Don’t judge a neighbor by her sexuality: I was taught to hate my lesbian neighbors — they took me in anyway

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(Credit: Illustrations by Vinnie Neuberg/Narratively)

This article originally appeared on Narratively.

Narratively“Hey Penny, is Carrie awake?” I ducked through the screen door, letting it bang shut behind me. The sun had barely crested the Seattle skyline and I was already at my best friends’ house. Her mom, Joy, grabbed a bowl from the cabinets and a box of cereal and set it on the kitchen table. “I’ll go check,” she said. I pulled up a stool and sat down, pouring out the sugary cereal and adding the milk that Penny, Carrie’s other mom, fetched from the fridge.

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It was the summer before my mother left my dad. My twelve-year-old self lived in books and fantasy worlds of unicorns and dragons, rather than the real world of dark bruises and a shattered living room lamp, swept up and never discussed. Unlikely friends, proximity brought Carrie and I together more than anything else. We were the only two girls our age in the neighborhood.

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My strictly religious family attended church every Sunday morning, worship services on Sunday night and Wednesday night youth group. I’m not sure if Carrie had ever been to church. Her two mothers, Penny and Joy, lived around the block from my parents’ brick Edwardian house in a small two-story bungalow that they were constantly improving. They played the Indigo Girls on their stereo, danced around their kitchen and talked about summer solstice as casually as my mother discussed the church bake sale.

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I only went back to my house to sleep, escaping out the back door every morning before my dad could catch me. If I slept through my alarm and he hadn’t left yet to meet a client I’d have to stand barefoot in the kitchen and recite my assigned Bible verses for the week, or share with him the prayer requests he required me to write on 3×5 index cards. My mom taught kindergarten, and had the summers off, but while physically present, she wasn’t really there. She moved in a daze through my father’s shouted words and hid for hours in the bathroom, planning the escape she’d execute later that fall.

Every morning I’d show up on Carrie’s doorstep and her mothers took me in. They never asked why I was there and never told me to go home. They acted like it was perfectly natural to have a second daughter.

At the top of a hill that overlooked Seattle, Carrie and I roamed in and out of back alleys, eating fruit that had fallen from neighbors’ trees. Ripe juice dripped down our arms, staining our cutoffs red. We rode our bikes in circles through the crushed glass and burnt stubs of fireworks left at the elementary school’s concrete yard after the Fourth of July. And at nights, when the air hung hot and humid, we’d play truth or dare. We prank-called the boys at school who’d made us cross our legs in class. We egged the neighbor’s house after she yelled at us for eating plums from her trees.Neuberg Love ss Hate Spot

“Truth,” I picked, tossing the well-read issue of Sassy on her bed. After I’d ripped the inseam of my brand new, eighty-dollar Guess jeans trying to scale the fence around the local cemetery I’d been going for the truth option more.

“Have you ever kissed a boy?” Carrie asked. We collapsed into giggles, tanned legs wound together and thighs touching, and later lied to her mothers about the hot pink nail polish we’d spilled on her comforter.

Our games veered back and forth between the children we’d been and the women we’d become.

Too many things were changing all around me. Earlier that year, I’d read the headline “War” on a newspaper and it wasn’t in a history class. Signed out of all sex education classes by my religious parents, I had no idea what was going on with my body. When short, curly hairs started appearing between my thighs I cut them off with craft scissors, stuffing them into the bathroom wastebasket. And I sensed changes coming in my family, the way you can sense a summer rainstorm hanging in the clouds just before it lets loose.

“We’re going swimming at Greenlake, why don’t you run home and grab your suit?” Penny tossed out the suggestion, and I’d duck through the back alley and run home to tell my mom I probably wouldn’t be back for dinner. Trips to the lake, meals out at local restaurants or crowding around their kitchen table for pizza; I took for granted that I was included. With the myopic focus of youth I never wondered why they’d opened their home to me so thoroughly.

That winter, my mom finally left. A ’90s latch-key kid, I was the first one home every day. The day she moved out, I opened the back door and walked into a bare kitchen. There were no chairs in the breakfast nook, or around the dining room table. I wandered through the house, past empty closets and vanity drawers that now held only the crumbs of blue eyeshadow and pencil shavings. She’d left no note, no explanation and given him no warning. It wasn’t until my twenties that I assembled all the cracked and jumbled pieces of my parents’ marriage into the shape of a missing living room lamp.

