 years. That’s before and after the arrival of the Internet.

The Strand, interior shot

The Strand, interior shot from ceiling

It’s this thought — the astounding physical fact of the English-language world in book form right in front of you, surrounding you and if you’re not careful about to topple down on your head — that astonishes customers and staff alike, so of course Greg is unimpressed. To Egan’s credit, he is not a Jeff Bezos lookalike or a Mark Zuckerberg stand-in. He is a well-drawn Internet caricature with no curiosity, no sense of history and no interest in the way differences in customer tastes could strengthen rather than weaken a company like Scroll.

Of more importance to Greg: Everything he says has such kingly import that he needn’t worry about “staying on topic.” It doesn’t serve him to think more deeply than the platitudes he believes are making Scroll a success. He is a grown child, both a big baby and a paternalistic brat who should be out on the fringes but somehow feels all too recognizable in any business, especially the postmodern Internet start-up world.]

So now let’s turn back to see what we can learn from A Window Opens and the real-life Amazon’s first brick-and-mortar store ever, Amazon Books, which just opened last month in Seattle.

First a question: is Amazon Books in the University Village of Seattle really located “just up the road” from the historic (founded in 1900) University Bookstore of the University of Washington? (From a map it appears to be a dozen blocks away.) If so, do you think Bezos could have found a location more distant from another bookstore that sells, you know, books?

University Book Store, U. of Washington

University Book Store, U. of Washington

I ask this because barging into the neighborhood of an existing independent bookstore and stealing its customer base by offering heavily discounted books was the predatory method that chain bookstores used to cripple the competition in the ’80s and ’90s and early 2000s.

You’d think Amazon for once wouldn’t make that mistake, if only for the PR advantage of no longer being considered The Internet Bully of All Time. But no. Even the New Republic said “its difficult not to see Amazons choice of location as yet another act of aggression toward indie bookstores.”

Amazon Books, interior (not the Dish Room)

Amazon Books, interior (not the Dish Room)

Second, here is an excerpt from Amazon’s welcome letter to customers, written by Amazon Books’ vice president, Jennifer Cast: The books in our store are selected based on Amazon.com customer ratings, pre-orders, sales, popularity on Goodreads, and our curators assessments. These are fantastic books! Most have been rated 4 stars or above, and many are award winners.”

Amazon Books: signs show just how "fantastic" these books can be

Amazon Books: signs confirm high ratings of customers

Okay, got it. Only good books at an Amazon bookstore, right? And Amazon wants you to know they are good because customers like you — your peers — have said so. Signs make it clear not to worry, you are secure knowing the books are “Highly Rated” with a positive customer comment printed out right there on the shelf.

[We figure Amazon didn’t fall for any phony wowzer comments the author paid for, right? So let’s just bypass that conversation.]

Plus all titles, by the way, are sitting “face-out” on the shelf so you don’t have to lift your hand to pull a book out by its spine and turn it this way and that to examine the cover. Sort of like the Dish Room in the White House; kind of a static feeling. Books facing out take up so much space that Amazon Books offers a fraction of the inventory sold at an independent store, and yet customers on Yelp and other sites say the aisles are small and have that “cramp” feeling.

The real Dish Room at the White House

The real Dish Room at the White House

This is the difference between an Amazon bookstore offering statistically popular books and an independent bookstore employing buyers who choose books for different reasons than widespread acceptance.

In an independent store, the buyers meet with publishers’ sales reps as much as six months in advance to weigh the value of each title for every kind of audience. There is some guesswork in this process — publishing is always a crap shoot, after all — and sometimes these buyers will recommend a title that offends some customers. Or at least, that is the hope. These buyers are looking for quality in messge and style; they trust that enough readers are out there who’ll seek out or take a chance on titles that might not be as popular as they are adventurous, off the grid, a little wild.

I wonder for instance if Lolita or Howl or The Color Purple or Lady Chatterly’s Lover or The Autobiography of Malcolm X or The Naked Lunch would have received 4+ stars from customers when these titles were first published — you know, when they were banned and reviewed with disgust and when they caused booksellers to be prosecuted simply for displaying them in the store.

Today you’ll find the modern equivalent in independent bookstores because that’s why these retailers ARE independent — an experienced buyer with vision and a sense of literary ambition for the store is always looking for the unpredictable, that rare opportunity to pique our interests.

