Rx for Info Overload

One of my goals as a press observer is to explain how journalists do what they do. If you tell people about how you gather information and put together a story, you’ll gain their confidence a lot faster than by keeping the process a mystery or by writing in stentorian tones to give the impression that you’ve just engraved gospel onto a stone tablet.

In this vein, a friend recently suggested that I try—”try” is the key word—to suggest ways for people to navigate through today’s information overload and become reasonably well-informed without making it a full-time job the way news addicts like myself do. So here goes.

First, some guidelines about how to “read” news stories. Never assume that a single article or report on a given day is the whole story. Journalism is a mosaic-like process. Good reporters create the mosaic by not starting with a preconceived design. Each story on a particular subject is but one tile, just a beginning—and maybe flawed. The next story on that subject adds a new tile, perhaps some new perspective—and so on until an intelligible picture begins to emerge. Think of the Karl Rove/CIA leak story. It’s now more than two years old and a number of pieces have fallen into place, but the mosaic still has large gaps and is not yet coherent. Why has it taken so long? Mostly, it’s because the case has been in the hands of a very tight-lipped federal prosecutor who holds most of the pieces. When he finally speaks, maybe the picture will clear. But there are other reasons, too, why a story may take a long time to come out of the fog. Government secrecy. An inattentive press. Or a press corps with a pack mentality that charges off occasionally on false leads. We’re human and fallible; keep that in mind when you’re getting your news of the day.

Readers often ask journalists for suggestions on where to look for the news amid the 24-hour cacophony of newspapers, the Internet, radio, and television.

TELEVISION: Though there are many skilled journalists working in network television, the medium has become predominantly one of diversion, amusement, and escape. The news budgets have been slashed and the result is quite sad. Investigative journalism is almost nonexistent. Cable television networks like Fox and CNN say they do news around the clock, but much of it is similarly entertainment and blab. For a person who has limited time to keep up with events, skip television news—except perhaps when a major event occurs somewhere in the world and television allows you to watch it live. One exception to the rule is BBC News; it’s serious and thorough. And its tone is a refreshing antidote to American TV’s breathless and hyped presentation of the news.

NEWSPAPERS: I believe it’s important to regularly read a major paper like The New York Times or the Los Angeles Times or The Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal. These are papers that give you a broad spread of information every day—from international news to finance to the arts to sports to the crossword puzzle. The major papers are also one of the few places where you’ll find serious, in-depth investigative stories—journalism that gets behind the official pronouncements of governments, corporations, and other power centers. (No government I’ve ever observed has spoken with an abiding commitment to truth.)

THE INTERNET: I am not the most versed adviser on the universe of digital news, though I did work at a dotcom for a while to learn what the new world was about. Now I use the Internet a lot, going to data collection and research sites to find dates, places, stories, quotes, and documents. The Internet is very important for anyone who wants to understand how the world is communicating today. But do not assume that everything on the Web has been fact-checked. The situation is quite the opposite much of the time. I hesitate to recommend specific sites because these are matters of personal interest and judgment.

The wonderful thing about the Internet for a journalist is that it links you to every part of the planet. The terrible thing about the Internet is that it has a highly addictive quality. For reporters—who should, if at all possible, be where the story is happening—it can produce journalism that is empty of tactile authenticity and emotion.

There’s a lot of information out there—more than we’ve ever seen before floating around in the public domain. It is only information, though, meaning it’s not necessarily solid or believable or the last word. It may be just pieces of “information” gathered together on a website. And often the website has been created by a person or organization with an ax to grind. In my experience, the best method for understanding—and accepting—the confusion and absurdities of the world is to visit multiple sources of news, say, a newspaper or two, plus a site or two on the Internet you’re comfortable with. By comfortable, I don’t mean a site that carries material you agree with. There is never only one way to look at an event or an issue. A mind is a terrible thing to close.

Some final notes. More often than is healthy, the press becomes a herd, focusing on one story and one story only until the public is begging for respite. That’s been happening with the Karl Rove story. And then suddenly last week, sorcerer George Bush waved his Rove-crafted wand and nominated a new man for the Supreme Court, John Roberts. En masse, the Washington press corps deserted the besieged Rove and descended on Roberts. The silence about Rove continues as I write. But never fear. As soon as the Senate confirms Roberts, he will disappear into the news void and Rove will have all the attention again. This is called now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t journalism.

Finally, since honest journalists and the companies they work for make mistakes fairly regularly, like other professions and the rest of humanity, one thing the consumer should look for is whether a news company is good at acknowledging mistakes in a timely and clear and prominent manner. That’s a news organization you want to include in your daily diet.


Full of Grace

The stars aligned for a spectacular convergence of freak-show fodder for the cable news networks in late March. Robert Blake set free! Terri Schiavo taken off a feeding tube! The pope put on a feeding tube! Michael Jackson under fire! But of all television’s talking heads, only one figure was capable of fully exploiting this tabloid bonanza, feeding on each story like tasty carrion.

