Journalists at Play: the (MORE) the Merrier?

This year’s (MORE) Convention con­tained a number of serious elements:

  • the image and employment of women
  • the press and Indochina
  • the Indian movement
  • public broadcasting
  • minority coverage
  • the CIA
  • the nursing home scandal
  • self-censorship
  • conglomerates and book publishing
  • investigative reporting

But anyone who thinks the (MORE) Con­vention is a serious event in itself might consider that at this year’s gathering it was also possible to:

  • see three movies
  • meet Judy Collins
  • dance to the music of the Deadly Nightshade
  • get drunk every day without moving out­side the conference area
  • get hit in the face with a whipped cream pie
  • take a mallet and test your “Media Heavi­ness” on a device patterned after a test­-your-strength machine at a carnival
  • get stoned on not one but three drugs simultaneously, to the point at which the entire convention became a hallucinative blur.

So much for seriousness.

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(MORE) has been holding its annual A.J. Liebling Counter-Convention for four years now. The first one had something of the excitement of a countercultural event. The second rode on the crest of the Woodward­-Bernstein revelations and had a speedy, hustling, status-conscious quality that some said was directly attributable to the conven­tion’s being held in Washington. The third, held last spring back in New York, was galvanized by the prospect of the impeach­ment hearings. If you were a journalist, you didn’t really want to be anywhere else any of those weekends.

This year’s convention started out with some of the same crackling atmosphere of expectation, but it never really jelled. There was no single issue, like Watergate or impeachment or Vietnam, to serve as a focus of energy and talk. If there is a single big story it’s probably the economy, and the press hardly has a grip on that. (The one panel that touched directly on the subject, a discussion of business reporting with Emma Rothschild, Chris Welles, Leonard Silk, and other, was thinly attended.) Maybe that’s why the convention this year felt more like a party than ever before, a big, busy party that doesn’t really go anywhere and that lasts a little too long.

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Thursday night 8 p.m. — I enter the Commodore and on the mezzanine level the first thing I see is Relaxation Plus, a handsomely appointed massage parlor that offers, among other things, the use of its “Exciting New Infinity Room.” According to some leaflets circulating around the convention registra­tion area some distance off, Relaxation Plus offers “magnificently provocative girls” and “an unparalleled bacchanal” with “the wildest fantasies and mirrored gardens.”

The ballroom and foyer area where the convention started out was more crowded than Relaxation Plus. About 200 people showed up, mostly women, and waited an hour to see the movie “Antonia.” The first person I saw was a woman from my old consciousness-raising group. The second was an old boyfriend. The third was another friend, a playwright whose contempt for journalism knows no bounds. Mildly amazed, I asked him if he was going to register. “Yeah,” he said. “I heard there were a lot of parties.”

A few minutes later Dick Pollack, the editor of (MORE), remarked, with some wonderment, that the New York Times had listed the convention in that day’s Going Out Guide. One imagines an update of the famous Arno cartoon; Midwestern tourist husband to Midwestern tourist wife: ”Oh look, mother, let’s go down to the Commodore and hiss the journalists.”

It is worth wailing for “Antonia.” Judy Collins and Jill Godmilow’s film about the conductor Antonia Brico and her frustration at not being able to get conducting jobs primarily because she’s a woman. “A violin­ist can at least play for himself, alone in his room,” says Antonia at one point, in fierce distress, “but the orchestra is my instrument.  If I can’t get jobs, I can’t play my instrument.” For a moment, the well-worn topic of sex discrimination takes on stinging reality. I leave immediately afterward, while everyone is waiting for Judy Collins to show up.

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Friday 11 a.m. — I have managed to sleep through the opening of the first day, and run into Bella Abzug, the keynote speaker, in the lobby. “Have you spoken,” I ask. “Of course I’ve spoken,” she says. “You missed me! I was first.” And then grinning, she says, “I’m always first,” and bustles out.

The women’s conference is held in a long room, with panelists at one end facing an audience of perhaps 300, nearly all women. I take notes, but they’re not worth repeating. The fact is, the women’s conference is dull. It’s essentially a rerun of the Women in Media conference held last December, which was good then but seems a little stale this time around. The broad topics, employment and image, are broad; discussion is necessarily superficial. In the employment panel, a half-dozen women from places like Newsweek, Newsday, and the Long Island Press report on the status of their various anti-discrimination suits; after awhile, one EEOC case sounds much like another. A lot of specific workshops would have been better, where people could argue and get some hard information and advice.

Also by setting up a separate day, Women in Media gave (MORE) an excuse to leave women out of most of the rest of the conference. On More’s program, the women’s panels aren’t even described, and a check of the rest of the program yields the following irritating statistics: out of 106 panelists, 86 are men; out of 20 panels, there is one all-woman panel, entitled “Invading Male Turf”; there are seven all-male panels none of which is entitled “Invading Female Turf.” The (MORE) Convention, this year more than last, looks, as one woman reporter said, “male and pale”; there is even a token panel on minority coverage called “Token Assignments.” Reading the program, one wonders what this self-styled “counter-convention” is supposed to be counter to.

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Friday 12 noon — Kathie Sarachild, a film editor and a founding member of Redstockings, one or the first radical women’s group, takes the open mike to announce that Redstockings is holding a press conference in an upstairs meeting room. The subject of the press conference, she says, will be “Gloria Steinem’s 10-year association with the CIA.”

What followed was one of the most bizarre and grim events I’ve ever witnessed. It was also perhaps the only actual news occur­rence the entire weekend, although the daily papers seem to have ignored it.

They weren’t the only ones. When Sara­child made her announcement, there was a stunned silence in the room, then some minor crowd buzz, then nothing. The next person in line for the mike took it and started talking. I think about unions, and the conference proceeded as before. Maybe it just didn’t interest them that a major radical feminist group was attacking the editor of Ms. maga­zine on serious political grounds; maybe it was just too weird to take. In any case, few people followed Sarachild out of the room.

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Upstairs, about 30 people gather to hear what Redstockings has to say, and to read the 16-page newspaper-format press release they’ve distributed with the headline “Restockings Discloses Gloria Steinem’s CIA Cover-up.” Five members of the group sit facing us and looking serious. Since many people in the room are aware of Steinem’s previously publicized CIA connection as director of a CIA-backed research foundation, the ironically named Independent Re­search Service which sent American students to world youth festivals in 1959 and 1962, someone asks what the Redstockings have that’s new. They say two things:

1) Steinem’s “Who’s Who” entry for 1968-69 lists current membership on the Board of Directors or the Independent Re­search Service and notes that she was its director from 1959-62. In the 1973-74 entry, there is no mention of her board membership through 1969 and the directorship is listed as lasting from 1959-60.

2) In a Times interview in 1967, Steinem is quoted as saying that in working with the CIA she was never asked “to report on other Americans or assess foreign nationals.”  Redstockings contrasts this note with an excerpt from the Research Service’s report on the Vienna Youth Festival in 1961, which lists brief political and biographical descriptions or a number of the participants.

As cover-ups go, this one seems to be small beer: the offending pamphlet is 14 years old, and dropping embarrassing infor­mation from one’s “Who’s Who” entry may not be candid, but it’s anybody’s preroga­tive.

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The press conference continues in a con­fused and slightly tense way. Someone final­ly asks if Redstockings is saying Steinem works for the CIA or that Ms. magazine is a CIA front (the press release makes reference to Ms.‘s “curious corporate financing”). Sarachild says no, they’re simply “raising questions” about that. There is a peculiar moment when someone asks if Redstockings has confronted Gloria Steinem with their information, and if not, why not. “We wanted to bring it to you first,” says one of the women, “since you as the press are the representatives of the people.” This is the first time I’ve ever heard a radical describe the press so kindly. The Redstockings insist that it is not their business to confront Stein­em, it’s the business of the press, and that’s why they’ve called the press conference.