On the other hand, at a store like Amazon Books, offering titles that are already established among readers is a safe, dull and (to me) insulting way to enter the retail market. Yes, there is reference to “our curators’ assessments” (sheesh, that word) but these titles seem confined to a “staff-favorites section” rather than as part of a buyer’s decision to mix up the inventory.

[Plus: The staff-favorites section at Amazon Books includes several of Jeff Bezos’ own picks, isn’t that cozy? Maybe we’re supposed to think, Oh good, Dad’s entered into the fun,since one of his favorites is Traps by his wife, MacKenzie Bezos. Aw, Dad. you old softie.]

What’s missing at Amazon Books is that element of risk and adventure you can sense the minute you walk into an independent bookstore. Of course, best-selling titles are everywhere in an indie bookseller, but so are books by authors nobody’s heard of who may be so original and fresh they just have to be read. Unknown, controversial, up-from-nowhere works may not appeal to everybody — they may, in fact, take your head off with their decidedly UNpopular views or style — but heavens, what kind of democracy would we have without that kind of choice?

So it isn’t just that Amazon Books looks like an expensive chain restaurant that’s been overdesigned in wood and signage. (How much of the interior is “eco friendly” or derived from “reclaimed local materials” is not stated.) Rather, everything feels so tidy, so received, so Soviet, so data-molded that a blandness and prudency seem to settle over the place.

I’m sure many titles at Amazon Books do challenge us, but hell, you can get that kind of surprise from a spin rack in a drug store. What makes me nervous is the promise of statistical rankings (“4.8 Stars and Above”) that guarantee conformity.

What does novelist Elizabeth Egan have to say about all this? A Window Opens shows how an Internet company like Amazon/Scroll not only limits our choices in books but corrupts the very language we use about the book business. Granted, fashions in word use come and go, like using “curate” because it sounds classier than “select,” or tossing in the term “carbon-based” so you’ll feel guilty about — well, whatever it describes. But fashions are always short-term, thank heaven. The day everybody gets sick of “iconic” will herald a national holiday that I hope comes soon.

What scares me is that the narrowing of language leads to a narrowing of imagination, as represented in Egan’s novel by Greg and the Scroll team. When workers see no difference between the TENANTS and the TENETS of Winners — or like Alice they can’t say they do without sounding unAmerican — the core message of Amazon/Scroll turns out to be: Stay low, use approved buzz words, don’t read (who has time?), be a team player, lean out and shut up.

One last thing about A Window Opens: It’s a great send-up by a former employee of the metastacized Amazon empire that’s consuming the world. But it’s also a very good commercial novel with its own twists and surprises, its unexpectedly poignant moments about raising children and its intriguing subplots, some of which dont involve an expose of Amazon.

Woven throughout, for example, are Alices brother, seemingly liberated from capitalism; her dads throat cancer (and the “Buzz Lightyear” appliance he uses for a voicebox); the children’s adjustment to Mom’s insane new job; and Nicholas’ own, very rocky transition from up-and-comer to failure to scaredy cat to independent thinker and Dad.

Plus there’s a very intriguing conflict between Alice and her best friend, who owns a terrific independent bookstore that may be the first to be knocked off by Scroll. This store seems to be similar to Elisabeth Egan’s own neighborhood bookstore, Watchung Booksellers (of Watchung Plaza in Montclair, New Jersey).

Remembering how much she has valued this store, Egan commented recently that “Watchung Booksellers is the first place that my kids walked to alone.” This was just a casual comment made without much thought, but it’s a tribute as touching as anything Alice Pearce says in the book. It means that the first time you let your kids walk anywhere on their own, you want the destination to be a trusted place where people know your children and keep an eye out to make sure they arrive safely. Local retail stores are like that, bookstores especially, because kids already know the way to story-time events, circle-time readings and the like.