That woman was Nancy Grace, Court TV host and Larry King sidekick, she of the notoriously flaring nostrils, who recently took over the nightly prime-time slot on CNN Headline News. Since February, when Grace joined Headline News, she has helped double the ratings of the reliable and monotonous channel I once left on in hotel rooms for a steady drip of ambient background noise. Grace pierces the bland surface of Headline News like a bloodcurdling scream as she delectates over the most salacious court cases of the day, grinding up all of these stories until they resemble so much greasy hamburger meat.

Very few female names surfaced in the media speculation about who would replace Dan Rather. It’s only in the cable news realms that women get their own shows, and even then, most of these anchors (think Paula Zahn) play it pleasant and demure, projecting the image of a perky, blonde working-mom-next-door. Grace may be blonde, but she is about as perky as a roach bomb, coating every story she reports—if reports is the right word for her prejudicial presentations—with bile and fury. Although she’s as belligerent and cocksure as Bill O’Reilly, Grace doesn’t seem driven by anything as clear or comfortable as ideology. Instead, she embraces the pose of a woman scorned, frequently making references to the murder of her fiancé 26 years ago, which inspired her to become a prosecutor for a Georgia D.A.’s office. Grace uses her show on CNN Headline News and her daily two-hour stretch on Court TV, Closing Arguments, to vicariously prosecute a series of high-profile court cases in ways that wouldn’t be allowed in a real court. (Back in her prosecuting days, though, Grace was apparently chastised once for inappropriate and possibly illegal conduct.) Her program often turns into a crusade as she flagellates a small list of demonized characters like Scott Peterson, Robert Blake, and Michael Jackson.

Nearly every night for the last few weeks she’s read aloud from salacious transcripts ascribing dirty deeds to Jackson. She takes special, almost obsessive glee in 1993 testimony from a boy who alleged nipple sucking and butt grabbing. “I told him I didn’t like that and Michael Jackson started to cry,” Grace quotes, then sneeringly rubs her eyes as if to wipe away crocodile tears. She abrasively cross-examines anyone who disagrees with her, whether it’s the defense attorneys she brings on to play whipping boys or the uncle of a boy who settled in an earlier case, whom she scolded, “I don’t like witnesses sitting back counting their muh-ney!” Her recent antagonistic encounter with Jesse Jackson set the blogosphere ablaze when the reverend tried to remind Grace of that fading American principle, due process. In response, Grace tossed saucy morsels into his lap (“Reverend Jesse Jackson, this suggestion that Michael Jackson is in bed with several little boys and their underwear is piled by the bed . . .”). Grace continues to ride Jackson’s “creep factor” on a daily basis. “I may get served for saying ‘creepy,’ ” she quipped on Closing Arguments last week. “It’s highly inflammatory.” Her lamentations for Terri Schiavo were equally inflammatory: One night she crowed about Terri’s doctors, “who are going home to a nice steak and lobster dinner tonight, a little surf and turf, maybe a little vino; they don’t think she should have a morphine drip while she’s starving to death?”

If Grace is unabashedly provocative, she’s also baldly ambitious; some media pundits are touting her as Larry King’s future replacement. Her Headline News series is billed as a legal-issues program, but Grace’s desire to play with the big kids means weighing in on other newsworthy subjects like, say, the pope’s impending demise. This led to some hilariously inappropriate babble. She grilled one Newsweek reporter as if there were some nefarious plot brewing at the Vatican: “First we heard the pope was dead. Then we heard, no, that’s incorrect. Now we are hearing back and forth, and back and forth. Why? . . . You say when the time is right, when the time is right. Why would they keep that from the public?”

Grace often snickers at Michael Jackson’s lack of awareness about his public image, but the criticism easily applies to her. For a media supernova, she has very little control over her facial expressions. Every time I freeze-frame her show, I catch Grace wrinkling her nose in blatant disgust or twisting her mouth in a contemptuous gesture. (She obviously doesn’t follow Tyra Banks’s advice on America’s Top Model to practice making pretty faces in the mirror.) She’s a Saturday Night Live sketch waiting to happen, a self-made cartoon character who turns world weekly news into a baroque passion play. It’s rare to see this kind of female rage vented on television, though it doesn’t amount to anything more revolutionary than the angry white-male pundits. But Grace has a growing viewership, and it’s not a question of them liking her despite her transparently wrathful facial expressions but because of them. She embodies a kind of unfocused anger that ignites around flashpoint cases, tapping into her viewers’ sense that things have gone wrong and ordinary people are getting a raw deal.