Maybe so, but the whole thing has an unnecessary air of McCarthyism about it. What could have been a legitimate attack on Ms. and, for that matter, Steinem’s politics, which many radical feminists regard as frustratingly reformist and even reactionary, has been cast in such a way that it looks sly and paranoid. It also looks very personal. At one point, a woman in the audience suggests that because the 1967 Times article describes Steinem as a “30-year-old free­lance writer,” she lies about her age, and the Redstockings agree. (Steinem turned 40 this year, a fact she consciously publicized.) And the Redstockings describe Steinem’s career repeatedly as having been “made” by Clay Felker (whose job as an editor of the CIA-fi­nanced delegation’s newspaper at the 1962 Helsinki festival is made much of in this connection, although the Redstockings stop short of charging Felker with knowledge or the CIA involvement). Sad days, when fe­mininists can’t give a woman credit for her achievements — whatever they may feel about her politics — but must attribute them to a man.

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I prepare to leave, feeling depressed and wishing that one of the most important radical feminist groups in New York had chosen to announce its resurgence in a better way. Before I go, someone in the audience who knows l work at The Voice comes up and says, “Did you know you were working for the CIA,” No. I say, but I have in my hand a list of names …

Friday afternoon’s session of the Women’s Day is too much like Friday morning’s. Two interesting things happen. One is when Wilma Scott Heide, a kindly looking gray-haired woman who’s past president of NOW, calls for an action to temporarily sabotage one network — that is, put it off the air for awhile by zapping its transmitter. This is not what you expect from kindly looking gray-haired past presidents of NOW. When she asks who would be willing to work on such a project, about half the room stands up.

The other interesting thing was the pies. The afternoon panel is drawing to a close, and Marcia Dubrow, a reporter from Reuters, is making an announcement. Sud­denly her face is covered with whipped cream. There is movement at the dais: then another panelist’s face is covered with whipped cream. Then three women grab the microphone, shout ”We’re from the humor liberation front,” and run out of the room, spraying shaving cream on the walls as they go.

Wondering why women are throwing pies at other women when they could wait a day and throw them at men, I investigate. It turns out the pie throwers are advertising their forthcoming book, a collection of humor by women, which they are going to call “Titters.” Yuk yuk. I haven’t laughed so hard since the last time I stepped out of the house and slipped in a pile of my neighbor’s dog’s leavings.

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Friday night — dinner at the Oyster Bar with friends. We discuss the liberal elite bias of the (MORE) Convention. In addition to slighting women and various minority groups, (MORE) slights the Daily News, New York’s biggest newspaper. Ellen Cohn, a Sunday News magazine columnist mo­derating the Invading Male Turf panel, has taken a lot of ribbing from News colleagues, many of whom feel left out. No wonder. The New York Times has 16 representatives on (MORE) panels this year, the Washington Post six. The Voice four. The News has two, including Ellen; the New York Post has none. Neither the News nor the Post is represented on a panel called “Why the Working Man (sic) Hates the Media,” al­though those are the papers, of course, which most “working” people (as opposed to us idle executive types) read.

Later Friday night — two dimly lit, large rooms have been set up with bars, nightclub­ type tables with little lamps, and piped-in rock music. The Deadly Nightshade, a women’s rock band, will play later. I prepare to go home with a firmly fixed image in my mind of half the New York press corps and assorted freelancers standing around like sophomores at a college mixer. Then I run into some people I know and decide to stay; we spend the evening gossiping and standing around like sophomores at a college mixer.

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Saturday afternoon — I go to the critics panel to hear Pauline Kael, Jules Feiffer, and John Leonard talk about criticism under the mildly hilarious orchestration of moderator Calvin Trillin of the New Yorker. Feiffer sounds gloomy, announcing that “there is no such thing as seriousness anymore, no one takes criticism seriously, very little means anything to us anymore.” He considers this the effect of the war, which has numbed people’s minds and destroyed our sense of good guys and bad guys. “Criticism, like so much else in America,” he concludes. “has been Vietnamized. I want to welcome you all to San Clemente.” Kael jumps in immediately, dis­agreeing with everything Feiffer has said (“I think he must be speaking out of some very personal despair”) and doing it with such quivering intensity that it’s evident seriousness is alive and well. Then Leonard talks about the pressures on a daily book reviewer that makes reviewing “not exactly a noble calling” (this was aimed at Kael), but “more like the work of  a sports columnist.” Then they talk about the func­tion of the critic, and Feiffer takes issue with Kael’s remark about his personal despair, and it’s all pretty interesting. Most impor­tant, it does the one thing that a panel of writers talking should do: it makes you want to go home and write.

Outside, I run into a half-dozen people who say I’ve missed the best panel, in this case, the one on investigative reporting. I would worry, but people say this to each other at the (MORE) Convention every year.

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This year, the (MORE) Convention has something called a Media Midway set up in the lobby outside the meeting rooms. It consists of the following things:

  • a life-sized photographic cutout of Elaine Kaufman, the woman who owns Elaine’s, a status restaurant for writers and other famous people. Next to the cutout is a sign saying, “Get your picture taken with Elaine.”
  • A game called “Spot the Typos,” which features some pencil, and a couple of bedraggled copies of the New York Post.
  • A game called “Test Your Headlining Skill,” with copies of the Daily News for reference.
  • The aforementioned Media Heavy machine. For 50 cents, you take a mallet and hit a lever that will make a ball shoot up a chart. Depending on your heaviness, you may ring the gong at the top. At the top of the chart is “$500,000 Book Advance,” with “Pulitzer Prize” just below, and “White House Correspondent just below that. In the middle is “(MORE) Contributing Editor.” At the bottom, just below “Copyperson,” is “Rock Critic.” Nobody is testing his or her media heaviness while I’m around, but the gong has been going off all afternoon.


There are more panels until dinner time, but I miss them in order to talk to some women about the Redstockings­-Steinem business. One of the women reports that a number of radical feminists met the night before to discuss the aftermath of the press conference. There was a lot of ar­gument over the pros and cons of the Redstocking action, and it sounds like a good meeting. I’m cheered simply to hear that radical feminists are meeting again

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Saturday evening — After dinner, a party, the location of which has been posted on the bulletin board. The party, in case anybody asks, was not put on by (MORE). Refreshments were joints, hash brownies, and balloons or nitrous oxide. Nitrous oxide makes you feel blissful and induces a mild trance. The party had some of the atmo­sphere of a friendly opium den, with people sitting around looking dreamy.

After about an hour of this, I go back down to see Studs Terkel get the annual A.J. Liebling Award and to hear the big Saturday night panel. This time it’s on self-censorship, and the star lineup includes Brit Hume, Carl Bernstein, and Dan Rather. The panel is well under way when the hash brownie suddenly hits with a vengeance. I concentrate on staying upright in my chair, while the panelists talk turns to gibberish in my ears. I ask a clear-headed companion if the panelists are being interesting. “No,” he says, “they’re being boring.” Then I ask him if there isn’t an odd roaring noise in the room, praying that he will say yes so I can stop wondering if the roaring noise is just the sound of my brain disintegrating. My brain is not disintegrating: the noise is the roar of the crowd, which is getting louder and louder and threatening to drown out the panel entirely. It seems the bar has opened halfway through the panel discussion, and peo­ple’s desire to party is overcoming their desire to learn about self-censorship. Finally, the roar wins, and the panel shuts down.

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A party follows, which is much like the party the previous evening. Dan Rather drifts by at one point, talking to someone. A dozen people surround him as he moves, hanging on every word like a school of hungry fish. They look as if any minute they might start taking eager bites out of him. Someone is introduced to me who says something pleasant about my work. I can’t for the life of me think what to say back: finally, after a long and ghastly silence, I remember that the words one says under these circumstances are “thank you.” I manage to get them out, but she’s looking at me funny, as well she might. I get another word out — “good-bye” — and then get the hell out of there so I can go home and sleep off the brownie. I remember the last time I was this stoned: (MORE) Convention 1973 Rolling Stone party. That time the culprit was California joints the size of cigars. Hallucinatory. Everyone’s cars turned to fur, and every time David Halberstam spoke, a podi­um seemed to form in front of him.