Once she’d left, my Dad noticed how much time I’d been spending at Carrie’s house. “Hate the sin, love the sinners!” he’d remind me at the nightly dinners we ate around the dining room table. I now had a bedtime, and he’d sit cross-legged on the floor by my futon and read passages from the Bible. I’d stare out the open window, up at the stars, while he read, “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination.” Then he’d quiz me.Neuberg Love vs Hate Spot 2

“Dena, pay attention.” He’d snap his fingers under my nose. “Do you understand? Penny and Joy are going to hell, but you can save them. You have to tell them about the Good News.”

I’d sigh, roll on my side and present him with my back. Any rebellion, no matter how small, had to be carefully chosen. The boundary between the territory of what I could get away with and a slap across the face constantly shifted. “Yes, Dad.”

My parents’ divorce dragged on, and the house went up on the market. It was winter and, trapped inside, Carrie and I switched to listening to Madonna’s “Immaculate Collection” and practicing our dance moves. We decided to stage a show for her moms in their living room, setting up chairs and bed sheets that hung from the ceiling. Wearing blazers borrowed from their closet and black bras stuffed with tissue, we went all out to re-create her “Express Yourself” video.

I don’t know why my Dad showed up that night to sit, awkwardly perched on the edge of a folding chair, and watch our performance. I remember his stilted clapping and forced smile, the way he grabbed me by the arm and dragged me out of there. And suddenly I was busy watching my younger brother and sister, preparing meals for the family, and doing laundry, without any time for childish things like playing dress-up. Early that spring we moved across the water to Bellevue, leaving behind their bad influence. Even though I begged and pleaded, somehow there was never time to go back and visit the old neighborhood. The divorce went through and my Mom moved to Bellevue, too. I didn’t understand the how and why of her leaving until I was older. For years we had a difficult relationship, until I gained the maturity and experience to understand my parents’ marriage.

The last time I was home was for my mother’s funeral, in February of 2009. Afterwards, drained and exhausted, I begged my now ex-husband to drive with me to my old house. I gave him directions, the route burned into my memory even after fifteen years. Up the hill, past the graveyard where I’d torn my jeans. Around the corner, past the elementary school where they’d rebuilt the playground, tearing down the old wooden structures and replacing them with bright, colored plastic.

The trees had grown to shadow and shade the entrance to my old house, hiding it from the street. We parked, and my ex stayed in the car while I walked around the block and stood on a sidewalk littered with evergreen needles. When I rang the doorbell, no one answered. There were no names on the mailbox, and no way of telling if they still lived there.

They chose to love me even though they knew that I was being taught to hate them. They listened to my father’s lectures about Jesus with a patience borne — I can see now, out of a desire to continue being a refuge for a lost and scared little girl.

For one glorious summer they gave me the gift of freedom, a home and a safe place to hide.

When I finally responded to my husband’s persistent honking and turned away from their front door, words and memories jumbled inside me, clogging my throat. But as I opened the passenger door and climbed inside, I looked back at the house that had sheltered me and whispered, “Tell them I said ‘thank you.’”

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Why I stopped dating the cop: Colin Kaepernick’s protest, the “liberal media” and the bunker mentality of police culture

Colin Kaepernick

Colin Kaepernick (Credit: Getty/Christian Petersen/AP/Branden Camp/Photo montage by Salon)

We met because of guns. More specifically, because I put a line in my Tinder profile about wanting to discuss gun regulations, and Keith wrote me back.

He had recently finished his probation period after becoming a law officer in the Seattle Police Department. But he was wary to share anything about it at first because it had lost him his last girlfriend and a handful of people he thought were friends.

“I want to tell you something,” he said on the fifth date as he grabbed my hand. A thunderstorm had just drenched us and we were taking refuge in an old pub. Scott, a guy who had spurred Keith into becoming a police officer in the first place despite not completing the process himself, had recently started acting so bizarrely that Keith had broken off the friendship. But then Scott had overheard Keith talking about women with other officers, and had called him out for disrespectful language, saying Keith, especially as a former women’s studies major, should be ashamed of himself. Keith wondered if there was any truth to the rebuke. He said he had just been joking around.