Watching Nancy Grace, I can feel two sides of myself in bitter conflict. There’s the irony-soaked Gen X’er in me who treats the show as a spectator sport, delighting in every sleazy line of inquiry. And then there’s the more earnest me who understands how many people watch Grace in utter seriousness—the me who agrees with Jon Stewart’s contention that this kind of blowhard demagoguery is “hurting America.” May the better half win.


Did I Ruin My Chances With Anderson Cooper?

In addition to some touching support, I’ve gotten a steaming heap of flack for my current Out magazine article in which I examine why CNN’s fabulous Anderson Cooper hasn’t come out or been at least asked about his sexuality in the lengthy but guarded profiles written about him. A lot of the people attacking me haven’t even read the piece, which references my Voice writings and which is not a screed at all—it’s just a questioning look at why Cooper’s open-secret life hasn’t gotten ink, a practice he obviously goes along with.

Still, I’m getting all the same old arguments from the early ’90s and have to drag up all those hoary, old defenses in response. You know: “How do you know he’s gay?” Gee, well, I’m a reporter.

“His off-camera life is private and I don’t care about it.” Good, then I presume you’ll scream the same sentiments at anyone who dares to write about Brad and Jen, Ben and Jen, Katie Couric’s fling, Diane Sawyer’s marriage, Lindsay Lohan’s gropefests, and so on and so on. And don’t let me catch you reading any of those items, by the way. You’re not interested, remember?

“But some of those people have been spotted doing stuff in public.” Well, Anderson’s been seen at gay spots.

“No one’s forced to come out.” I never said anyone was (though they certainly should). In fact, I gently examine the reasons why he won’t.

“But he IS out.” Sort of, but not on the record. And if he IS out, why are you so upset about the article?

“But he never said he was straight.” Yeah, that’s in the article. And I never said he was straight either. I said he was gay.

“Outing is disgusting.” But you didn’t think so with David Gest, Al Reynolds, Fabien Basabe, Mario Vasquez, or even the false rumors about Marcia Cross coming out or all the Jacko jokes (which started way before his public travails). Not one person complained to me about any of those reports. So producers, party boys, singers, “freaks,” and women are OK to report about, just not newsmen (and former Mole hosts)?

“I thought it was disgusting with them too. Outing is just gross.” But what’s gross about saying someone’s gay? It’s OK to be gay, remember? Project much, dear?

“But my cousin was outed and . . . ” Wait, your cousin is not a public figure. There are different rules for celebrities.

“We should only out our enemies and hypocrites.” So I should only reveal when HORRIBLE people are gay? That would really advance the gay cause, wouldn’t it? In my book, outing isn’t only trotted out as a revenge tactic—it’s a statement of equalizing and truth.

“You’re just outing someone to get your activist credentials.” Please—I was doing this before it was cool. I outed Methuselah.

“You’re just jealous of Anderson.” No, I’m actually very proud of Anderson and in fact the article is wildly appreciative of his talent and charm. It’s just saying he’s smart, successful, and happens to be gay too.

“You’re out of line!” But I write about celebrities’ personal lives for a living. To leave out anything gay because it might seem distasteful to someone would be extremely hypocritical. And the media certainly didn’t omit mention of Anderson’s brother’s tragic suicide. Nor do they avoid covering all kinds of celebrities’ adulterous affairs, out-of-wedlock babies, narcotics problems, bad movies, or gross misbehavior.

“But after your writeup, someone on Don Imus’s radio show made homophobic remarks about Anderson.” So I should never say anyone’s gay because someone else might make a dumb comment about it? In that case—you heard it here first—Jamie Foxx is white.

“This will ruin his career.” One 800-word article in a gay magazine? And a pretty gushy one at that? Besides, I’m not making him gay, I’m just saying he is.

“If he came out himself, it could hurt his career.” But the article addresses that. The article, in fact, covers practically all the bases. You should read it.

“You didn’t ask him for comment.” I asked CNN for a comment from Anderson and/or themselves. They apparently didn’t even forward it to him, they just responded by sending me a blanket no comment. Besides, in the past, Anderson’s turned down the chance to be labeled “gay.” And when New York Daily News columnist Ben Widdicombe asked him if he had any comment about the Out piece, he said “No.”

“This is sick!” Oh, really? And you’re on that website all day where the fake Marcia Cross thing started and where they relentlessly out celebrities, including a lot of people who aren’t even gay? I’d say you’re conflicted. Oh, and probably gay too!


Bush’s Mandate From Above

Sending to Congress the “tightest” budget ever, President Bush pushes on quickly to implement what he calls his election mandate. So far, he has transformed the Iraq war from a bust into at the very least a stupendous PR victory. As for Democratic qualms about the president’s Social Security reform, it should be noted that numerous Democrats in Congress during the Clinton administration warmly debated the shape of a new system that involved private accounts handled by Wall Street. To date, Enron’s 401(k) fiasco and its 2001 tanking on Wall Street have had remarkably little effect on politicians of either party. There is no move toward serious pension reform or tighter regulation of the mutual fund industry, which underlies the 401(k). Politicians of both parties read the ticker every day and enthusiastically pocket Wall Street campaign contributions.