Sunday — Sunday is quiet and subdued. The Media Midway is dismantled, there are no bars in evidence. People go around to the various literature tables set up outside the meeting rooms and pick up free copies of things like Seven Days and the Soho Weekly News and a beautiful slick magazine called Lithopinion. A man distributes the Redstockings press release/newspaper.

Like a lot of other people, I drift in and out of all the panels. Jack Newfield and John Hess talk about the nursing home scandal. Gay Talese talks, rather solemnly, about sex and journalism; Nora Ephron and David Obst give discouraging advice to hopeful freelancers. All the panels are mildly interesting; none of them seems more than that, except the panel on the assassination of JFK. It is well attended, and when the famous Zapruder film is shown, the room goes still.

Outside, in the lobby, they’ve opened up the bar again.


A Year in the Life of Robert Maxwell

A Year in the Life of Robert Maxwell: A Story of Labor, Lies, Losses, and Libel Suits 
December 31, 1991

  1. Publishing tycoon Robert Maxwell becomes an instant celebrity in the U.S. by agreeing, in early March, to take over the Dally News. The paper’s unions, weary after a 139-day strike, hail Maxwell as a friend of labor. No one listens as a British union leader warns that Maxwell’s habit is “to make the workforce pay for his greed and ambition, while presenting himself as a white knight.”

  1. In early April, The New Republic runs a negative profile of Maxwell; he sues in Britain, despite the fact that TNR has only 136 U.K. subscribers. Maxwell sets the News on the comeback trail through promotions such as “Lucky Bucks.” Playing the role of civic leader, Maxwell makes grandiose pledges to various local institutions. The formula seems to work, as the News makes rapid gains.

  1. Quietly, Maxwell sells Pergamon Press and takes 49 per cent of Mirror Group Newspapers public in a frantic attempt to raise cash. On July 16 and 17, the London Independent does a two-part series, reporting that Maxwell’s debt, at $2.14 billion, is 150 per cent of his assets. Furious at the disclosures, Maxwell sues the paper for libel — despite the fact that he is a part owner.

  1. In mid September, The Wall Street Journal reports on the dubious nature of Maxwell’s empire. He calls the reporter “a creep.” Days later, Maxwell pledges $10 million to Brooklyn’s Polytechnic University. On September 25, Maxwell sponsors a race-relations forum. The News runs five photos of its boss in one day. Pleased, Maxwell pledges $750,000 to promote racial peace.

  1. On October 20, Seymour Hersh’s The Samson Option is released, claiming that Maxwell and the Daily Mirror‘s foreign editor, Nicholas Davies, worked for the Mossad. Both men deny the charge and, on the 23rd, Maxwell flies yet another libel suit. Davies was later fired. In the early morning of November 5, Maxwell mysteriously disappears off his 180-foot yacht, the Lady Ghislaine.

  1. The British press goes ballistic over the Maxwell story, suggesting that the nude body found in the sea is not his. Later, Maxwell’s widow files a libel suit against The Guardian, for suggesting that she might have been part of a plot to fake Maxwell’s death. Sons Kevin and Ian seize the reins of the troubled empire, and are met warmly by News staffers — much as their father had been.

  1. After a month of media speculation about Maxwell’s disappearance, the Daily News files for bankruptcy on December 5. Its local deli refuses to accept News credit cards and creditors demand cash up front. Britain’s Serious Fraud office turns up massive improprieties, including the looting of pension funds and artificially propping up the price of Maxwell Communications stock.

  1. Kevin Maxwell is implicated in the pension fund scandal In Britain, and his passport and personal assets are seized by the British government. Kevin is put on a $2700-per ­week allowance, Ian puts his London house up for sale. Maxwell’s own papers call their former owner “a thief and liar.” As he walks through the newsroom with Sam Donaldson, Kevin Maxwell is pelted by a reporter.

  1. In mid December, authorities begin to investigate the pensions at the Daily News. Staffers bet on a horse named Pension Fraud. Press accounts claim Max asked a young female employee to call him “Mr. Maxwell” in bed and had a thing for midget Filipino prostitutes. Bankruptcy papers indicate that he did not make his charitable contributions, stiffing even Mother Teresa.


When the Lights Went Out in New York City

It was a Thursday afternoon and most of the Village Voice staff was going about its business at 36 Cooper Square. Then the lights — and everything else electrical, including the desk phones — went dead. Flip phones flipped open, but dialing out was a crapshoot — the lines were jammed, if you could get a signal at all. Editors sent writers out across the city to research stories for the following week’s edition, which would come out just a few days later, on Tuesday evening. There was still plenty of time for reporters such as Wayne Barrett, James Ridgeway, and Cynthia Cotts to dig into the history of infrastructure neglect that led to the August 14, 2003, blackout.

Barrett zeroed in on New York’s Republican governor, George Pataki: “There he was on Larry King Live, the governor of a state that couldn’t even watch him, promising to get to the bottom of the first 21st-century blackout, looking for any culprit but himself. After eight and a half years of the most disastrous energy policies in New York history, George Pataki spent the last few days frantically turning himself into a human floodlight, scanning an eight-state collapsed grid for a blameworthy glitch, when he needed only to shine the klieg on himself.” Barrett also noted that other parts of the Northeast region dodged the outage because they had avoided aligning their systems with New York’s: “Pataki policies have turned New York into a ‘regional pariah,’ with manic deregulation, skyrocketing prices, and both transmission and capacity disinvestment driving other, sounder systems away.” Additionally, Barrett ferreted out the campaign contributions from energy suppliers and the political favoritism that led to the catastrophe. Read Barrett’s full article.

New York Gov. George Pataki listens to a question at a press conference outside the New York State Emergency Office in Albany, N.Y., on Thursday, Aug. 14. 2003, where he said that 60 percent of New York State was still without power.

James Ridgeway’s mordantly headlined “Power to the People? Hardly.” had a local and federal perspective: “Once it became clear that we could not blame Canada for the largest blackout in North American history, the politicians started saying no one was to blame. The hapless Bloomberg jabbed a finger at those ordinary people who don’t turn off the light when leaving the room and don’t want power lines running through their backyards.”

And then he pointed out the ways in which Bush the Second’s administration had set the stage for the blackout: “Pointing fingers or even just being pissed off about it has been depicted as unsportsmanlike and, what’s worse, unworthy of true New Yorkers, whose stoicism ought to cover sleeping on the streets or walking five miles in the dark. Thank God, said the reporters, that at least as people trudged home across the Brooklyn Bridge, they didn’t have to look back at clouds of smoke from burning towers. If this attitude holds, it will amount to yet another chapter in the Bush administration’s amazing success story of hoodwinking the public, right up there with the disappearing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the tax cut for the rich jump-starting the economy. Because the real blame for this blackout lies not in technical glitches, but in political policies.”

And then Ridgeway delivered a conclusion that could have been written last year when Republicans rammed through yet another tax cut for the richest Americans: “Bush and his right-wing Republican coalition that runs the nation are determined to cut back to a bare minimum the federal government that holds us all together. In addition to finishing off the New Deal’s social welfare system and getting rid of the Department of Education, federal regulation has gotta go.”

Cynthia Cotts’s “It’s Deregulation, Stupid” highlighted a Daily News headline, “Experts know zip over zap,” and then went on to remind readers that New Yorkers were not the only ones without power that summer of 2003: “The Republicans’ embarrassed silence allowed Democrats to seize control of the narrative. Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico, an energy secretary under Clinton, landed on the front page of The New York Times on August 15 with the now famous quote, ‘We are a major superpower with a third-world electrical grid.’ He not only got the Iraqis laughing (they have been without electricity for months), but also provided a spark for ensuing news coverage.”

Cotts referenced a Times story that said one of the blackout’s causes was “an unregulated energy market in which private companies have no incentives to build transmitters, and industry monitors have no power to enforce reliability rules.”

Which sounds very much like the deregulatory dream of Trump and the current Republican Congress.