“What do you think?” Keith asked.

“About shit-talking?”

“Yeah.”

I wondered if I was supposed to be “the cool girlfriend” who didn’t mind a little crassness here and there.

“It’s hard for me to hear about,” I said. “I don’t think it’s necessary or that cool.”

He got a pained look and tried to explain team bonding while I tried to listen. I was thinking about a café owner I overheard saying that if he ever got a tattoo, it would be of his wife’s smile because he loved it so much. That’s the kind of man I hope to end up with. Someone respectful and proud of his love. Not someone who might use jokes at women’s expense as bargaining chips for masculine acceptance.

But I was also thinking about hot chocolate and our tent by a campfire. I was thinking about the flowers Keith would bring home from his garden and about the sweet, connected texts he had been sending.

Eventually Keith asked if I would hang out with some of his officer friends. We stood around eating veggie dogs with barbecue sauce, listening to shop gossip about a fellow officer who had recently said something socially offensive about a minority group. At least his friends stood up for minorities, I thought — but then they pulled up that cop’s photographs on Facebook and mocked her “unfuckable” androgyny for nearly an hour. The tone didn’t feel so awesome.

Little red flags. Or at least little red questions. But Keith got takeout burritos when I felt sick. He made me a bracelet of woven cedar strips I wore until it frayed apart. He got serious fast, accelerating from “We don’t know what this is” to “I think I’m really falling for you” in less than three months, despite knowing I was leaving at the end of summer for a science policy fellowship on the other side of the country.

Before I left, I took him on a getaway to see the places where I grew up. Out too late to find a good camping spot in the tiny beach town where we ended up, we nested down in his car. Two hours later a police officer knocked on the window and very politely asked us to leave, even pointing us to a better spot down the road. Later on that getaway, driving through sun-soaked farm country, a patrol officer caught Keith speeding, pulled him over and let him off with a warning. Both times Keith had passed the officer his police identification card along with his license.

“What’s that do?” I asked. “Does that automatically get you off?”

Keith said it was just to give the officer all the pertinent information and let him decide what to do with it. For minor driving offenses it would probably get him off. For big offenses like drunken driving Keith said it would be illegal to let anything slide.

“Good.”

By now I knew the police were Keith’s main friends and possibly his main source of identity. The police, he said, gave him a way to care about his community and give back. I could also tell they gave him acceptance and a source of purpose. Teased when he was young, he hungered especially for masculine approval. He really liked the jokes, the drinking, the solidarity, the blue-clad brotherhood of acceptance.

He was proud of it all. He showed me a video he had made of his training at the academy. Hostage situations. Shoot-don’t-shoot scenarios and evasive driving and the day everyone got gassed and asked difficult questions while tears and mucus clotted up their faces. He showed me the photo book his parents gave him and the various plaques he had been awarded and the police-themed quilt his mother had made him. I wanted to be proud of him, too. I wish I could have seen him on the job.

Though he said he wanted to leave work at home and just relax after a shift, policing permeated everything. He liked to tell me about his calls, sometimes even the tough ones, and I was glad to draw on my background as a crisis line volunteer to offer support. I asked a lot of questions and learned a lot about the day-to-day triumphs and fears. The joys of keeping Seattle safe during a jubilant Pride day celebration. The fears of split-second decisions and of being suddenly shot, like the officers in a training video he sent me.

So far, he said, he was seeing mostly professionalism from his fellow officers, and he really did think the Seattle Police Department, which the Department of Justice in 2011 had reported had “a pattern or practice of constitutional violations regarding the use of force that result from structural problems, as well as serious concerns about biased policing,” had turned a page.

We kept dating. I saw more little red flags, mostly examples of black-and-white, anecdote-based thinking. But I also saw a deeply caring man who wanted to build us a future. We went swimming, picked blackberries, had long lazy talks that made me feel we were understanding each other’s differences. I liked how he occupied the everyday trenches, trying to help others with their problems, and he liked my bigger-picture, public health emphasis on trying to make society better through systematic change and policy.

“Police” and “policy” spring, after all, from the same root: the Latin word for “civil administration.”