Egan signing books at Watchung Booksellers

Egan signing books at Watchung Booksellers

And, more important than I thought at first, A Window Opens isthe story of yet another mother trying to have it all by going back to work in a job environment so dictatorial and punishing that it may ruin her life. Here is Alices advice to the familys indispensable baby sitter — who at 18 is leaving the family to start her own career but the message applies to many:

“ please dont waste time wondering whether its possible to ‘have it all.’ Banish the expression from your vocabulary; make sure your friends do, too. A better question is What do you really want? Diving headlong into the second quarter of your life without asking this question is like going grocery shopping without a list. Youll end up with a full cart but nothing to cook for dinner. Figure out what you feel like eating, and then come up with your own recipe for the whole messy, delicious enchilada.”

This is in character for Alice but Im kind of disappointed that she didnt say what A Window Opens tells us, that having it all is a family thing. Everybody gets to have it all if everybody pitches in. Husbands need to balance priorities not just to do the dishes or pick up the kids up but to assume full partnership with Mom and tackle that surprising array of family needs — and, most of all, experiencing those unpredictable heart-stopping moments when the kids do something thats hilarious and serious and in character for the self-actualized beings they are still to become.

I think thats what the book really proposes. Its sort of a fictional take on Sandbergs Lean In, and again Im impressed that for all we learn about Amazon-type companies reinventing the future in an alarmingly bland, somewhat willy-nilly and domineering fashion, the books most valuable inside look is at our own humanity in the face of enormous change.

 

 

 

 

 

Where Did that ‘Foreigner’ Go

People who make decisions about media heads of publishing houses, TV producers, Hollywood studio chiefs believe that most Americans aren’t interested in anything foreign.”

an old cliche

Typical Arab? an old cliche

As a result, for many years, much of what we heard about people in the Middle East were stereotypes of rag heads, exotic belly dancers and cowardly “A-rab” soldiers running away when the real fighting began.

Then came the attacks of 9/11, and the only possible benefit: that unheard-of prospect of a first novel about everyday life in Afghanistan,The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, selling in the millions. Since then an outpouring of novels and memoirs about the Middle East have been published that we might not have seen otherwise.

"The Kite Runner" published 2003 (Riverhead)

“The Kite Runner” published 2003 (Riverhead)

I don’t mean to say The Kite Runner will stand as a great or exceptional novel. As critics noted, the details are accurate and the story is told earnestly and sometimes grippingly. The author, too, is something of a phenomenon, a promising first novelist whose family was given political asylum in California, where he became an M.D. and was practicing as an internist while writing Kite Runner in English, his second language.

So: Intriguing story, commendable author and trustworthy descriptions of a country that most of us knew little about. What’s the problem?

Khaled Hosseini

Khaled Hosseini

Well, plenty, according to a 2009 essay I found only recently called Can the West Read? Western Readers, Orientalist Stereotypes, and the Sensational Response to The Kite Runner by an Occidental College student named Sarah Hunt.

Drawing from Orientalism, scholar Edward Said’s groundbreaking 1978 study of stereotypes about Arab culture, Hunt suggests that The Kite Runner uses simplistic Western ideas to make the Middle East “a cultural backdrop against which to create and celebrate Western identity.”

The plot, she says, reads more like an American coming-of-age novel than a story that might have emerged organically from modern Afghanistan. Americans shouldn’t think that by reading The Kite Runner, they’re “creating a ‘bridge of understanding’ between themselves and Afghan culture.”

'Orientalism' by Edward Said, 1979

‘Orientalism’ by Edward Said, 1979

I never thought people ran out to read The Kite Runner in a conscious effort to correct American ignorance or become better world citizens. Rather a phenomenal word-of-mouth said The Kite Runner was a terrific novel you couldn’t put down about everyday life in Afghanistan, a country we were currently bombing because of 9/11.

Fine, but remember, says Sarah Hunt: People don’t just read a novel for the story, and then go on to another story, and another. We bring our own biases to the page. We seek confirmation of preconceptions that have been on our minds, perhaps subconsciously, for decades.

In The Kite Runner, Hosseini makes his protagonist, Amir, “less and less ‘foreign’ ” to the Western reader, says Hunt, and more an “extension of the imperial self by using the East, in all its forms, for his own Westernized benefit.”

Don’t you love academic language like that — so literary, so righteous, so nostalgic (you Western imperialists, you bums). So pointy.

But I’m glad that someone like Sarah Hunt is here to keep the critical conversation going. Americans love The Kite Runner because we do learn a great deal — about boys and dads, games and customs, geography and money exchange in Kabul — against the backdrop of huge societal changes in Afghanistan, from Soviet occupation to the entrance of the Taliban.