All told, Bush is off to a good start, and he now is moving on to propose dramatic changes in our environmental laws, rewriting the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, along with the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. Bush wants to relax ozone pollution laws and reduce pollution standards for SUVs, cars, and diesel trucks. He wants to legislate rules allowing corporations to hide damaging environmental information from the public. He would weaken and/or drop suits aimed at forcing coal-fired power plants to curb pollution and carry through on his promise to the oil companies to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. As for climate change, right-wing politicians in D.C. don’t think the seas are rising and regard the scientists who warn of global warming as a bunch of lefty kooks.

What makes these Bush ideas truly salable, whereas before they often were viewed as isolated measures aimed at rewarding reactionary business interests, is the engine that drives Bush forward. It is an amalgam of conservative political ideology embedded in a theocratic shell. People might balk at a company ripping off the Alaskan wildlife refuge, but if they stop to think, and realize drilling has nothing to do with the grand scheme of things in which God will provide for us, why not just kick back and wait and see? Wait for what? Wait for the end times, when the Jews will either wake up and smell the coffee and become Christians or burn in hell and the good Christians will be raptured up to sit next to God and watch all the other miserable souls fester and burn. Oh, come on, you say, that’s kook talk. Not to many of Bush’s fundamentalist Christian supporters, it isn’t. And there are a lot of them.

A recent Gallup poll says one-third of the American electorate believes the Bible is literally true. In 2002 a Time-CNN poll found that 59 percent of the people polled believe that the prophecies described in Revelation will come true. Quoting Grist, the online environmental site, Bill Moyers, in a recent speech on our dawning theocracy from which much of this is drawn, says, “Why care about the earth, when the droughts, floods, famine, and pestilence brought by ecological collapse are signs of the apocalypse foretold in the Bible? Why care about global climate change when you and yours will be rescued in the rapture? And why care about converting from oil to solar when the same God who performed the miracle of the loaves and fishes can whip up a few billion barrels of light crude with a word?”

Additional reporting: Nicole Duarte and David Botti


Getting Burned

Was it an act of domestic terrorism, a devilish prank, or just one hell of a coincidence?

When nearly simultaneous fires broke out last week in 41 homes at a new development in Maryland, early suspicion fell on the Earth Liberation Front. The new houses had rankled green groups because they’re built near wetlands, and the E.L.F., which the FBI considers a domestic terrorist organization, has a history of getting fired up about such things.

For all the speculation about its role, the E.L.F. itself was mostly silent. The New York Times and The Washington Times reported efforts to get in touch, but no named spokesperson came forward. That could be because, according to the last known spokesman for the E.L.F., Leslie James Pickering, even the PR operation has gone underground.

Until he got out of the game in 2002, Pickering had a rather unique role as a PR man: He says he didn’t belong to the group he represented or even have a way to contact them. Pickering tells the Voice he was a social justice activist in Portland, Oregon, when the E.L.F. contacted him in 1997 about their burning of a federal horse stable near Burns, Oregon. He passed the claim on to the media.

After claiming several more attacks for the E.L.F., Pickering and fellow activist Craig Rosebraugh decided in 2000 to start an official press office to spread the group’s call for a sweeping overhaul of the capitalist system. At first, Pickering says, he and Rosebraugh were surprised at how the press mangled that message—using only the soundbites “where we didn’t look so good.” Then they learned “to manipulate [the press] as much as they manipulated us,” by appealing to the media’s taste for sensationalism, Pickering says. “If you’re trying to get across the message that ‘we’re not fucking around anymore,’ you can get that message across real clear.”

The feds apparently got the message. During his time as an E.L.F. flack, Pickering says, he dodged grand jury subpoenas, and the press office was raided twice by the FBI. He also had run-ins with the feds at protests—even at the supermarket.

The harassment was worth it, Pickering says, because he had become frustrated with the limitations of traditional protest. Eventually, however, he grew tired of “single-issue extremism” and wanted to move on to a broader struggle. Pickering folded the press office in the summer of 2002 and “after I stepped down from that, nobody stepped up.” An anonymous e-mail address is all that remains. In a December 7 response to The Washington Times, the press office said it could “neither confirm or deny” an E.L.F. role in the Maryland arson.

Tracking E.L.F. actions has always been tricky. The group has no hierarchy or official membership. If you believe in E.L.F. principles, you belong to it, and you can carry out acts of violence.

“The way I’ve heard it phrased is the A.L.F. [Animal Liberation Front] and E.L.F. are brand names,” says Washington Times reporter Jon Ward. “The way it works is a couple of people go out and burn something, and it usually takes them a couple days to claim responsibility because it takes them a while to figure out how to do that.”