How the Podcast “In the Dark” Took on the Criminal Justice System

Whether it’s stories of celebrities behaving badly, serial killers hunting for victims, or unsolved mysteries from decades past — and whether those stories are told on TV, in print, or through our earbuds — these tales are ensnaring America in a true-crime obsession. Over the last few years, the series Serial, Making a Murderer, and The Jinx proved the commercial viability of the genre. Today, mainstream television auteurs such as Dick Wolf and Ryan Murphy are tapping the headlines for stories, while Hollywood titans like Quentin Tarantino are turning to age-old crimes for inspiration. Netflix, meanwhile, seems to be cornering the market for true-crime documentary series with Wild Wild Country, The Staircase, and Evil Genius. 

If the above projects are turning true crime into mass entertainment, the podcast In the Dark is bringing a journalistic rigor to the genre, most recently through the case of Curtis Flowers. A black man on death row for a 1996 quadruple murder in a furniture store in Winona, Missouri, Flowers and his case are the subject of season two of the blockbuster podcast from American Public Media. Season one, which aired in 2016, explored the horrific story of Jacob Wetterling, an eleven-year-old Minnesota boy whose abduction, sexual assault, and murder went unsolved for 27 years. Critics raved. Vox called it “better” than Serial. For season two, which ends this week and has been downloaded over 12 million times, host Madeleine Baran and her team spent a year reporting Flowers’s case from Mississippi. 

Curtis Flower, in a family photo

In the first episode of season two, Baran lays out the stakes. Flowers’s first three trials — in which he was convicted and sentenced to death — were all appealed, with the Mississippi Supreme Court overturning the convictions due to prosecutorial misconduct by District Attorney Doug Evans; numbers four and five were declared mistrials from hung juries; and after trial six ended with Flowers once again convicted and sentenced to death, his lawyers are working on a direct appeal. As Baran notes in the podcast, assumption of Flowers’s guilt generally falls along racial lines: White people APM spoke to often thought Flowers was guilty, and black people thought he was innocent.

“There’s certainly this question of whether this man has been wrongfully convicted,” Baran tells the Village Voice. “There’s also a related question about power of the prosecutor, and whether the prosecutor is abusing his power.” When framing the story, Baran pits Flowers against District Attorney Evans, whose trial conduct was ruled unconstitutional three times by the Mississippi Supreme Court. It’s similar to the approach APM took in season one: According to Baran, she and her team aim to investigate “powerful people or institutions who are potentially misusing their power or are doing things to harm people who have less power than them.”

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For example, in Flowers’s case, investigator John Johnson, at the district attorney’s office, was responsible for gathering evidence, and his sparse notes claimed that many people had shared information relevant to the case. One person he interviewed, according to the notes, believed Flowers had a gun. And many more he interviewed said that Flowers wore the type of shoes — Fila Grant Hills — that left footprints at the murder scene. In the Dark tracked down seventeen people mentioned in Johnson’s notes, all of whom said that information attributed to them in the notes was wrong.

As listeners learned, Evans’s case against Flowers was built from the following evidence: 1) Witnesses who testified they saw Flowers walking in Winona the day of the murders; many of them later changed their stories; 2) a gun that was allegedly never found, though the final episode raises questions about that; and 3) a jailhouse snitch (a notorious violent criminal who, as the podcast reveals for the first time, received leniency with other charges — information that was withheld from the jury).

Doug Evans in court in 2010.

“I see evidence of a different kind,” noted Baran in episode two. “Evidence that law enforcement was willing to rely on testimony from people who couldn’t plausibly remember what they saw in any kind of detail; evidence that law enforcement was willing to pressure people; and evidence that so many of these people were just plain scared.” Each episode goes on like this: Baran and other producers — Samara Freemark and Natalie Jablonski — examine each piece of circumstantial evidence, until it’s conclusively clear that Evans’s case doesn’t hold up. Furthermore, they discovered that Evans had eliminated potential black jurors at disproportionate rates throughout the Flowers case. In a remarkable feat of investigative data journalism, APM’s team went through more than 100,000 pages of records before discovering that potential black jurors were 4.4 times more likely to be struck from the rolls in Evans’s district than were potential white jurors.

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What sets In the Dark apart from other true-crime-style programs is that it doesn’t focus on the mystery of who committed the crime, like Serial did; it doesn’t focus on innocence, like Making a Murderer; rather, it turns its gaze to the actors and institutions of the criminal justice system and how they wield — often unaccountable — power. “We really don’t think of ourselves as doing, like, a true-crime thing,” says Baran. “We’re not interested in a whodunit for our team. We’re interested in stories that are about accountability.” In her view, what In the Dark is able to add to the ever-crowded space of true-crime podcasting is the ability to “report to conclusion…doing enough work to be able to figure things out where you do not have to equivocate about what is going on.”

Baran emphasizes the importance of exploring criminal justice issues that often are underreported. By examining what went wrong with the Wetterling case, and why it had taken the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office close to thirty years to solve it, In the Dark was able to show that this particular law enforcement agency was grossly incompetent — one unable to solve multiple high-profile crimes, including cases of abduction, murder, and disappearance. In shifting the focus away from the subjects of the criminal justice system and toward the actors that determine their fate, In the Dark tells a conclusive and compelling whodunit of a different kind: one in which elected law enforcement officials are the guilty ones.

Flowers being lead away from the Montgomery County Courthouse in 2004

Curtis Flowers is still sitting on death row, and the investigative reporting from APM could be useful in his post-conviction appeal, since it establishes new evidence that a jury has never heard before. Last week’s penultimate episode describes a potential Brady violation, which could be grounds for a new trial. In June it was announced that, due to In the Dark’s reporting, a petition had been started to recall Evans as district attorney. If wrongs can be made right, and the corrupt can be held accountable, Baran and her team will have succeeded. “The only reason we do this work,” she says, “is so that people know about it.” 


Hillary Clinton Warns of Creeping Authoritarianism in America

For journalists worldwide, 2017 ranks as one of the most dangerous on record: Eighteen journalists were killed, according to Freedom House, while 189 currently languish in prisons around the world. Here at home, meanwhile, the safety and sanctity of journalism is threatened by a president who regularly attacks the press, handpicks which organizations can attend White House briefings, and compulsively sells falsities as reality.

Such was the crux of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s speech Sunday night at the Cooper Union, which closed out the weeklong PEN World Voices Festival. Joining the ranks of past speakers such as Salman Rushdie, Christopher Hitchens, Umberto Eco, and Sonia Sotomayor, Clinton had been chosen to give this year’s annual Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture — which traditionally addresses current challenges to free expression — based on her work defending human rights and free speech as secretary of state. Said PEN CEO Suzanne Nossel in her deeply personal introduction — Nossel served under Clinton as a deputy assistant secretary of state — the efforts of the former secretary had “helped secure the freedom to write for tens of millions worldwide.”

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Clinton used her 45-minute speech to sound the alarm that freedom of speech and expression is currently under attack here in our own country. The target of a Russian-led disinformation campaign during her 2016 run for president, Clinton was a fitting choice to talk about the new dangers facing not just those in this country who report the news, but also those of us who read and absorb it. She spoke of the election as “a case study in the weaponization of false information and outright lies against our democracy,” detailing foreign agents’ use of social media to plant false stories and sow not only distrust in her candidacy, but division throughout the country. And she stressed the danger we face living under a president who “seems to reject the role of a free press in our democracy” and who distorts facts and continually lies, even about things as obvious as, say, the size of an inaugural crowd.

“When leaders deny things that we can see with our own eyes,” she said, “it’s not just frustrating to those of us who try to live in a fact-based universe. It is the beginning of the end of freedom. And that’s not hyperbole. It’s what authoritarian regimes throughout history have done.” To drive her point home, she noted that earlier this month, the Department of Homeland Security announced it would begin monitoring the activities of reporters and media professionals.

Clinton ended her speech with a call to action, not just for the writers in the room but for the American people at large. “We have to find our voice, in whatever way we are comfortable, to speak out,” she said, later adding: “Everyone’s voices need to be raised at this time.”