Edward Said

Edward Said

Of course, that’s the plot. Hunt, like Edward Said, is more concerned about form. If Amir becomes less and less “foreign” and more like Western readers, so then do Amir’s friend Hassan (the victim) , and Assef (the villain) become more “foreign.” Hunt believes each character plays out unseen stereotypes that reassure Western readers of the “inferiority” and “barbaric” nature of Orientalist (in this case Afghan) characters.

Something like that. It’s easy to poke holes in Sarah Hunt’s essay because she, too, is guilty of simplistic reasoning. But it’s equally important to note that Can the West Read? represents a critical conversation that is vital to a free culture. This kind of questioning flows around every piece of art we see, and every work of commercial entertainment in front of us, whether we’re aware of it or not.

Unlike plainer, shorter reviews that tell us whether a work in question is good or bad, the kind of cultural questioning that Hunt represents stretches and tests the reader — challenges us to notice prejudices that stop us from having the empathy to understand how “foreigners” themselves feel about being exploited over and over again in Western works.

'The Panther' by Nelson DeMille

‘The Panther’ by Nelson DeMille

Take for example those toughboy action-junkie spy thrillers. (Seven Days from Sunday, National Security, American Assassin) that make so often characters from the Middle East swarthy evil bad guys with bad teeth. An example would be an otherwise fine novelist like Nelson DeMille turning his knowledgeable-wiseacre detective, John Corey, into a swaggering fathead. In book after book (The Lion, The Panther) Corey single-handedly saves the world from Middle Eastern terrorists who need to be killed for the benefit of humankind. He wins, as Americans must, because after all, We’re #1.

The scimitar guy in 'Raiders' - who could blame Indy?

The scimitar guy in ‘Raiders’ – who could blame Indy?

These bad-guy Arab characters come out of comic-book fantasies, so why take them seriously? Remember in Raiders of the Lost Ark when the threatening black-robed giant Arab guy swings his scimitar around so dramatically that Indiana Jones just shrugs and shoots him dead? The audience exploded with laughter when I saw it in a theater. There was no opportune moment for a rational critic like myself to stand up and point out the problems of cheap humor against the We’re #1 backdrop of American big shot storytelling. The audience couldn’t be critical because they know the Western hero is always going to win — he just gets more points when he does it humorously.

And Snopes.com extends the fun by reporting that Harrison Ford in his role as Indiana Jones was suffering from dysentery at the time, so he “persuaded [director Steven] Spielberg to try the scene this much shorter way. (One could say Ford was given “the runs” of the place.)”

"Intrepid archaeologist extraordinaire" or shoplifter of sacred objects?

“Intrepid archaeologist extraordinaire” or shoplifter of sacred objects?

Ha ha, those Snopes writers sure got into the spirit of a real “rag head” moment. “Indy” gets away with using his gun instead of a whip because the villain is too stupid to notice that white people are his superiors in every way. Plus Ford and Spielberg didn’t have to feel guilty for filming that scene because Raiders was just a kill-the-desert-rat movie for Americans anyway. Not to mention a let’s- steal-treasures-from-the-primitives theme, but that’s another story.

But what about those American viewers? Why would an American audience raised on the concept of free speech and enjoying more choices than just about anybody in the world, give up its discriminating voice for easy laughs at other peoples’ expense?

For the answer let’s turn to the Showtime television series Homeland and the very amusing stunt pulled by Middle Eastern street artists a week or so ago. They were hired to spray paint “authentic Arab graffiti” on the walls of the show’s sets which had been built in Berlin, for Season 5.

'Homeland is racist'

‘Homeland is racist’

But these artists had something else in mind, and I don’t know which is more hilarious —

1) that the graffiti didn’t say things like “God is great,” as the artists were told to write, but rather “Homeland is racist,” “Homeland is a joke,” “Homeland is a watermelon” (i.e., a “sham,” a “fake”) — and nobody on the Homeland staff noticed.

Or

2) that the show’s co-creator tried to sound hip and cavalier about it by announcing to the press: We wish wed caught these images before they made it to air … but we cant help but admire this act of artistic sabotage.