Ultimately, the spokesperson decides if those acts are claimed for the E.L.F. or not, and therefore wields great authority. If someone gets hurt or dies, “this would not be considered an E.L.F. action,” according to a FAQ brochure produced by Pickering’s press office in 2001. (The E.L.F. website is down, but its material can be found on the A.L.F. site.)

Disinformation, please

On October 14, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer told viewers, “There’s a major U.S.-Iraqi military offensive in Falluja under way right now.” Only there wasn’t. The assault didn’t begin until the following month. It turns out a Marine officer fed CNN a lie, perhaps to see how insurgents would react.

The military misled us. What else is new? Americans have already been fed the Jessica Lynch canard, the nose-cone shots of “precision” missile strikes, and even the WMD “evidence” that sold the war.

“This incident seems different in that it very clearly was the transmission of information known to be false in order to achieve certain military goals,” Michael Massing, author of an authoritative survey of Iraq coverage in a recent issue of The New York Review of Books, tells the Voice.

The Pentagon said it was looking into the CNN incident. But the line between psychological operations targeting the enemy and PR aimed at Americans has been getting blurrier since the war started.

Now, Joint Chiefs chairman General Richard Myers is warning about holes in the wall between psy-ops and PR. In a September 27 memo to commanders, he warned that any coordination between the two must make sure that public affairs can “maintain its institutional credibility.”

That warning comes as U.S. psy-ops bulks up for the “global war on terrorism”: Last month, the Special Operations Command began surveying firms that might provide multimedia products to “enhance media capabilities of the Joint PSYOP Support Element.” A military spokesman, Captain Ken Hoffman, tells the Voice that while psy-ops involves only “truthful information”—like telling Bosnian kids not to touch land mines—”by law, the U.S. military cannot produce psychological-operations products directed toward U.S. citizens.”

But today’s global communications mean that messages meant for the bad guys can reach U.S. audiences, says Sam Gardiner, a retired colonel and military professor who tracks military pronouncements. And 24-7 news operations are prone to quickly report —and belatedly correct—disinformation like the Falluja feint. Plus, Massing says, while reporters in Iraq are skeptical of what the military says, they are hemmed in by rules governing whom they can talk to in Baghdad’s Green Zone and deterred by continued violence from venturing out of that area. Sometimes, the military action itself seems to have a PR angle. One of the first U.S. targets in Falluja was a hospital that had been a major source of civilian casualty reports during the first attack on the city in April. There may have been a military objective for GIs in effectively shutting down the hospital, but there was undoubtedly a PR effect.

“I think that the news management,” Massing says, “was an essential part of the offensive.”


Faith-Based Birth Control

While promoters of President Bush’s faith-based initiatives often are frustrated by the slow going of what they believe to be the most important item on the administration’s domestic agenda, they should take heart. Just note the rapid surge in spreading Christian “family values” through another government project that carries a conservative Christian message: abstinence.

Since 1981, the government has put $1 billion into abstinence-only programs.

When Margaret Spellings was nominated to be secretary of education two weeks ago, she told reporters that she believes “the message we should be sending to children in middle and high school is one of abstinence, and abstinence only.” Never mind the fact that, for all the money spent, there’s been little effect on teen sex.

During Bush’s time as governor of Texas, when Spellings worked for him on education matters, he started the “Right Choices” children’s grant program, which gave $10 million to local abstinence-only education programs.

The popularity of abstinence goes back to the early Reagan era, with passage of the so-called “chastity law” promoting restraint in sex. In 1996, Congress added a provision to the welfare law to fund programs that teach abstinence only. Some $135 million a year now goes for such work, an amount the White House wants to increase to $273 million.

As a result, the Christian right has made big inroads in its efforts to curb and ultimately abolish sex education. Less than half of public schools teach anything about birth control, and a third tolerate discussion of abortion and sexual orientation. An amazing 35 percent of public school districts require abstinence to be taught as the only option for unmarried people.

On December 2, The Washington Post reported abstinence proponents were putting out misleading or false medical information, such as that abortion can lead to sterility and suicide, that half the gay male teenagers in the United States have tested positive for the AIDS virus, and that touching a person’s genitals can result in pregnancy.

Today the U.S. has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the developed world, and American adolescents are contracting HIV faster than almost any other demographic group, according to both Planned Parenthood and the Centers for Disease Control. The teen pregnancy rate here is at least twice that of England, six times that of France, eight times that of the Netherlands, and 15 times that of Japan.

The White House sees a rosier picture. Jim Towey, who directs the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, told CNN in late November, “This is a culture change in the way the government provides social services.” He added, “It’s a change to recognize [that] if we really want to help our poor, we want to give them some choice of programs and providers.”