“Do not grow weary — be sustained by the energy that the truth can give you,” she continued. “I have no doubt we will get our country back on the right track.”

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The Q&A that followed with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie — the author of the award-winning novel Americanah, and herself the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write speaker in 2015 — was warm and engaging in covering a variety of topics, from the personal to the political, from Clinton’s decision to run for office to her passionate hopes for how we can conquer the divisiveness currently plaguing the country. But the themes of free speech and vigilance against its suppression resurfaced time after time. Clinton spoke again of the weaponization of misinformation that occurred during the election — and continues today — noting how the false stories that were circulated during her campaign were so credible because they were delivered in a way, via social media, that looked like news.

“You have to wonder: How do we stop this?” she asked. “Because we’re living in a time when information can be so powerful, and if it’s wrong, or it’s intended to influence you to do something that is not reality-based but based instead on propaganda, that’s a problem that we have to deal with going forward.” When Adichie asked if this is why she has chosen to keep speaking post-election, Clinton nodded and said that it was.

She and Adichie also discussed how free speech has been a central cause for feminism, with Clinton noting the “long, long history of trying to silence women.” She cited recent instances of attempts to shut down the voices of powerful political women — from Elizabeth Warren, who was removed from the Senate floor as she attempted to read Coretta Scott King’s letter denouncing Jeff Sessions (a letter that was then read out loud to completion by male colleagues), to Kamala Harris, who was told to stop talking during her questioning of Sessions in his Senate hearing on Russia’s involvement in the Trump campaign.

“In my case, it was also because a lot of those same people who said, ‘Don’t talk,’ they did not want to face what happened in the 2016 election,” she later said, addressing Adichie’s question about calls, from both the right and the left, for her to remain quiet following her presidential defeat. But, she said, “I come at it very differently: If we don’t try to understand what happened in that election, we are doomed to see it repeated in future elections.”


Stormy, With a Chance of MAGA

It’s after midnight on a Thursday in the heart of Long Island, and I’m staring at a prominent pair of pebbled pink nipples that might have been seen by the president of the United States.

At Gossip NY strip club — or “place for gentlemen,” as the purple neon sign outside would have it — you can smoke indoors, something I haven’t done in New York in years. Everywhere there are fat, stubby cigars, and fat, stubby men smoking them. The light is dim; the air is thick; the room is filled with journalists and sex workers, the former group mingling uneasily with the latter, and all of us have been waiting for hours for Stormy Daniels to appear.  

At 38, Stephanie Clifford, a/k/a Stormy Daniels, has more than just an allegation of a hushed-up affair to her name: She has 419 credits on Imdb, including 78 as a director, and a legion of fans that predate her alleged involvement with one Donald John Trump. Nonetheless, it is the latter — the profound incongruity of arriving at a strip-mall strip club in order to potentially better understand the occupant of the Oval Office — that has drawn a mild scrum of press, and some genuine Long Islanders, to these pulsating purple environs. Upon entry, two separate signs implore us to make tipping and Thursdays great again, respectively. 

For several hours prior to Stormy’s performance, the ratio of journalists to strippers is nearly one to one; with the exception of me and a Dutch journalist named Karlijn who arrives with her hair in a severe bun, they are all male — the New York Post, the Daily News, Bild, the U.K.’s IndependentNewsday. Occasionally men sitting on the black leather couches that line the periphery of the room’s main space get lap dances. I wonder if any of them are my erstwhile professional colleagues, like the anonymized “member of the news media” in the New York Times’ story on the launch of Stormy’s tour who assented to “all right — one.” I feel even more like an overgrown potato with a bad wig than usual. Only one woman was quoted in the Washington Post’s write-up of the same event — a woman in the audience who said it was “demeaning” that the first lady had posed naked. On stage at Gossip, a dancer comes out in a black half-skirt, then sheds it to reveal a plum-sized bruise on her pale thigh.

 The one unqualified good thing you can say about tonight’s event, which instantly strikes me as one kind of nadir of American absurdity, is that it has nothing to do with school shootings. There are no dead children involved whatsoever. Which, frankly, makes it an acceptable, even excellent, departure from the news all week, with its ghoulish, Swiftian proposals to give teachers guns. Since 2015, all of us have been required to measure and remeasure what we consider to be grotesque, the full anatomy of the term, its gorgonic depths. On the scale from armed educators to the gilded profiteering of Mar-a-Lago, an affair with a porn star barely rates; this is less seedy underbelly, more bared midriff. I get a $16 drink and settle in to wait.

Here are some people I talk to while waiting for Stormy Daniels, our pneumatic American Godot.

There’s Regina, a statuesque 26-year-old dancer from Moscow. We speak in Russian; her English isn’t great, as she arrived in America less than a year ago. She has never heard of Stormy Daniels. 

Ana, who arrived from Portugal five days ago, and whose braces, so incongruous here, hurt my heart. I wonder how she got here, to this squat gray place between a Popeyes and a Bank of America. Her shoulders are bare.

Natalie and Evelyn, two “model-servers” in scraps of lace, who told me they heard about Stormy last week, when their bosses emailed them the Wall Street Journal article that first broke the story. “I think it’s pretty cool,” Evelyn says.

There’s a father-son duo here, who decline to give their names, but to my untrained eye, the son looks like a teenager. The son says he is here because of “inexperience,” and his father buys him a lap dance, out in the main room and not in the curtained-off VIP lounge in the back. The father looks on proudly while his son cups a stripper’s butt, and they leave before Stormy arrives.

John, 56, won’t give his last name. He has a broad, soft build, a Key Club membership to Gossip, and is sitting in one of the cushy armchairs abutting the stage; gold chains adorn his neck and wrists, and the top buttons of his shirt are open, showing a swathe of wisp-haired chest. He is a big Trump supporter, and he “can’t wait” for Stormy, although he says her alleged affair with Trump might be “fake news.”

“I met Melania and was awed by her beauty,” he says. “But maybe she was pregnant with — what’s the kid’s name? — when he cheated. We’ll see when Stormy comes out if it was worth it for the Donald.”

At least one journalist is very drunk. I am only mildly drunk and consider this a win. A security guard the size of an industrial refrigerator briefly impounds my phone after I try to snap a covert photo and I am bereft. The strippers onstage are doing aerial pole-top acrobatics in heels, and a man with an enormous broom is sweeping dollars offstage in their wake.

At last, it’s midnight, and I await my tardy, brazen Cinderella. Sixteen minutes later, an announcer booms that the next guest has a “unique perspective on the president of the United States.” Then Stormy Daniels herself struts onstage — there is no other verb for it — in a cape and dirndl, to “Lil’ Red Riding Hood,” by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, from 1966.

“What full lips you have/They’re sure to lure someone bad,” Sam sings. The cape, and then the dirndl, are shed in turn. More accoutrements emerge: a black leather bustier, then a nifty red sparkly bra-and-panty set. Stormy’s breasts emerge, a duo with plenty of stage presence and extensive experience in showbiz. She can, it turns out, twitch them on command, and, apparently, juggle them.

At this point, Stormy leans over and seems to absorb an audience member into the capacious gap between her cleavage, then releases him. She douses her mostly nude self in lotion, and the place suddenly smells oddly maternal and soothing. A gray army blanket that looks rather dismal and barrackish is laid on the slick stage, and she writhes on it, patting her crotch repeatedly, as if it needs to be soothed. A man showers her in dollar bills, and they adhere to her moistened skin, adorning her body like a capitalist quilt. I would like to be an Allen Ginsberg type and use these seamy surroundings to take the pulse of my country, but everything is too obvious to be a metaphor.

The whole routine is less than ten minutes long, and at least three of the dances are set to Whitesnake. She retreats to a backstage I can only imagine. A dancer named Eva, of Russian extraction, tells me she thinks the routine was dated and unimpressive. I do not feel knowledgeable enough to agree, but none of the songs came from this millennium.  

When I approach Stormy in a corner of the main room — amid an absolutely overwhelming knot of a dozen or so photographers and skinny journalists and tipsy members of the general public — she is a consummate professional, with cheekbones that could slice prosciutto. I ask her, “Did you have sex with Donald Trump?” No, she responds, but coquettishly, after a dangling pause. We take one selfie with flash and one without.