We were lingering at sunset beside the Columbia River, when Keith brought me a few heart-shaped rocks and said he loved me. I didn’t say it back yet — the place was right but something felt shaky and premature. But a few weeks later, weeks marked by deep tenderness and awkwardly painful discussions, I said I loved him, too. Then left the state as planned. We agreed to try a long distance relationship.

On the phone a few weeks later I listened to Keith vent about Jason (the names of these officers have been changed), someone who had been through police academy with him and had possibly gotten in deep shit with a potentially vindictive administrator for using force against a suspect.

“I mean,” Keith said, “Jason would never hit anyone. I know him!”

“I feel,” I said, “like you want me to call Jason blameless and the administrator an asshole.”

Keith admitted as much. It would feel good to hear.

“But neither of us was there. We don’t know the facts.”

We hung up unsettled. I had learned that Keith did not like to be confronted. Exuberant with praise, he clammed up at a note of dissent. He compared himself to an otter: He preferred to be forcefully happy; he liked the glass half full. When the optimism cracked, I caught flashes of anger and hypersensitivity. But he had been patient, too, holding me gently when I felt stressed about leaving. There were so many things that worked for us.

Then the National Anthem played and Colin Kaepernick took a knee and wore socks with images of pigs in police caps and suddenly a 6-foot-4-inch, 230-pound quarterback barreled between Keith and I.

“I mean,” Keith told me, “I support his right to say what he wants.” The unspoken “but”hung heavy in the air. Keith sent me an open letter by retired officer Chris Amos, who wrote that he “had the misfortune of having to shoot and kill a 19-year-old African American male.” Amos bemoaned the paucity of his pay while he was on administrative leave and went on to say: “You know Colin the more I think about it the more we seem to have in common. . . . I just had to bounce back from a gunshot wound to the chest and thigh. Good thing we both get paid when we are too banged up to ‘play,’ huh?”

Keith thought the letter offered a heartfelt alternate perspective to “liberal media coverage,” and I thought it was insulting. I felt like I was being forced to take a “for or against police” stance. I tried to be supportive anyway, later texting Keith about my gratitude for his being in my life.

But as the days passed, our conversations kept swinging back to blame:  Why couldn’t I be more effusively supportive? Frustration, too: Why couldn’t he accept that the police are sometimes wrong (and historically often very wrong) and that people have reasons to not always trust them? Even though I was not saying anything negative specifically about Keith or the SPD, it felt like I wasn’t supposed to express any real concern about police brutality. I was supposed to just cheerfully welcome him home instead.

I brought up science, how many ways it has hurt minority populations in the past through exploitive research practices, and how some scientists are very frank about acknowledging these wounds and about doing better research going forward. Why not the police, too? Why couldn’t Keith feel my support and yet acknowledge his profession, like mine, has cause for self-criticism and sincere improvement? He didn’t respond.

I got angry. We had spent so many hours discussing policing and how much he loved it. He had been an officer less than two years, and I had been a researcher for more than six, and while he had shown what felt like real care for me, I suddenly realized we had hardly discussed my work at all. He wanted “the benefit of the doubt” and an unconditional support he did not seem interested in extending to me. I felt like he wanted researcher me to put on a police T-shirt and make the guys cookies and just shut up already. I felt he was disrespecting data, perhaps willing to disrespect women and possibly willing to disrespect me, too. While expecting me to make up for the most stressful elements of his job.

“Maybe you’re not who I thought you were,” he said.

“And maybe policing has been changing you,” I wanted to throw back at him.

He wanted so badly to be seen as a good man. I wanted so badly to be with a man who cares about me and his world both. A man strong enough to see the big picture and stand up for victims and for reform when necessary instead of buying into automatic groupthink. I just wanted to know he would always want to learn, always want to do the right thing as much as possible. I wanted a principled man. He wanted a safe woman.

“I need you to have my back,” he said.

“I need you to support my brain,” I wanted to say.

For a long time I’ve tried to understand male bonds, toxic masculinity, patriarchy, power struggles, control, heroism, and tribal culture. I see heroism in taking small daily actions to reach out to those around us. If we all create a stronger and more connected society, I think, we’ll struggle less with crime and mental illness. But I also know many people think you’re not a hero unless you put your life on the line — and that maybe once you do that you’re beyond criticism.