Ha ha, sounds like something they’d say on Snopes.com except this guy at Showtime went on TV and put it in a press release. He wanted to be witty and cool so he could dodge the real question, which is: You don’t have one person working on Homeland who speaks Arabic?

Why, Carrie, how you do stand out ...

Why, Carrie, how you do stand out …

And other questions that follow: You don’t have one fact-checker for scenes set in Iraq or Lebanon or Syria? You don’t care that CIA analyst Carrie Mathison is an agent trained in Arabic who botches words she should pronounce perfectly, or when the converted POW Brody prays with his shoes on (“a big blooper”), or when “a bustling metropolitan city” like Beirut is reduced to “dilapidated neighborhoods…(with) armed militias in jeeps terroriz(ing residents) and Hezbollah commanders leaving their top-secret battle plans at the kitchen desk”?

Well, the producers don’t have to answer questions like that because they believe the audience doesn’t care. Homeland is a star vehicle for Claire Danes, goddamnit, so it doesn’t matter if Carrie’s blond hair flies everywhere as she runs around those filthy Middle East streets, or that she miraculously sneaks into a heavily guarded prison to find the one inmate who blurts out the show’s pivotal secret, or that the swarthy deodorant-needing Arab guards race in, missing Carrie’s miraculous escape by seconds.

Or is it the #25?

Or is it the #25?

That kind of slipshod action stuff doesn’t matter, because this is TV, where audiences check their critical standards at the door. I know I do. Do you ever care, for example, that surgeons on ER/Grey’sAnatomy/ChicagoHope/CodeBlack keep using a #10 scalpel blade when the obviously better #12 is sitting right there? No, we want enough fake medical talk to get us into the scandal, the sex and the violence that make hospital shows so great.

I did love what a sardonic Tel Aviv critic said about Homeland being based on a successful Israeli TV series. The story in both versions is essentially the same, he said, but with this difference: In Israel, the show is about terrorists and the Mosad, while in the United States, it’s about terrorists and Claire Danes.

Madam and Mr. Cutie Pie

Madam and Mr. Cutie Pie

I thought that was so funny and so true that it shed new light on the reason a TV audience may silence its own critical voice. Give us romance, humor, action and stars we love, and we’ll tune in, period. (I so love Tea Leoni in Madam Secretary that it doesn’t matter how badly the show dumbs-down every political reality known to heaven. This Secretary of State does the dishes at home, for heaven sake, and she kisses that cutie pie husband Tim Daly over the soapsuds before flying off to stop nuclear war. What more can you ask from TV?)

Maybe that’s the reason CIA experts say about Homeland, ”It’s a good show, but it’s not an accurate portrayal of what happens inside the military or the intelligence community.” Duh. They mean it’s a good show for TV — it’s got intrigue, back-seat sex and torture. Throw in a homemade suicide bomb for the POW to wear at a reception with the Vice President and it doesn’t have to be authentic.

That may be why viewers turn a deaf ear to blistering revelations such as a Washington Post review that Homeland is “the most bigoted show on television, “churn(ing) out Islamophobic stereotypes as if its writers were getting paid by the cliche.” (That’s true but listen, it’s more important to know if Carrie is pregnant or what?)

The larger problem is that American institutions take Homeland so seriously they’ve awarded dozens of coveted prizes – Emmys! Golden Globes! SAGs, Directors/Producers/Writers Guild awards, even an AFI, Edgar, Television Critics and Peabody (whaaaat?) — for being high-minded, intellectually stimulating and instructive.

That’s what makes the street artists’ “Homeland is a joke” graffiti so delicious. They showed what can happen in a culture where free speech may seem less and less valued until — bingo — something truly subversive hits a nerve.

Heba Amin

Heba Amin

And thanks to a statement issued by the lead graffiti saboteur, the Egyptian artist Heba Amin, the message proved just how serious people from the Middle East take English-language TV.

“The very first season of Homeland explained to the American public that Al Qaida is actually an Iranian venture,” says Amin. “This dangerous phantasm has become mainstream knowledge in the US and has been repeated as fact by many mass media outlets. Five seasons later, the plot has come a long way, but the thinly veiled propaganda is no less blatant.”

Heba Amin is a person who’s felt outraged and frustrated for a long time that American television not only gets away with shameful inaccuracies but contributes in dangerous way to volatile relations with countries already angry with the U.S.