And then it’s done, and we can go. What have I learned? My eardrums throb. I have spoken to a woman who might have had sex with a president, and I have seen her dance. Her next stop is North Hollywood; further down the line, Shreveport, Louisiana; Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; Detroit. I wonder who else will come to smell a kind of abstract proximity to power, as well as a significant amount of lotion. I step out at last into the cold, foggy night, into Donald J. Trump’s America, and mine.


The Harpy is a new column in which Talia Lavin examines the interplay between politics and pop culture in America.


Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo of Myanmar Selected to Receive the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award

Last December, two Burmese reporters, Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27, thought they were meeting with police officers for dinner. Instead they were arrested, allegedly for possession of classified documents with intent to distribute them to foreign outlets. They have been imprisoned ever since. The pair had been reporting on Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya ethnic minority in the Rakhine state. Their work contributed to the first in-depth investigation into Myanmar’s “clearance operation,” published on February 8 by Reuters. Now, PEN America will bestow upon the pair the 2018 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award.

The PEN/Barbey Award (underwritten by the Edwin Barbey Charitable Trust, for which the Voice‘s owner, Peter Barbey, serves as an advisor) was established in 2016 to honor a writer imprisoned for his or her work. From 1987 to 2015, the award was known as the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award. In its previous iteration, it helped garner enough global political support to help release 37 journalists from at least 21 countries. Two previous Burmese winners of the award, Ma Thida and Nay Phone Latt, have gone on to launch PEN Myanmar, a platform dedicated to protecting free expression.

In 2015, the junta that had ruled Myanmar since 1962 seemed to be transitioning into an open democracy with journalistic freedom: The country was holding its first openly contested elections in over two decades, the National League for Democracy controlled parliament, and Nobel Peace Prize–winning activist Aung San Suu Kyi had become state counsellor. But the military actions against the Rohingya, and Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence on the matter, has proven otherwise.

Suzanne Nossel, PEN America’s executive director wrote, “The prosecution of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo for the crime of exposing alleged atrocities is a jarring reminder that the fight for free expression in Myanmar remains incomplete and urgent. We are proud to honor these dauntless reporters and hope the award sounds a powerful signal that global concern for human rights in Myanmar will not let up.”

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo are being held on suspicion of violating the Official Secrets Act, which dates back to 1923 when Myanmar, then Burma, was under British rule. The pair was held incommunicado for two weeks before their first court hearing. At their most recent hearing, a judge refused their application for bail. Many suspect they were entrapped by the military. They were arrested right after the police officers they dined with gave them documents that were supposedly related to operations in Rakhine. They claim they did not look at the documents before they were arrested.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s reporting on the Rohingya crisis in Rakhine helped to expose a massacre that the government had long denied. They documented a September 2, 2017, attack in the village of Inn Din. The military set Rohingya hamlets on fire, looted their property, and executed ten men. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo interviewed the victims’ families, Buddhist villagers who admitted to aiding in the attack, and paramilitary police. On January 10, the military was forced to release a statement acknowledging the killings. However, it claims it was simply responding to Rohingya terrorist organizing in the area, and officials have worked to minimize allegations.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo each face up to 14 years in prison if convicted. Reuters reports that Wa Lone co-founded a charity dedicated to promoting tolerance between different ethnic groups. Kyaw Soe Oo is a Buddhist who was born in Rakhine, the focal point of tensions between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims. The U.S. government and the U.N. have called for the pair’s release.

The PEN/Barbey Award will be presented at the 2018 PEN Literary Gala on May 22. Nossel told the Washington Post that she hoped the award would serve as a demonstration of international support for the reporters. “There is…a morale aspect of it to know that you are not forgotten,” she said.  

Readers can follow developments in Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo’s case on PEN America’s website here.


Public Radio’s Public Reckoning

WNYC, the region’s flagship public radio station, has made its first leadership change since entering 2018 under a cloud of uncertainty. On January 26, it was announced that the station’s longtime number two and chief content officer, Dean Cappello, was being stripped of his managerial duties and moved to an advisory role with no direct reports, although Cappello himself will continue to report to Laura Walker, the president and CEO of WNYC’s nonprofit parent, New York Public Radio (NYPR).

Cappello’s reassignment comes in the wake of a rough few months for WNYC. In December, in an article on New York magazine’s the Cut, journalist Suki Kim surfaced a long string of allegations of bullying and sexual harassment against the former host of the nationally syndicated news show The Takeaway, John Hockenberry, who had left the station last August. Shortly thereafter, WNYC suspended and later fired two other long-serving personalities, midday interview host Leonard Lopate and weekend music host Jonathan Schwartz, after a company investigation confirmed allegations of “inappropriate conduct.” More changes are likely as the station conducts an investigation of its workplace culture and a review of its editorial content and structure.

The #MeToo reckoning has hit public radio with full force. At NPR, senior vice president of news and editorial director Michael Oreskes and chief news editor David Sweeney resigned, both last November, following allegations of sexual misconduct. Minnesota Public Radio has severed ties with Garrison Keillor, creator of A Prairie Home Companion, after “allegations of inappropriate behavior,” and has now rebranded the show, hosted since last year by Chris Thile, as Live From Here. And in December, Boston’s WBUR put Tom Ashbrook, host of the nationally syndicated news and call-in show On Point, on leave pending investigation of allegations of abusive behavior that staffers said they had repeatedly brought to the station’s management in the past to no avail.

The stakes are high for WNYC, where I worked as a culture reporter from 2006 to 2009. WNYC claims the nation’s largest public radio audience, produces an array of national programs such as Radiolab and On the Media, is home to podcasts by Alec Baldwin and Preet Bharara, and bills itself in its on-air tagline as the place where the “New York conversation” happens.

The allegations against Hockenberry, Lopate, and Schwartz have now thrust the station into full-on damage control mode. NYPR has hired the law firm of Proskauer Rose to review its personnel practices and protocols, with Walker promising institutional changes based on those investigations. WNYC has also enlisted Madhulika Sikka, the PBS public editor and former NPR executive editor, to advise on diversity and representation issues. But as the details that surround these various investigations and dismissals demonstrate, the problems that WNYC is now confronting extend far beyond HR policy.

The unraveling at WNYC began late on December 1, when Kim, in an article for the Cut, set out a series of claims against Hockenberry, who had co-hosted The Takeaway since its launch in 2008 and became its sole host in 2012. Hockenberry, Kim said, had repeatedly made unwanted advances toward her after she appeared on the show in 2014. Kim spoke to multiple former producers and interns at the show who said Hockenberry had treated them in sexually inappropriate ways, from comments on their looks to unwanted touching and suggestive nighttime Gchats.

Kim also detailed how three of Hockenberry’s former co-hosts, Adaora Udoji, Farai Chideya, and Celeste Headlee — all women of color — had left WNYC after experiencing what they perceived to be bullying and demeaning behavior by Hockenberry, and the lack of support they felt they received from the station’s management when they complained about it. In an article for the Guardian, Udoji, who was Hockenberry’s first co-host on The Takeaway, says she brought his behavior to management’s attention “on countless occasions” to no avail; she agreed to a buyout in 2009. Chideya, in Kim’s article as well as in a must-listen, extended interview on The Takeaway, has said that she, too, voiced her concerns, but that no action appeared to have been taken.

Kim’s piece caused an uproar that made its way on air. The December 4 edition of the Brian Lehrer Show opened with a long segment on the story, interviewing Kim and fielding calls from horrified listeners. The Takeaway began a week of soul-searching led by its current host, Todd Zwillich, who took over when Hockenberry left last summer. (At the time, the circumstances of Hockenberry’s departure were left vague.) In the newsroom, journalists Ilya Marritz and Jessica Gould landed the task of reporting on their employer, and have handled it admirably. (It has since come out that Marritz was assigned the Hockenberry story sometime before Kim’s article appeared, likely after word of her queries began to spread.)