Keith and I had gotten into a “me versus you” attitude, a tiny echo of the “us versus them” stance the police are so often accused of. I was afraid Keith was stepping across a very clear blue line, choosing fellow officers over me and possibly, eventually, over being a true community member, too.

“I just want to come home safe,” Keith insisted. I thought of the civilians, the ones deliberately shot by police or deliberately shot by other civilians or the ones accidentally shot by someone, who don’t come home safe. I thought of the times I knew Keith had an easy shift of napping in the precinct, of working out and of waiting for routine calls. Policing is not always adrenalin and danger. Its worst chronic stress might be the weight of constantly suspecting others and just wanting to feel safer and more affirmed. I get it.

But can we always afford our own fears? I know officers are being targeted and ambushed. I also know the homicide rate for police is very similar to that for civilians. I know it feels different to walk home at dark as an unarmed young woman than it does an armed male officer. I know wives of police officers have to contend with domestic violence rates higher than the national average.

I thought back a few weeks to when friends of mine, immigrants from other countries, joined us at a little café for espresso. We talked foreign policy and how it feels for them to be new Americans. Afterward Keith said he didn’t usually like “these kinds of discussions,” but that he actually had a good time. He said political discussions usually feel adversarial. The whole time we shared coffee I was aware of how, since the café is located in his usual beat, he was off-duty conceal carrying. And how the rest of us weren’t and how the rest of us face our everyday share of problems without the backing of bullets.

On our last call, I brought up Jason, who, it turns out, did punch the suspect for attempting to bite him. “In self defense!” Keith proclaimed. Self-righteously, I mentioned how people have tried (in nursing homes, when I was a CNA) to bite me, too, and I didn’t have to punch them. Instant scoffing from Keith. Not the same thing. “But it just shows,” I protested,“that none of us knows all the facts. We can never know the whole truth about someone else. You said he would never hit anyone.”

So husky I had to ask him to repeat it, Keith abruptly muttered, “I don’t want to do this with you any more. This is a breakup.”

I said it was good while it lasted and that he was being ridiculous. Goodbye.

Keith’s first love letter to me asked if he could be my farmer, tending our relationship as one tends a garden. But it felt ultimately that I was the one committed to getting through conflict and he was the policeman trying to control how I made him feel.

The following weekend I took a trip to Baltimore. I was welcomed with the sound of sirens. Local news featured the DOJ’s condemnation of Baltimore’s policing, about the lack of police training and support, about how the homicide rate is tracking higher than ever before in the last 20 years and no one, not the police and not the community members, can find ways to stop it. An article in the Washington Post mentioned a policeman who arrested a woman for taking three of his French fries.

Ridiculous. Ridiculous that blue and un-blue lives feel locked in a war of victimization. Ridiculous that it is so difficult to gather good data on what is going on because police departments do not have to turn over their stats. How are we going to get any better if we cannot negotiate, if we cannot review data and make appropriate changes? Ridiculous, that the largest police union in the nation just endorsed Trump as their candidate. Ridiculous, that we are all so, so afraid.

Really ridiculous, that we make each other choose sides. That we try to separate the personal and the political. Keith once said he wanted it to feel like “you and me against the world.” I prefer “you and me for the world.”

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“Maybe we can rejoin the Union with this one”: Drive-By Truckers are finally an “American Band”

Drive-By Truckers

Drive-By Truckers (Credit: Big Hassle/Danny Clinch)

Don’t call Drive-By Truckers a Southern rock band. They hate that. But if you give their latest album “American Band” a listen, you’re apt to be introduced to a different brand of Southernness that doesn’t circulate in mainstream media. These middle-aged Southerners-by-birth may sing with a twang, but you’d be making a huge mistake to peg them as Trump supporters.

The band’s eleventh studio album, which will be released Sept. 30 on ATO Records, is nothing short of a soundtrack to public life in America at this moment in time. With songs about gun violence and the racist implications of right-wing lobbying groups, “American Band” has very few subtle statements — even when they’re wrapped up in the clever lines penned by songwriters Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood.

The five-piece powerhouse is gearing up to embark on a nationwide tour in support of “American Band,” hitting large clubs and theaters both before and after Election Day. Regardless of what happens at the ballot box, the band’s new songs are likely to remain as prescient as they were when they were written.

Salon spoke with Cooley and Hood about making “American Band,” the political backdrop that inspired its lyrical content, and how the band has managed to reinvent itself after two decades in the business of recording and performing.