Additional reporting: Nicole Duarte and David Botti


Back ‘n’ Black

When the Pixies broke onto the Boston music scene in the mid ’80s, they looked more like a group of shithead townies than like a band that would change the course of rock ‘n’ roll history. Dressed in suburban drab, they were a band of few words and fewer stage antics. But their music was furious and unclassifiable, Black Francis’s guttural outbursts were startling, and his straight-faced delivery of quirky, abstract, sardonic lyrics caught people off guard. Most didn’t know what to make of them. But the curious fascination of a few gradually grew into a sizable following among loyalists. Today, even after the Pixies have been credited with spawning alternative rock—and on the tail end of an international reunion tour that brings them to New York this Saturday for the first time in ages, with eight sold-out shows running through December 18—any one Pixie could walk into Wal-Mart unnoticed and maybe even get asked, “Excuse me, do you work here?”

When asked how the band’s return after 12 years feels, Black Francis (or Frank Black, the guy who led the Catholics following the Pixies’ breakup; or Charles Michael Kittredge Thompson IV, as he was named at birth) says, “It feels triumphant in the sense of like, ‘Wow, people really did like us.’ But it felt triumphant the first time around. We were a successful band, we had lots of roadies working for us, we made money, we recorded records, we went on tour, we played plenty of sold-out shows, and we didn’t have day jobs.”

But despite all that, and despite having videos aired on MTV in the late ’80s and early ’90s and selling an impressive number of albums for a band that never quite went mainstream, the Pixies didn’t nearly match the commercial success of certain bands that they influenced. “I think that was just a miscalculation on everyone’s part, even our own,” Black explains. “We’re kind of in that arty-farty category. And I’m sorry, but you’re just not going to see us on People in the News on CNN. There’s this ridiculous show on international CNN that I see when I’m on tour in Europe—they spotlight all these up-and-coming bands, all these success stories—and this big-lipped model woman hosts it . . . ” He starts laughing. “I’m sorry, nothing against her—I feel like I’m being really cruel. But it’s just kind of easy to poke fun at, it’s very middle-of-the-road, and very safe and awkward in its presentation—you’re not going to see the Pixies on a show like that, you’re just not.”

The fact that Black Francis broke up the Pixies via fax is well documented, and speculations still abound about whether bassist Kim Deal and Black’s falling-out had to do with her substance abuse, a creative-power struggle, or perhaps even a romantic affair turned sour. But who cares? Whatever their differences were, they seem to have reconciled. “It’s fun,” says Black of the tour. “We’re enjoying each other’s company, and enjoying playing the songs, and enjoying our success. But we’re not saying that we have some grand statement to make necessarily; we sort of did that already.” Asked what that statement was, he explains, “I think it’s telling that the only movie that the band has sat down and watched together, other than on a tour bus, is Eraserhead—I think that kind of sums up a lot of what the band is about. Talking about David Lynch specifically, he kind of entertains you while he makes you a little uncomfortable, and I think the Pixies are a little bit about that: entertaining you, but maybe at the same time making you feel a little awkward or uncomfortable about what you’re listening to—but not necessarily in an aggressive way.

“I remember what it was like to be on a festival bill with the Pixies back in 1989, and it’s not the way that it is now,” Black says. Then he jokingly adds, “I feel like a good 40 to 50 percent of the audience is looking at us going, ‘When are they going to kick a beach ball out here? How come they’re just standing there and playing?’ ”

Probably the most striking difference, though, concerns the absence of certain substances—it’s a dry tour. “There isn’t any alcohol onstage, and there isn’t any in the dressing rooms,” Black explains. “There are certain people who are seeking to abstain from drugs and alcohol, so everybody—in a spirit of love and cooperation—is going, ‘Hey, cool, we’re not going to tempt you.’ ” He sees this as positive. “Let’s face it, when people get high, they get loud, sometimes they get obnoxious, and some people have real personality shifts. Performing in a band, you deal with people who are on drugs or alcohol all the time, and it’s not like, ‘Oh man, people were so groovy tonight because they were all fucked-up.’ It’s like, ‘Man oh man, the people down in the front row tonight were all fucked-up—they were so annoying! They stole my spare microphone! They deliberately put their hands all over my set list so I couldn’t see what the next song was!’ ” He laughs. ” ‘They got all pissed off at me because I wouldn’t sign their boobs!’ ”

In the past, Frank Black has made it known that he doesn’t enjoy interviews; he tends to keep answers short and evasive. So it’s surprising how chatty, open, and jovial he is during this one. He does get a bit defensive, though, when it’s suggested that the band’s reunion might have something to do with money. “Well, of course it’s partially for the money; that’s why it costs people money to get into the gig. People talk like, ‘Oh, they’re just doing it for the money,’ as if it’s some kind of ignoble thing. But the fact of the matter is, as a musician, you work really hard to get where you’re at, you put a lot of effort into it, and maybe you fight with a lot of people about it.” So, he says, “It’s not just about money in the most evil sense of the word; it’s about being an artist as opposed to being the manager of a warehouse.”