On December 5, NYPR head Walker issued her first public comments on the matter during an appearance on the Brian Lehrer Show, although she remained circumspect about the Hockenberry case, citing the company’s policy of personnel confidentiality. Asked whether Hockenberry had received a severance payment, Walker refused to “discuss any employment matters of that nature,” citing company policy. Lehrer also asked whether the station had paid money to settle any claims against Hockenberry, and Walker again refused to answer. “None of this means ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ ” she said. She also refused to give details on the circumstances of Udoji’s, Chideya’s, and Headlee’s departures.

The next day, the station reported in its newscasts that it had suspended Lopate and Schwartz. Two weeks later, both men were dismissed for violating what were described as the station’s “standards for providing an inclusive, appropriate, and respectful work environment,” according to a company statement. In a report after their firings, Marritz and Gould detailed a series of allegations against both men, including reports of bullying, volatile behavior, and sexually inappropriate comments, stretching back over twelve years.

The issues at WNYC are reflective of a larger cultural problem that exists across public radio. Despite the spirits of social consciousness and diversity baked into the missions of stations like WNYC around the country, most of the on-air stars that dominate the industry are male, typically white, and have been entrenched for decades. The women and people of color who do work in the business — and there are many — are often relegated to rank-and-file positions and still remain conspicuously marginalized. This has led to an unhealthy power dynamic that is pervasive throughout public radio — as well as programming that often fails to capture the vitality and complexity of the communities the stations aim to serve.

The tale of The Takeaway is a devastating illustration. The show was launched on a grand platform of diversity. The initial concept, supported by large grants from the Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), was to create a four-hour rival to Morning Edition that would be both more lively and more diverse. The press release for a $1.35 million CPB grant in 2009 touted The Takeaway’s “diversity and dialogue,” its “unique cultural perspectives and diverse voices,” and its “ambitious goals of diversifying and growing the public radio news audience.”

In actuality, by that time, Udoji had already left the show after eight months. Chideya, who succeeded her as co-host in 2009, lasted just four months, during which she said Hockenberry derided her as a “diversity hire” and told her she should “go lose weight.” (Chideya cited these instances in Kim’s article and in subsequent interviews.) Headlee, the next co-host, lasted until 2012. She told Kim that she made formal complaints to the station about Hockenberry’s acts of “sabotage,” including interrupting her on-air and taking over her interviews. The station sent her, and not Hockenberry, to receive “radio personality” coaching, and eventually did not renew her contract.

Soon the four-hour format was deemed a flop. The Takeaway went to a one-hour format in 2012; Hockenberry not only survived, but emerged as its sole host. Any trace of “diversity” was scrubbed. Hockenberry helmed the show alone for five more years, earning $403,613 in fiscal 2015.

At its best, WNYC is a New York treasure. Its newsroom is a bastion of excellent journalism in a time when other outlets are cutting local reporting or folding altogether. Talent like Marritz, or stellar urban-policy reporter Cindy Rodriguez, or Alana Casanova-Burgess, a bilingual producer-reporter who recently did one month of powerful reporting in Puerto Rico, deserves much more space and airtime to shine. Meanwhile, Lehrer’s show remains an unsurpassed civic forum. And year in, year out, the station is home to top-notch reporters, producers, engineers, and interns, many of whom have fanned out elsewhere in the industry, particularly with the growth of podcasts.

But the current upheaval has revealed how much more it could be. Walker’s statements have been particularly tin-eared. When she appeared on Lehrer’s show, he noted “the impression that leaves” — referring to the departures of Udoji, Chideya, and Headlee. Following up, Lehrer pointed out that WNYC’s “editorial power structure does remain largely white.” The station, Walker replied, “not only values diversity but has championed the importance of respecting people of color at this difficult time in our country’s history.” Still, she noted, “We must do better. We must start here.”

Walker added that in her view, WNYC has “made a lot of progress in bringing more voices of diverse backgrounds on the air.” By way of illustration, she offered a recent segment by Jami Floyd and Rebecca Carroll, two of the station’s few women of color on the air, and The Takeaway’s coverage of “racism in America over the past year.” She also touted two offerings from the station’s podcast shop, WNYC Studios: 2 Dope Queens, by the Black comedians Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson, and the LGBTQ-themed Nancy, by Tobin Lowe and Kathy Tu. Walker’s mention of podcasts was particularly telling; beyond the air of tokenism in Walker’s comment, podcasts don’t usually have the same impact that on-air shows do and rarely involve large-scale investment in reporting. Relying on a self-selected audience, podcasts are a form of narrow-casting, not broadcasting: perfect for the on-demand economy, but not so great for strengthening the foundation of broader civic connections and community-building on which much of public radio is built.

Civic life, ultimately, is what public radio is about — or so we are told over and over during pledge drives. Community, accountability, transparency are all part of the sell for public radio, and WNYC is no exception. Through visible changes in management and audible changes in content, WNYC can not only make good to its staff and listeners, but set a much-needed example of renewal for all of public radio.


Disney’s Fox Deal Threatens to Create Superpowered Mouse

Read any history of Hollywood, and you’ll learn that the Supreme Court’s 1948 ruling in United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. was “the end of the studio system,” though the details are often fuzzy. Simply put, the court ruled that seven major studios (not only Paramount, but Universal, MGM, Twentieth Century Fox, Warner Bros., Columbia, and RKO, which was at that time the distributor of Disney films) had violated federal antitrust law in two ways: by their system of “vertical integration,” wherein studios not only made films in a factory-like system (with actors, directors, and craftspeople under contract), but controlled their distribution and exhibition by owning their own theaters; and by “block-booking” films to independent venues, which were forced to take “blocks” of a studio’s lesser product, sight unseen, to lock in the high-demand titles they wanted. The United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. decision broke up the studios’ monopolies, forcing them to end those practices, creating a fairer playing field for media creation and distribution.

Next year marks the seventieth anniversary of that decision, yet it seems worth revisiting a little early in light of last week’s announcement that the Walt Disney Company will acquire 21st Century Fox and several components of the Fox media empire in a deal reportedly valued at $52.4 billion. Disney is not exactly bereft of diversity in its portfolio to begin with: In addition to its studios, film and television library, park and resort empire, and various ancillaries, the company already owns Pixar, Lucasfilm, Marvel Studios, the Disney/ABC Television Group (which includes ABC, ABC Family, and several local ABC affiliates), ESPN (including not only multiple ESPN networks but also radio and publishing arms), A&E Networks (including A&E, the History Channel, and Lifetime), and a 30 percent stake in Hulu.

The Fox acquisition will add that studio’s properties and library to Disney’s war chest, plus a handful of cable channels (including the FX Networks and National Geographic), 22 regional sports channels, and more than 300 international cable channels. (Fox will retain ownership of Fox News, Fox Sports, and a few other properties, which it will spin off into a new company.) Disney will also acquire Fox’s 30 percent stake in Hulu — making it the majority shareholder in that streaming service.

This concentration of ownership, coupled with the huge boon the Fox film library represents for Disney’s previously announced, Netflix-disrupting streaming service, takes on a particularly sinister tinge in that it somehow happened on the very day that the FCC voted to shoot down net neutrality regulations. If those regulations are indeed dismembered, Disney will find itself in an enviable position: with a product everyone wants, the technology in place to provide it, and the legal means to make itself more available and/or desirable to ISPs and consumers. If it wants to challenge Netflix for online streaming supremacy, it will most likely pay ISPs for faster throughput rates — and Netflix will have to do the same, passing along the costs to consumers. (Disney’s deep pockets would allow it to eat the costs as a loss leader.) And if it really wants to be king of that mountain, it’ll just buy an internet provider.

And to be clear, there’s nothing to prevent it from doing that. Comcast owns NBCUniversal (and, as part of that, 30 percent of Hulu); until last year, Spectrum was known as Time Warner Cable, part of an empire that included Warner Bros., HBO, and CNN (and the last 10 percent of Hulu). Such consolidations of media power are possible thanks to a deregulation movement that began with the 1985 rules change, under Reagan, that allowed single broadcasters to own up to twelve television stations (up from the earlier maximum of seven). If that shift was a hole in the levee, the Clinton administration’s Telecommunications Act of 1996 was the destruction of the dam, all but eliminating FCC regulations on limits of ownership, and centralizing the flow of information to a select few lever-pullers.