From a production standpoint, “American Band” was a very different experience for the band. You broke a lot of habits. You recorded this with David Barbe involved, of course, but you did it outside of Athens and with a new engineer, which is the first time you’ve done that in a very long while. How did that new process impact the results?

Patterson Hood: We wanted to shake things up a little bit. At the same time, we’re retaining the things that we wanted to keep on. I mean, obviously we wanted to continue working with Barbe. We brought in an outside engineer to record this album. I wanted Barbe to be free to really focus on producing. In the past, he’s been engineering as well as producing. He sits down and he’s staring at the board and he’s working on all of those technical things.

But this time, we wanted him to be free to walk around the studio while we played and be immersed in the music. That was really fun, because it allowed him to be more in his creative brainspace.

So, it was kind of like bringing in a new producer. He knows us and and what works best with us. It’s the best of both worlds. The engineer was fantastic and did an amazing job. He’d worked that room before and knew the ins and outs. I don’t know if he knew anything about us prior to [working with] us, but the chemistry clicked immediately. It was the best-case scenario. We loved Sound Emporium. As long as we’ve been doing this, we’ve never recorded in Nashville, which is sort of crazy to think about. Our tour ended in Nashville, so we decided that instead of waiting until the end of the year to get started on the process, we’d go ahead and do it. We cut nine songs in three days, which we didn’t expect. We were hoping to get three or four decent tracks and have ourselves in the right headspace for the new record. And we had most of it done. We found some time to go back in and finish. It was really an amazing process — it was so fast and so spontaneous. We just instinctively knew what we were looking for.

You said at the beginning that you decided to shake things up a bit and as a whole, I think that’s certainly the case. This is a very obviously political record. From the very first notes, listeners will feel the intensity. What caused the outburst of solidly political songs out of you all?

Hood: That’s something that’s always been there with us. It’s been more under the surface in the past. A lot of the music that I grew up loving has a really political bent to it — whether it’s the more obvious stuff like The Clash or all the way to the Springsteen stuff that I grew up loving. It was under the surface, but it was always there. Even on songs from “The River,” there’s a message there, but it’s subtle. That’s always been the way we’ve approached it.

Maybe it’s a little closer to the surface on “Southern Rock Opera.” We were talking about the Civil Rights Movement. But even that record was steeped in a kind of nostalgia. It was set in a different period. Reaganomics was such a big part of the songs on “The Dirty South.”

This time, we’re living in such a crazy moment in history. People still write and talk about Watergate, which was such a huge, looming backdrop when I was coming of age and when I was a kid growing up. I think we’re living in one of those times right now where, in 20 years, people will be writing and talking about it.

You know, I don’t think we necessarily made a conscious decision. It was happening and it leveled to the surface. We were just keeping up with what was happening.

Cooley and I were really on the same page — although we rarely talk to one another during the writing process. You know, we usually send each other the song as they’re getting finished. And it felt like the songs were just sort of in conversation with one another.

You brought up a really interesting point — it very much seems like the songs are more in conversation with one another. With both “Ramon Casiano” and “What It Means,” gun violence is at the forefront of these songs. When I heard those songs, I thought “This is exactly what we need to hear in popular culture right now.” But I also realize that sentiment might not be shared by some of your listeners. Are you afraid of any backlash?

Hood: I don’t worry about it. I think it just needed to be said. I have pretty thick skin and, you know, that’s a good thing since there’s been a little bit of uproar already. I mean, when I first wrote “What It Means” — or before we even played it as a band — honestly, even before I even quite finished it — one night, two years ago right when all of these protests really broke out about the Ferguson decision, I did something that I hadn’t really done before. And, of course, the Trayvon Martin thing was was really, really pressing on everyone’s mind.

I was traveling with my wife and the protests were breaking out all over the country about the Ferguson decision. I did something I know better than to do and I posted the lyrics to my unfinished song on Facebook and then I went to bed. I woke up the next morning and there were hundreds of emotional, nasty, negative responses — saying awful things — even a couple that were threatening. Obviously, it hit a nerve. I think that’s my job — to just say what I feel. I want to get my facts right and not say something that turns out to be kind of stupid because that becomes a distraction to what I’m actually trying to say. In this case, I actually had to go back and clean up a couple of things. There were a couple of lines that didn’t really quite line up with some of the facts. So, I learned my lesson there. [Laughs]

I just felt like the main gist of that song is something that needed to be said. I mean it’s a question; the song is a question. I don’t really have the answer to it. But to start a dialogue is important.

