Archive for June, 2010

Spies Like Us

Posted on June 30th, 2010 in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Where would you go to learn to be an inept spy?

The Kennedy School, of course.

The Times reports that Donald Heathfield, allegedly one of Russia’s embarrassingly inept spies, got his start at Harvard’s embarrassingly inept (I’m sorry, I’m actually sort of fond of the Kennedy School, but it’s true) school of government and public policy.

Of course, who could blame him? They say the reason to go to the K-School is for the networking, and what else is spying but really good networking?

Perhaps the most striking thing about Mr. Heathfield, Mr. Podlasly said, was how carefully he kept track of his classmates’ careers after graduation. He traveled overseas a lot and visited many of them, Mr. Podlasly said.

“He kept in touch with almost all of our international classmates,” [classmate Mark] Podlasly said. “In Singapore, in Jakarta — he knew what everyone was doing. If you wanted to know where anybody was at, Don would know.

The only thing he didn’t know, apparently, was useful information….

Did the Atlantic Wimp Out on Wife-Beating?

Posted on June 29th, 2010 in Uncategorized | 9 Comments »

Yesterday afternoon I spent about about 15 minutes on the phone with a journalist named Brian Goldsmith. He was reporting for TheAtlantic.com, and he wanted my comment on the fact that California Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown was getting advice from Republican political consultant Don Sipple.

Some background.

In 1997 I wrote a story about Don Sipple for Mother Jones called “The True Character of a Spin Doctor?”

(My book American Son contains more on how this story came about.)

Sipple was a political consultant who’d worked for Bob Dole, California governor Pete Wilson and both George Bushes. He had often created ads that played on women’s fear of violence to promote his candidates as tough on crime.

My piece reported previously undisclosed allegations that had arisen during a custody trial involving Sipple and his first ex-wife (of two) . Both of Sipple’s ex-wives testified in court that he had beaten them. Repeatedly.

Here, for example, is a summation of testimony from Sipple’s first wife, Regina.

Regina testified that appellant beat her numerous times during the last two years of her four-year marriage. For instance, once when she came home late from work, as soon as the friend she drove home with left, appellant grabbed her by the back of the neck and ground her face into the carpet. Another time, appellant hit her for no reason when she woke up in the morning; and on another occasion, he knocked her down, then kicked her. Once, he grabbed her by the hair, yanked her head back and slapped her. On a vacation to Lake Tahoe with their young son Evan, appellant became angry because Evan’s diaper wasdirty. He then beat Regina. Throughout their marriage, appellant was suspicious and jealous without reason. When she danced with Missouri Governor Christopher “Kit” Bond at one of the governor’s mansion parties, appellant became jealous and hit her afterward. Regina was so fearful of appellant’s violence and temper that she finally fled the house without his knowledge, leaving a note behind.

After the article was published, no other news organization wanted to touch the story; allegations of wife-beating and a top GOP consultant were simply too hot to touch, the subject made people deeply uncomfortable,  and Sipple was furiously working media backchannels. He hired other GOP consultants to discredit me—lots of off-the-record innuendos—and told everyone who would listen that he was going to sue me, and if they wrote anything about this story, he was going to sue them too.

But when a GOP candidate for Congress let Sipple go due to criticism from his Democratic opponent, news organizations around the country finally picked up on the story. The result was national publicity and a $12.6 million libel suit from Sipple, which he lost—a case that has become an important legal and First Amendment precedent.

So The Atlantic’s Brian Goldsmith wanted to ask me if I thought it was odd that Jerry Brown, a Democrat running against a woman, would make a man accused of wife-beating part of his inner circle.

I answered that I found it hard to explain.

To the best of my knowledge, Sipple has never spoken about the allegations other than simply claiming that they’re not true. I told Goldsmith that, while it wasn’t my place to say that a man should be banned from public life because of past actions, it did seem important that those actions  be credibly addressed. Certainly I couldn’t understand why a progressive politician like Jerry Brown wouldn’t care about allegations of wife-beating delivered under oath. in court, from two women.