Similarly, Disney has gobbled up many high-demand brands and franchises, from Star Wars to The Avengers to Toy Story, and is attempting to leverage that public thirst for content (or “product” or whatever horrible dystopian neologism you choose) into draconian demands on exhibitors. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on a set of terms for screening Star Wars: The Last Jedi that “numerous theater owners say are the most onerous they have ever seen” — chief among them a demand that the film play in each theater’s largest auditorium for four weeks solid, and a requirement of a 65-35 split of ticket sales for the entire period in Disney’s favor, the largest such revenue requirement in post-divestiture history. (If any theater breaks the terms of the booking agreement, Disney can take another 5 percent of revenue.)

Those terms apply no matter the market or the size of the venue. The Journal interviewed Lee Akin, operator of a single-screen theater in Elkader, Iowa, who ultimately chose to turn down The Last Jedi. “There’s a finite number of moviegoers in my market, and I can service all of them in a couple of weeks,” he explained of a town with a population just north of 1,200. Meanwhile, Akin — and even multiplex owners in large markets — would be restricted in his placement of big films (like the new Jumanji and Pitch Perfect 3) opening in the weeks after Star Wars. This may not amount to the monopoly practices targeted by United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc., but it sounds a lot like overreach; on these terms, Disney may not own the theaters on paper, but it does in practice.

It’s not the first time Disney has attempted this kind of power move. Back in 2015, the studio demanded theater owners hoping to screen Avengers: Age of Ultron enforce a hard 5 p.m. cutoff on all matinee prices, and then calculated Disney’s ticket-revenue cut based not on the theaters’ own ticket prices, but on that of a national average, hurting small-market exhibitors like Akin. That time, the theaters balked, and Disney walked back its regulations. But it’s made no such move on The Last Jedi, and if, two years from now, it has the collateral of an AvengersX-Men team-up, it’s hard to imagine a single exhibitor who won’t fold to the company’s demands.

Disney has also taken advantage of its considerable power to influence laws and regulations that intersect with its specific corporate interests. Chief among them is the company’s ongoing (and, thus far, successful) attempt to extend the life of copyrighted works, mostly to keep Mickey Mouse and other Disney characters out of the public domain; the Copyright Term Extension Act, which passed in 1998 (and is also cheekily known as the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act”), added twenty years to the protection period and kept Mickey Mouse the exclusive intellectual property of the Mouse House. The law is up for renewal next year, but considering what we learned about Disney’s legislative bargaining power from the Los Angeles Times investigation of the company’s business ties with the city of Anaheim, California, that shouldn’t be a problem.

And the company’s response to that investigation is yet another troubling aspect of this expansion of its media reach. Angry about the revelations of the Anaheim stories, Disney took the heretofore unprecedented step of banning the Times’ critics and entertainment writers — who had no involvement in the investigative story — from advance screenings and junkets for its films, and from digital screeners of its television shows. The studio only rescinded the ban after other outlets announced solidarity boycotts, and the major critics’ associations threatened to remove Disney’s films from consideration for year-end awards.

But the kerfuffle still had a chilling effect, and with the confirmation of the Fox acquisition — a story that began to circulate unofficially in the midst of the Times controversy, coincidentally enough — that precedent of retribution becomes all the more troubling. Between them, Disney and Fox have at least 26 major features set for release next year. If they decide to ban another media outlet, can entertainment journalists protest by vowing to skip them all?

And so on. When the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the government in United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. its intent was clear: The dissemination of information and entertainment should not be solely controlled by a handful of corporate entities, and those entities should not hold undue sway over the distribution and exhibition of their products. The court held that the business model of the major studios violated antitrust law “if it was a calculated scheme to gain control over an appreciable segment of the market and to restrain or suppress competition, rather than an expansion to meet legitimate business needs.”

So which phrase would more accurately describe Disney’s goal with the Fox deal? Hard to say. It’s an important question — and one that industry journalists should investigate with at least as much urgency as whether this means the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, and the X-Men will be in movies together.


Listeners Vent Rage as WNYC Trustees Shut Out Public

Dozens of irate public radio listeners attempted to confront WNYC’s leadership about recent reports of sexual harassment at the station, and the controversial manner in which those allegations were handled, during a supposedly public, though largely closed off, meeting of the board of trustees on Thursday.

Held in a ballroom of the Hilton Hotel in midtown, the meeting was the first since a New York magazine article published earlier this month detailed numerous incidents of alleged harassment by former host of “The Takeaway” John Hockenberry, including forceful kissing and racist bullying of colleagues. Less than a week after the story broke, the station announced that longtime hosts Leonard Lopate and Jonathan Schwartz were under investigation for inappropriate conduct, and would be placed on leave from the station.

Many of those in attendance Thursday appeared personally hurt by the revelations, and had come to register their disgust with, as one audience member put it, “a station that had lost track of its own ideals.” Others showed up to demand the resignation of New York Public Radio president Laura Walker, who’d reportedly known for years about some of the complaints against Hockenberry, including a black employee’s claim that he called her a “diversity hire” and told her to lose weight. While Walker has declined to comment on which allegations were reported to the organization, three of Hockenberry’s former co-hosts — all of them women of color who ended up leaving the show — said they’ve complained to WNYC about Hockenberry’s hostile behavior.

“The thing that gets me so much is that I felt like I knew WNYC,” said Nechesa Morgan, 46. “The fact that these journalists went to management and they did nothing, that Laura knew about this for ten years and she let Hockenberry leave with accolades — I just feel duped.

“As a black woman who looked to WNYC as an oasis since Trump’s election,” she added, “the sexism and the racism is just infuriating.”

Further intensifying the group’s anger, many of those in attendance felt as though the meeting was intentionally structured to shield the executive and trustees from difficult questions. After Walker addressed the room for about ten minutes — acknowledging that “trust had to be earned,” and noting that the Proskauer Rose law firm had been hired to investigate HR practices — she called the meeting into a private “executive session.” Members of the public were permitted to return two hours later, by which point Walker and most of the 39 trustees were already gone.

“Given this was meant to inform the public and get our input, it seems backwards that folks had to wait until after the meeting to give comment,” said Suzy Winkler, a regular at the station’s Community Advisory Board meetings. “And how convenient that Laura’s not here.”

Those who did stick around for the public comment period seized on the opportunity to share a wide range of grievances with the remaining trustees. Several people said they were concerned with the status of Lopate and Schwartz, and wanted answers about what their “inappropriate conduct” entailed. (No further information was provided, as the trustees were not answering any questions.) One woman, a sustaining member since 1982, said she felt like WNYC had offered a “corporate response” by hiring attorneys from Proskauer Rose, who “don’t deserve my hard-earned money.” Through tears, a man named Charles demanded to know if the station had forced accusers to sign nondisclosure agreements in exchange for settlements.

While most of the twenty or so participants skewed older, some of the evening’s most impassioned criticism came from young people. Julia Furlan, a recent intern and temp with WNYC, spoke about the station’s reliance on contract workers, and how this practice “supports a culture that makes it difficult to come forward, because you don’t have a job or know what the rules are.” Responding to a trustee’s earlier comment about “the structural change in workplace norms,” Furlan added, “I’d really like it if you didn’t act like young people have these outsize expectations when all we want is to not get harassed and to get paid fairly.”

Despite her frustrations with her former employer, Furlan says she’s hopeful that WNYC will remain open to the guidance of listeners, and that this long-overdue reckoning might finally force the station’s leadership to address some of its deeply rooted problems.

“If they want to fix this, I really think they need to make it a mission to hire women and people of color and put them in places of power in the newsroom,” she told the Voice. “If you turn on public radio, it’s always some dude droning on and on. That’s been true for a really long time.”