In this moment and time, I think it needs to be discussed and talked about and we need to shine a light on it. It’s like when you get up in the middle of the night and turn the basement light on, things scatter on the floor that you’d rather not know were there. But, you need to turn that light on to know what you’re dealing with instead of stumbling in the dark. And I feel like, as a people, we’re sort of stumbling in the dark right now.

The title of the album is simultaneously a direct statement and one that can mean many things. Why did you go to bat for this title and what you were sort of going for in naming the album “American Band”?

Mike Cooley: It was specifically because of how direct it is. I didn’t think of it, but I pretty much held on to it. Some of our ideas were a little vague, which is not necessarily a bad thing. But, for this album I thought the title should be as direct as the rest of the record. There’s very little to misunderstand. I didn’t think it felt right to have a title that was the least bit vague on an album that direct. And the two words are short and simple. I also felt that it serves to convey an idea that we didn’t really write a song for, which is challenging this notion — the people and the ideas we’re challenging have taken it upon themselves to have exclusive rights to define what American is. Who is American? We didn’t really address that in a song, so maybe that title includes a necessary part of it that wasn’t there before.

Right out of the gate, the album leads off with “Ramon Casiano,” a song that is a powerful statement on the hypocrisy of the NRA. Do you worry about any negative response from the NRA?

Cooley: No. I’m not worried about it. No. You know, if I were scared of rednecks, I would’ve moved on a long time ago. [Laughs] That’s not a fear I struggle with. You can’t be aware of all this stuff without being aware of the potential blowback. There will be some mouthiness, but that’s really all that ever comes out of it.

The NRA probably wants this story buried, but it’s out there. Where did you learn of this story? The man who eventually led the largest gun-rights lobbying group in the country basically got away with murder. The story didn’t surface for such a very long time.

Cooley: I kind of stumbled across it. I wasn’t looking for it. All of a sudden one day I just started asking the question: What is it with these gun-crazy militia-type folks and their obsession with the Mexicans? Because they seem to have one.

I turned the TV on one Saturday night. There were some stories, all these all these guys taking their guns and pretending to be Border Patrol. I started laughing. And I initially started writing a novelty song about it. Just making up a song about how silly they were.

And somehow or another I end up stumbling on this story of Harlon Carter, who headed up the transformation of the NRA, actually was a Border Patrol guy who ran Operation Wetback. Donald Trump was singing the praises of that policy several months back, which was Eisenhower’s deportation immigration policy. I didn’t know that at the time — Donald Trump wasn’t in the race. This was way before the campaign got started. I learned that and then, lo and behold, Carter shot and killed a Mexican.

And you know it’s not funny, but who knew? I’m looking around me right now and then the history was there the whole time. I thought, “All I’ve got to do is make this song rhyme and it’s written.”

It almost makes too much sense. This kind of hypocrisy is bound to happen. You can’t claim to be that morally superior without having a few things you’d rather just sweep under the rug.

Cooley: Exactly. But, really, where I was getting at with the song is the white supremacy that runs not that far under the surface of the whole gun culture, gun politics, guns-as-a-political-wedge issue.

And what the NRA is now — they weren’t before 1977. You know, there’s a fine line between them and the Klan. It’s there and you can’t deny it. I mean, you can see it in how gun sales went through the roof the minute Barack Obama was elected. Gun sales have spiked every time Democrats win elections since 1980. Guns started flying off store shelves just as soon as the black Democrat moved into the White House. And that’s the evidence right there. That was before any of the shootings that actually sparked the conversation. They were already buying guns and ammo like crazy.

This ties back, not just to the album that you made, but to the band and the entire history of the band. I’ve always said, “Well, there is a Southern drawl to the Drive-By Truckers, but they’re not really a Southern rock band. They’re more of a punk band.”