I checked TheAtlantic.com today, and Goldsmith’s piece was posted. To my surprise, though, there’s absolutely no mention of spousal abuse.

Goldsmith’s piece begins:

Why is Don Sipple, one of the Republican Party’s most controversial political consultants, working for Democratic candidate Jerry Brown?

But why exactly is Sipple controversial? Goldsmith writes that it’s because he created notorious anti-immigration ads for Pete Wilson, and that’s true. Those ads were controversial.

But if you Google “Don Sipple,” you’ll find overwhelmingly that he’s controversial  because two women claimed he beat them.

I emailed Goldsmith to ask why he’d omitted any discussion of Sipple and spousal abuse, and he said he couldn’t talk about the Atlantic’s editorial process. Understandable—he’s a writer there and presumably wants to continue to be.

Instead, he referred me to his editor, Marc Ambinder, a former TV reporter and now political editor of The Atlantic. Ambinder had tweeted about the piece: “Why is Don Sipple working for Jerry Brown? Brian Goldsmith finds out.”

I emailed Ambinder saying that I planned to write a post on this topic and could he tell me why any discussion of wife-beating had been omitted from Goldsmith’s piece.

He wrote back [emphasis added]:

As you know, having had people “take some time” to speak with you during the course of your reporting career, material collected in the newsgathering process is excised in the editing and/or writing process. In this case, I made the decision, and I don’t feel obligated to explain why. Brian’s post speaks for itself.

That is not my philosophy. As an editor, I’m always happy to explain why I’ve made a decision—because if I don’t feel comfortable explaining it, then I probably made it for a reason I’m not proud of.

But I didn’t want to assume anything, so I emailed Ambinder again.

I understand that you don’t feel obligated to explain your editorial decision, but what’s the downside? Shouldn’t media be as transparent as the institutions it covers should be?

To which Ambinder responded:

That’s a false analogy. The White House doesn’t let us in on strategy meetings. Corporations don’t open board meetings. And editors tend not to describe interactions with individual writers about short blog posts unless there is something significant about the interaction. In this case, there is not.

Well—there is to me. (And of course the question—”What’s the downside?”—goes unanswered.)

The reason spousal abuse persists is because it makes people so uncomfortable that they don’t want to admit its existence, which is why the media resisted the story in the first place. As a result, violence against women is covered up, hushed up, prolonged. Because of this silence, women suffer and sometimes die.

That’s one disappointing thing. Another is Ambinder’s argument that the White House and big business aren’t transparent, so why should the media be?

An argument that, to my mind, pretty much encapsulates everything that people hate about the press, and the Washington press in particular. It’s arrogant, out of touch, and insecure.

So why did Ambinder delete any reference to Sipple and wife-beating from Brian Goldsmith’s article when Goldsmith clearly wanted to include it?

Some possibilities:

* Ambinder doesn’t think spousal abuse is important.

* Ambinder doesn’t think the issue is “controversial,” as the article described Sipple.

* The issue makes Ambinder uncomfortable.

* Ambinder thinks that The Atlantic shouldn’t print material about people’s personal lives, no matter how important the issue.

* Or another possibility: When I interviewed Sipple for my original Mother Jones article, he offered me a quid-pro-quo: If I stopped writing the article, he would leak information to me about his current employer, presidential candidate Bob Dole, throughout the duration of the campaign. (Obviously, I declined.)

I wonder if Sipple, who would surely have been contacted by The Atlantic for comment, made a similar offer to Ambinder?

Marc, you can clear this up pretty quickly.

Full disclosure: I used to work at 02138 magazine (got sued there, too), which was owned by David Bradley, who owns The Atlantic. I have great respect for David (no relation, BTW) and The Atlantic, and I know quite a few people who work there (not Ambinder), all of whom are very talented.

But this is not The Atlantic’s finest moment.