But the fact that her crew’s graffiti endured censorship (if only somebody had known) proves this lesson: You can drive a big-budget, overproduced, propaganda-loaded and flat-out bigoted blockbuster down the throats of capitalist viewers and get away with it for a while. But somewhere, dissent is going to come out — not the truth but a truth. And it’s going to be heard because the people who make decisions underestimate the people watching.

True, Homeland will probably go on with higher ratings and the usual awards, but from now on, the fun for viewers will be watching the kinks and the mistakes and the slapdash marks of a true “watermelon” production.

Meanwhile, I’m glad I work with books rather than other media. It’s in books that readers and writers meet according to centuries-old literary standards that are embedded in our psyches. Does that sound high-falutin? Doesn’t matter. The critical conversation goes on every moment of every day, whether we’re ready to hear it or not.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The “Bad News = Good News” Rule

One of the things thats always worried me about American journalism is the “Bad News Is Good News” rule.

That is to say that a murder, riot, scandal, war or earthquake is “good” because it boosts circulation, while human interest stories about everyday life are run-of-the-mill, or “bad.”

After Roseburg: Obama calls on "news organizations"

After Roseburg: Obama wants media reports

True, it’s only human to be attracted to catastrophe and turn away from ho-hum goodness. But the job of the journalist, I’ve always thought, is to find the deeper story in the everyday, to write that story with a fresh angle and to bring to the surface every fact that might otherwise be overlooked.

President Obama spoke to this issue after the recent mass murders in Roseburg, Oregon, when he asked “news organizations to tally up the number of Americans killed by terrorist attacks, and the number of Americans killed by gun violence, and post these side by side in your news reports.”

Funny how nobody’s done that before. As Vox.com’s subsequent graph reveals, no one has been killed by foreign terrorists since 9/11, while an astounding 10-12,000 Americans have been killed annually by homicidal crazy people acting on their own and armed to the teeth with guns.

Vox.com graph: 0 deaths from terrorism, about 12,000 a year from crazy people with guns

Vox.com graph: 0 deaths from terrorism since 9/11, 10-12,000 a year from gun homicides

“We spend over a trillion dollars,” Obama pointed out, “preventing terrorist attacks” but nothing “on how we could potentially reduce gun deaths. How can that be?”

Well, it’s this insane “Bad News” rule: A mass shooting has occurred every day so far in 2015, and each time the press rushes in to exploit the Slaughter Scene with repeated coverage of bloodied victims, crowd hysteria, killer profiles, weeping families, think pieces on “how they [the killers] got their guns,” and the usual update about the “the divide” over anti-gun legislation that “reflects divisions between rich and poor, urban and rural areas” and zzzzzzzzz.

Deeper coverage happens before bloodshed. As Obama said, “our common life together” is at stake, It’s not the killer but the community we need to hear about. But each time it takes a killer to bring reporters into a community in the first place.

Extending Forgiveness

The “bad news” rule came to mind over the summer when the press rushed from one police shooting of an African American to another without providing wider or deeper coverage.

We did see quickie bios of victims on the news, parents worrying about drug and gang cultures and the endurance of the black church in the South. But these sidebars quickly moved aside for the guts of the story — outraged African Americans on the verge of terrible violence.

"In Face of White Supremacist Violence, Families Express Grief and Forgiveness" --CommonDreams.org

“In Face of White Supremacist Violence, Families Express Grief and Forgiveness” — from CommonDreams.org

 

Then came the shooting at Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and the astonishing moments afterward when family members faced the white supremacist charged with the murders and said they forgave him.

— “I’d like to thank you on behalf of my family for not allowing hate to win. We are the family that love built. We have no room for hate, so we have to forgive.”

— “We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms. You have killed some of the most beautifulest people that I know. Every fiber in my body hurts … As we said in Bible Study, we enjoyed you but may God have mercy on you.”

— “Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate … they lived in love, and their legacies will live in love, so hate won’t win.”

This was not the usual media story of African Americans erupting with outrage after each episode of oppression and charging en mass to loot and destroy stores and homes.

This was, rather, a response of dignity and grace that called for sensitive discussions among journalists and a larger understanding of community life beyond the church.