Black in the day
photo: Elektra/4AD

The money earned from this tour will likely keep him out of the warehouse for some time, but what does the future hold? Joey Santiago just had his second child, and Frank Black is expecting his first. “It’s the biggest event of my life, hands down,” he says. “My girlfriend has a couple of kids already, so she’s like a trouper—she’s real calm, and she’s kind of holding my hand through it.” But will there be a college fund for his kid? Remember the lyrics to “UMass”? He laughs. “Yes, absolutely. He’s going to go to M.I.T., damn it! I guess that song was about mildly well educated people that think they’re really cool, and me just sitting there going, ‘Ah, this is just a bunch of bullshit.’ I’m sure that I’d have a much better attitude about going to college now, but it wasn’t for me at that age.”

He isn’t quite ready to settle down, though. “I really don’t want to become the manager at my local Albert’s grocery store, so I think my family is just going to have to become a showbiz family. The Pixies are thinking about making a new record, but we’re treading carefully; we don’t want to just shit out some mediocre record. It’s like we have to start the band over again, we have to go back to our garage rehearsal space, and I have to impress them with some songs, or they have to impress me with some songs, or whatever. But we haven’t really done that yet.”


GOP Target: Terry Anderson

This year’s most extraordinary example of slimeball politics involves the former hostage Terry Anderson, who is running for state senator in a district in southern Ohio. His opponent, Joy Padgett, a longtime Republican functionary, links him and Dan Rather as two liberal journalists who don’t get their facts straight, going on to show a photo of Anderson shaking hands with a Middle Eastern–looking man and accusing him of being soft on terrorism.

Anderson, a former chief Mideast correspondent for the Associated Press, was taken hostage by Hezbollah in Lebanon in 1985 and held until 1991. Following his release, he returned to Lebanon with a CNN crew and searched out his former captors. A photo from that trip is the one now being used by Padgett.

After returning to the U.S., he taught at the Columbia School of Journalism, and currently is honorary co-chair with Walter Cronkite of the Committee to Protect Journalists. This year he decided to run for office.

His district lies in southern Ohio, along the Ohio River, in a culturally conservative rural area where one current issue is the loss of jobs in coal mining. The congressional district that encompasses the state senate district is held by a Democrat, and because of its long ties to heavy industry and the worsening jobs picture, Democrats believe they can win here.

Among Anderson’s most important support bases is the student body of Ohio University at Athens, where Anderson has set up his headquarters. These students register and vote with so-called “provisional” ballots. The Republican secretary of state, Kenneth Blackwell, doesn’t want to include provisional ballots unless voters can prove they permanently reside in the district. If that interpretation holds, many of these students will find their votes challenged. Right now, Anderson says he’s ahead in polls, but the Republicans have been savagely attacking him. The state GOP is pumping $1 million into the race, a huge amount for a state senate seat, and has brought in negative-advertising experts.

The attack ads against Anderson have been in mailings and on TV and radio. At a League for Women Voters debate last week, Anderson walked off the stage, refusing to participate. “The first time I met Padgett she said, ‘I run a clean campaign,’ and I said, ‘Good, let’s do that.’ I have attacked her votes . . . never attacked her personally. . . . She attacked me, twisting my campaigns. The last piece, I couldn’t accept it.

“The picture,” he continued, referring to the photo of himself shaking hands with the Hezbollah official, “is one of the guys who kidnapped me, who held me for seven years, who chained me and blindfolded me. I went back to Lebanon with a CNN news crew and looked him up and put him on camera and asked him, Why did you do this?

“She now says I am an apologist for terrorists.That’s sheer nonsense. It’s offensive. I’ve just about had enough.”

Additional reporting: Laurie Anne Agnese, David Botti, and Nicole Duarte



Matthew Pillsbury, a ’95 Yale grad fresh out of the M.F.A. program at the School of Visual Arts, was inspired by Hiroshi Sugimoto’s rigorously formal, time-lapse images of radiant movie theater screens to photograph interiors lit by the smaller screens we all live with and through: the TV and the computer. These brilliant rectangles glow like little ovens in the darkened bedrooms, living rooms, studios, and offices of various family and friends, illuminating spaces populated only by ghosts. If phantoms are all that remain of the people in these pictures, it’s not because their souls have been sucked into the cybernetic ether, but because over the course of the hour or so that they’ve been surfing the Net or watching CSI: Miami or Access Hollywood or CNN, Pillsbury’s camera has recorded their movements as firefly flickerings among the furniture. As a result, one couple in bed watching The Tonight Show, martini glasses close at hand, look as contorted and ectoplasmic as Francis Bacon’s wrestlers. The photographer himself, seated at his desk, is little more than a disembodied head floating above his keyboard. In these subtly disquieting, modern spirit photos, the body is far less substantial than the room it hovers in, and technology provides the only reliable source of light and life.