In the meantime, I’ll be contacting Jerry Brown’s campaign to see if they’ve addressed the issue of wife-beating with Don Sipple. I’ll let you know how that goes.

2nd Quote of the Day

Posted on June 29th, 2010 in Uncategorized | No Comments »

“Raccoons are omnivorous, like us. They’d really prefer a cheese sandwich, but they’ll eat an occasional frog.”

—A licensed wildlife rehabilitator who is taking care of “Central Park 2,” a baby raccoon found in Central Park (the second this season), as quoted on NYT.com.

Quote of the Day

Posted on June 29th, 2010 in Uncategorized | No Comments »

“They couldn’t have been spies—look what they did with the hydrangeas!”

—A neighbor of accused spies Richard and Cynthia Murphy, in the NYT.

(Thanks, Eliza.)

Sometimes Pop Culture is Funny

Posted on June 29th, 2010 in Uncategorized | 6 Comments »

And sometimes it’s sort of sad.

BP: Burning Sea Turtles Alive

Posted on June 29th, 2010 in Uncategorized | No Comments »

It’s horrific, but true: The oil company is conducting “controlled burns” in which it makes no attempt to rescue wildlife before setting hundreds of miles of ocean on fire.

The results are predictable: BP is slaughtering Kemp’s Ridley turtles, which are endangered. And it clearly knows exactly what it’s doing….

As the Guardian reports,

Once BP moves in, the turtles are doomed. “They drag a boom between two shrimp boats and whatever gets caught between the two boats, they circle it up and catch it on fire. Once the turtles are in there, they can’t get out,” [boat captain Mike] Ellis said.

I think the only thing that can stop BP and its murderous rampage is criminal prosecution….

Why Knight and Day Bombed

Posted on June 29th, 2010 in Uncategorized | No Comments »

The LA Times devotes a lot of space to asking wny the Tom Cruise-Cameron Diaz movie “Knight and Day” is a massive flop. And some poor bastard at Fox totally falls on his sword.

But why didn’t the young moviegoers come too? Sella falls silent. “Honestly, I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve still got to try and figure that out.” He dismissed complaints about the film’s title, arguing that titles, good or bad, are overrated. “If there are three words that you should never put in any title, its [sic] ‘Dead Poet’s Society,’ and yet that film was a huge success. Titles really don’t hurt movies, and for that matter, I don’t know what else we could have called it. What we were up against was bigger than that.

“What we were up against”?

The article touches on lots of possible reasons why the movie’s a dud: Tom Cruise’s weirdness, a bad movie poster, bad trailer, and so on.

The one reason not discussed: Apparently the movie sucks.

It’s been fun reading A.O. Scott absolutely tee off on the film.

A loud, seemingly interminable, and altogether incoherent entry in the preposterous and proliferating “action-comedy” genre, it stars Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz as a pair of hastily sketched cartoon characters hurtling from plane crash to car chase to further car, helicopter and motorcycle chases, one involving stampeding bulls.

Scott hated the movie so much, he went out of his way to trash it again in a long essay about action pix.

That film consists of one over-the-top, overblown blowup session after another — not one showing a scrap of wit — arranged in unvarying, hysterical rhythm. The C.G.I. looks cheap and rubbery (the two stars don’t look much better), and the illusion of watching three-dimensional objects moving in actual space is almost completely lost.

So it’s interesting that the LA Times piece doesn’t even raise the possibility that audiences can sniff a stinker before they see one. And this suggests something consistent about modern Hollywood: It is so convinced it can shove any piece of garbage down America’s throat that if a movie bombs, it can’t be because, well, it just isn’t any good….

Here’s a thought: Audiences like stories and characters. Dead Poet’s Society (see below) certainly had both. So does the unquestionable hit of the summer, the appropriately titled “Toy Story III.” Knight and Day seems to have neither.

New York: You Won’t Die as Quickly Here

Posted on June 29th, 2010 in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

Harvard economist Ed Glaeser—who writes so much about New York that NYU might want to drop him a line—writes about why New Yorkers, who used to die considerably faster than other Americans, are now living longer. Particularly, Glaeser says, older New Yorkers.