"Mother of Amish School Shooter Goes Public About the Power of Forgiveness" -- FirsttoKnow.com

“Mother of Amish School Shooter Goes Public About the Power of Forgiveness” — FirsttoKnow.com

Remember the Amish families who forgave the murderer of 10 girls in the Amish school in 2006 — and the Amish man who held the killer’s sobbing father in his arms for an hour? It was a cop-out for journalists to say “their religion” was the reason they could forgive. Acts of mercy are everywhere in American life, but perhaps that’s the kind of “good news” that’s too subtle to report.

Devising Strategies

Earlier this year, I expected more thoughtful news coverage for the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights March from Selma to Montgomery.

But the press kept emphasizing the “bad news” aspect that kept selling the familiar story — police use of tear gas, charging horses and billy clubs breaking the bones of marchers who were peacefully attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge 50 years ago.

The confrontation begins at Edmund Pettus Bridge

Before the violence on Edmund Pettus Bridge, 1965

That anniversary did call for film clips and articles showing the carnage on the bridge that occurred in 1965, of course. But there was a missing story, too, and this is what happened inside the African American community as protesters prepared for the the next try.

I’m taking the quotes below from Beyond the Possible (HarperCollins), an eye-opening memoir by the two founders of Glide Memorial Methodist Church in San Francisco, Cecil Williams and Janice Mirikitani.

Their book takes us behind the scenes of Glides stunning history as a civil rights mover-and-shaker for the last 50+ years. But what really touches the reader, I think, is the depth of humanity and the potential for positive change that they believe exist in all of us.

Cecil Williams and Janice Mirikitani at Glide, 1960s

Cecil Williams and Janice Mirikitani at Glide, 1960s

For example, after Cecil watched the Edmund Pettis Bridge attacks from his office at Glide, he got on a plane the next day and flew to Selma. He didn’t know anybody there but walked through the kind of community he knew well – organizers, ministers, teachers, healthcare workers and food vendors who were working out of store fronts and tailgates without much money or volunteers to start up the march all over again.

A few days later Cecil flew back to San Francisco and put out a call from Glide for volunteers and contributions. Then he returned to Selma, this time not by himself but with two planeloads of volunteers and $45,000 in cash, which he divvied up among workers he had met in Selma during his first trip.

At that point, law enforcement was bolstering its ranks from every possible corner of Alabama while volunteers poured in from all over the country. When Cecil joined the organizers who were laying out strategies to lessen police power, something beautiful happened behind the headlines. As he recalls,

the sheriff of Selma was deputizing civilians right and left and assigning them places on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where the horrible conflagration I had seen on TV had occurred before.

Even now, the organizers of the march from Selma would need all the help they could get.

When a call went out for volunteers to distract the deputies from the main part of town, I joined a group of marchers taking buses to the mayors home to demonstrate for voting rights. This nonviolent act would probably be interpreted by law enforcement as a threat to life and property and would thus draw a number of deputies away from the city.

About 600 of us arrived at the house, but just as we assembled on the sidewalk and started our demonstration, the mayors wife ran out the front door with a gun in her hand. It was a little silver pistol.

Ive got six bullets! she yelled. I can take six of you niggers out! We stood there facing her with our arms linked and were careful not to step on the mayors property. She appeared just wild enough to shoot but didnt seem to know how to unlock the safety.

State troopers process demonstrators after attempt to picket the house of Selmas mayor.

State troopers process demonstrators after attempt to picket the house of Selmas mayor.

It was a lethal yet humorous scene that got even more comical when the sheriffs deputies arrived, each one carrying a baton, a cigar, a gut, and at least one gun. Collectively they looked like the classic image of the big, hulking, Southern white cop with everything sticking out. Trying to line us up for arrest, the officers realized there were too many of us to fit in the overcrowded jail, so the deputy chief made an announcement.

You niggers think you can come here and share a cell with Martin Luther King? Well, hes the last person youre gonna see.

They commandeered our buses and loaded everybody back on to take us to a large high school gymnasium with two big basketball courts that would act as makeshift holding cells one for women and one for men We sang freedom songs from the many marches of the civil rights movement, and we even made up new lyrics. Soon our voices, our clapping, and our cheering for justice resounded with a spirit that nearly lifted the gym off the ground.