Readers Of The Last Aardvark

One of the most ambitious literary projects of the last 25 years came to an end this March and you probably don’t even know its name: Cerebus. It’s a comic-book series about a talking aardvark, whose creator seems to have slowly gone insane somewhere over the course of its 6,000 pages. But it is also something of a masterpiece.

In 1979, Dave Sim (then just 23) made the improbable announcement that his black-and-white comic book, Cerebus, would run for 300 issues and that he would write, draw, and publish the books himself (although it was initially put out by his then wife, Deni Loubert). All of the comic books that have previously reached 300 issues (Batman, Superman, Spider-Man) are corporate franchises produced over decades by dozens of writers, pencilers, and inkers; no one has ever self-published more than a few dozen issues, especially not while writing and drawing every single page. Writing and publishing from his home in Kitchener, Ontario, Sim has achieved his goal, turning out one of the longest narratives in human history. Cerebus‘s dizzying whirl of high concepts, low humor, narrative gusto, and exquisite draftsmanship attracted critical praise and a devoted following almost from the start.

Initially a parody of fantasy kitsch, it soon mutated into one of the more complex works of modern fiction. Sim is fascinated with how things work, and when Cerebus ran for prime minister (“High Society”) the book oozed with the kind of election-year talk that hypnotizes CNN junkies. The technobabble was balanced by the cringe-inducing time Sim spent inside the disillusioned headspaces of his creations. A one-dimensional character suddenly given three, Cerebus tried desperately to avoid failing, without ever realizing that consistent failure would be his only success.

Cerebus drove his country into temporary ruin, wrote his memoirs, got married, became a hateful pope in an attack on organized religion, got divorced, sat catatonic for hundreds of pages, fought the law, and traveled through the solar system. Kept in print as 16 hefty anthologies, the series juggled multiple plotlines and interwove real-life and fictional figures (Oscar Wilde and Keith Richards rubbed elbows with Cerebus and Co.). Within this vast, decompressed narrative, even one-note characters were given room to grow, and the book dwelled on their failures and occasional triumphs in excruciating detail. But its scope (300 issues, dead or alive) was both its greatest strength and its biggest liability.

At the close of issue 200, Cerebus ended his traumatic encounter with a fascist matriarchy in a schizo tour de force as he and Sim fell out (“Why are you such an unappealing character?” “Why do you write me that way?”). In a postmodern finish, the two parted ways, leaving an emotionally crippled Cerebus face down in the slowly settling dust.

But over the course of this story arc (“Mothers & Daughters”)—both in the book itself and in the book’s editorial pages—Sim made it clear that he believes we live in a feminist totalitarian state. Readers left in droves. The last 2,000 pages have been driven by their creator’s deeply personal preoccupations (“Latter Days,” the penultimate story line, devoted 144 pages to commentaries on the first 38 chapters of Genesis) and his religious faith (a homemade blend of fundamentalist Christianity, Islam, and Judaism).

Sim found his religion while writing Cerebus, and his uncompromising beliefs have become a whip driving his readers away and his fictional creations through increasingly convoluted antics intended to make theological points. Vexingly, the last 100 issues have also seen Sim and his collaborator (the mysterious Gerhard, who does the backgrounds) hone their visual technique to unparalleled expressive heights. With its dense layers of lettering, literary allusion, and internal logic, one page of Cerebus requires—and rewards—migraine-inducing concentration.

Cerebus‘s enormous contradictions have alienated it from the comic-book market. To Sim’s readers, Cerebus was the satirical story of a talking aardvark in a realpolitik world. To Sim, Cerebus was a soapbox from which to proclaim his beliefs. And, like a true monomaniac, Sim painted himself into a corner, denouncing the Marxist-feminist axis to an increasingly hostile audience.

But despite Sim’s anti-feminist crusade, Cerebus stands on its own as a ferocious critique of power. Sim believes that freedom is an absolute, and to this end he has self-published Cerebus, advocated for artists’ rights, and bucked intellectual-property laws wherever possible (after his and Gerhard’s deaths, Cerebus will become public domain). In an era when selling out is considered synonymous with success, Sim’s resistance is bracing. But independence comes at a cost, and the price of Sim’s is that his 26-year project, his life’s work, is ending largely in silence. Tired of his grandstanding, most people long ago tuned him out. But for the scale of its ambition, the intricacy of its characters, the beauty of its artwork, and its commitment to mapping the at times objectionable mind of its creator without ever blinking or looking away, Cerebus remains a staggering declaration of independence.