The health of New York City’s older cohorts remains something of a mystery, but there is no doubt that the city is no longer a place marked by death and disease. Not only are big cities places of remarkable economic productivity and cultural vitality, but they are also healthy places to live.

(Props to Professor Glaeser, by the way, whose contributions to the Times’ Economix blog are consistently interesting, and a great example of how academics can translate their work into more accessible fora. Where are the Harvard humanists?)

Here, by the way, is yesterday’s Monday Morning Zen, taken from the Governor’s Island ferry looking at southern Manhattan.

(When my new iPhone arrives, the quality of these pictures is going to improve!)

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Summer Reading

Posted on June 28th, 2010 in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

In the Wall Street Journal, Allan Barra takes the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird to assault the book’s exalted status.

The book is required reading in most American high schools, won the Pulitzer Prize and has sold perhaps 30 million copies, Barra reports.  According to Publisher’s Weekly, it still sells 1,000,000 copies a year.

And yet…

In all great novels there is some quality of moral ambiguity, some potentially controversial element that keeps the book from being easily grasped or explained. One hundred years from now, critics will still be arguing about the real nature of the relationship between Tom and Huck, or why Gatsby gazed at that green light at the end of the dock across the harbor. There is no ambiguity in “To Kill a Mockingbird”; at the end of the book, we know exactly what we knew at the beginning: that Atticus Finch is a good man, that Tom Robinson was an innocent victim of racism, and that lynching is bad. As Thomas Mallon wrote in a 2006 story in The New Yorker, the book acts as “an ungainsayable endorser of the obvious.”

I’m not sure that first sentence applies to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by the way, and yet we’d call that a great novel. Wouldn’t we?

It’s time to stop pretending that “To Kill a Mockingbird” is some kind of timeless classic that ranks with the great works of American literature. Its bloodless liberal humanism is sadly dated, as pristinely preserved in its pages as the dinosaur DNA in “Jurassic Park.”

Thus goes the Journal under Rupert, in which opposition to racism (artfully communicated or no) is described as “bloodless liberal humanism.”

Barra throws this in for good measure:

Harper Lee’s contemporary and fellow Southerner Flannery O’Connor (and a far worthier subject for high-school reading lists) once made a killing observation about “To Kill a Mockingbird”: “It’s interesting that all the folks that are buying it don’t know they are reading a children’s book.”

This argument is a bit confusing, because it’s usually liberals who huff and puff about moral ambiguity—in, say, protests against the death penalty or three-strikes laws.

But let us say for the sake of argument that this “a children’s book,” by which Barra and presumably O’Connor meant that it is morally simplistic. Does this mean that clear-cut morality only exists in childhood? Are there no situations in adult life where there is right and there is wrong?

Funnily enough, Entertainment Weekly reports that To Kill a Mockingbird is (and always is) one of the books cultural critics want to keep out of the hands of children.

Its foes: Apparently liberals who believe that the book incites racism. (Most of the other books on the list have to do with sexual identity issues.)

Meanwhile, the Guardian publishes its list of the 100 best books of all time. It has its oddities—really? Salman Rushdie?—but is nonetheless a pretty good summer reading list. For a lot of summers…

Talk about Copyright Violations

Posted on June 28th, 2010 in Uncategorized | No Comments »

SITD readers will remember the conversation about copyright I had with photographer Nina Berman a couple weeks ago.

The issue crops up again. The New York Times reports that two websites posted a PDF of the entire Rolling Stone article on General McChrystal (they’d snagged an advance copy) before the article was even posted on RollingStone.com.

Both companies said that a frenzy involving a significant national issue was under way and that because Rolling Stone itself did not post the article on its site, they took matters into their own hands. Each said that when Rolling Stone protested, it was taken down…

A couple of agressive bloggers?

Nope. Politico.com and Time.com….