[Cecil goes on to say the marchers were so committed — and having so much fun — that the police decided to release all 600 people. Nobody moved.]

We had no leader or spokesperson, no time to huddle or vote or make sure everybody agreed. And yet, all the people in both gyms just quietly shook their heads as if we had all planned for this moment all along.

Number of protestors swell from 600 to 25,000 on the third Selma march

Number of protesters swells from 600 to 25,000 on the third Selma march

To me, this was the potential of community at its rawest, most instinctive core. It proved as never before that when African Americans got together, a power they thought they never had emerged as a uniting force. It spoke of independence, of deciding for ourselves, and it spoke of unconditional acceptance we trusted one another as deeply as we trusted our own families, and the deputies knew it. They were furious.

Why, you niggers are crazy to stay here, the chief deputy said.

Book us, then! people called out. Were not moving. As long as our 600 remained, dozens of deputies had to guard us, or (so they thought) wed tear the place up.

Quite the contrary our message was nonviolent. It said:

Were not going to fight you. Were going to confront you with our love and with our goodness, because thats who we are, in the face of who you are. Even if you choose to use violence, we will bring about change. Against your violent inhumanity, we will match you with our nonviolent humanity, so that even you will be changed.

Its too bad that scenes like this, which occurred everywhere in diverse African American communities throughout the civil rights movement, got lost in the shuffle of media emphasis on violence and brutality and, too, on celebrity.

American history rightly focuses on Martin Luther King, Jr., as a gifted and charismatic minister whose leadership inspired 25,000 demonstrators to take part in the third and final march from Selma to Montgomery. But the spirit that really did move mountains to change laws and cultural traditions came as well from millions of African Americans then, and continues to inspire millions today.

How that everyday trust among people binds communities in the face of an unknown future is the story of a lifetime for any serious journalist. But maybe it’s too “good” for mainstream media.

[Note to readers: I worked editorially with Cecil and Janice during the writing of Beyond the Possible.]

 

Oliver Sacks (1933-2015): A brief remembrance

One time I interviewed Oliver Sacks when he had a bout of knee pain and found it difficult to negotiate your San Francisco hills, he said.

Oliver Sacks at the time of our interview, 1989

Oliver Sacks at the time of our interview, 1989

I think he was staying at the Mark Hopkins or Fairmont and tried to walk down Nob Hill to our interview, arriving sweaty and frustrated at the end.

My knee had problems, too, and I mentioned that walking backward downhill while leaning toward the pavement could make the trek a little easier. Parking meters were always there if one needed to grab onto something, and the only problem was feeling like a crab on the way down.

Going down California Street, Nob Hill

Tough on the knee: going down California Street

Dr. Sacks was delighted with the idea and wanted to try it, except for one thing. A person walking backward down a San Francisco hill must be conspicuous, dont you find?” And he had this confession: He might be too shy to do it.

But Dr. Sacks, I said, you work with people who act conspicuously,’ to put it mildly, all the time! Youre famous for showing the world how to appreciate different behaviors because of the way you so eloquently describe whats going on in the mind.

I pointed to Seeing Voices, his book about deafness that was the subject of our interview. There he writes beautifully about the use of Sign language, which he views as not just a substitute for communication but a linguistically complete language all its own.

Original hardcover, University of California Press

Original hardcover, University of California Press

Dr. Sacks picked up the book and embarked on a passionate account of how much he admired the hearing-impaired for developing Sign as both a language and a political movement (the book brings us a stirring account of deaf students protests at Gallaudet University in 1988).

But as for himself, Dr. Sacks said, the fact was that he was just not that courageous. When it came to speaking foreign languages or learning Sign, he would get so self-conscious that all he could do was “stumble and mumble” around.

We got off the subject so that he could describe how exciting the world of the deaf can be when you look at the ingenuity of the mind, especially when its nurtured by the community and culture around it.

Vintage edition, today

Vintage edition today

Once again I felt that thrill of discovery that only Oliver Sacks could convey. Along with his incredible knowledge as a scientist, and his instantly contagious astonishment at life in general, he had a gentle and unpresuming nature that somehow changed the world in uncountable ways.

And he leaves us over a dozen books that will remain conspicuous, thank heaven, forever.