Cooley: I wish you would tell everybody that so I wouldn’t see “Southern Rock” on the cover of every magazine we’re in. [Laughs]

Back to the title there. I left this out, but I did consciously think, “Well, maybe we can rejoin the Union with this one” and make a statement about separating ourselves from that Southern rock label. We’ve never liked that. We’ve never been comfortable with that.

There are so many different facets and layers of meaning in these words: American band and Southern rock. This album is your opportunity — however long you have been in a band — to say, “Look, the image of this band has been skewed. There’s been a misinterpretation.” It’s a very powerful title in that way.

Cooley: Exactly. When you say “Southern rock,” for most people, what comes to mind is that handful of bands in the ’70s from the South from that generation. I don’t have a problem with those people, but that’s obviously not what we are. It’s a very specific thing; it’s a very specific group of musicians from a different generation from us.

The Drive-By Truckers don’t sound like Molly Hatchet.

Cooley: Yeah. And you know, I would I wouldn’t want to automatically alienate anyone who’s, for whatever reason, put off by that.

You mentioned writing “Ramon Casiano” and the racist undertones of the gun lobby. “Surrender Under Protest” has political inflections in it. Are you surprised that these songs have taken on a new prescience since you’ve recorded them?

Cooley: With every record, there’s something you realize about it after the process is done. And you know that’s almost always the case. It didn’t occur to me how significant it’d be. We are still a Southern band and we’re 50-year-old white Southern men that are clearly taking a side on this that our demographic is not normally characterized as taking. I didn’t really think about that. It should have been rather obvious. But, with this one, I thought, “Wow. It didn’t occur to me that we are we are part of that demographic.” When people describe Trump supporters, they are describing us.

When we pressed record on this thing, it was still a few months ahead of the Iowa caucuses and everybody, including us, thought that people would start voting and this idiot would go away. We still thought that. So, now we’re releasing this album just as we might be transitioning from the first non-white president to the first woman president — with a poster boy for a white man’s world being the only thing standing in between. It might’ve affected how we made this record if I knew that was going to happen. We had no idea that was coming.

I want to talk about the title and look of the album. When I got an advance copy of the album, I immediately saw the cover art and noticed that Wes Freed’s artwork is not displayed. It struck me as a really bold move your part to have the cover art for this record not be illustrated. The image is very high-definition Drive-By Truckers. What statement do you want to make with that cover?

Hood: Our relationship with Wes Freed is so special. We love his artwork and he’s been drawing artwork for our band and doing backdrops for so long, that he’s almost a member of the band, like David Barbe is in the producer’s chair.

Even with the turnover in the band, we’re a band of some tightly-knit traditions. This time, though, we wanted a more photojournalistic look to this album cover. I think Wes was as supportive of that decision as we were ourselves. He totally saw that, with this record, we needed to shake things up. His artwork is still part of the package for the record. And he did the backdrop for the stage presentation for this tour that we have coming up that reflects what the cover does.

Photojournalism has always been one of my passions and because of our tight relationship with Wes, we haven’t indulged in it as much for our covers because we love what he does so much. It kind of got to be habit just to keep doing it. But the new cover makes things look a little different. I’ve always said that all of our records look like they fit together in a box. This one might be the start of another box.

How much of a difference do you think this new look will make in how the band is perceived?

Cooley: I suspect it will. I know everybody is going to be pretty curious about that. The only photo cover we’ve ever done before was our first live album. It all came together one piece at a time. We just thought, “Maybe now’s the time to do a photo.” We like photo covers, we’ve just never done one. And then we had the album turn out to be something very, very different and a very different type of album than we’ve ever done. So, that made it the perfect time to have the new cover in the cover photo that we ended up using.

I was actually thinking about this subject matter for a song. It was about that image and how you can’t keep track of why the flag is even at half-mast or for how long it’s been there. The stark, simple imagery and the directness of it just went right with the record. So, it was a piece-by-piece process starting with, “Hey, maybe it’s time for a photo cover.”

The lineups that have changed in the band don’t really seem to mark the eras of the Drive-By Truckers as much as the intensity of the work. It strikes me that the work is as intense as it’s ever been. Do you feel like you’re entering a different era as a band?

Cooley: It is. What comes next is still out there around several more corners. We’re really not talking at all about what’s coming next. I’m not really writing anything, but it will appear. But, yeah, I do feel like it’s a new era. We’ve had this lineup together for two records now and that’s never really happened before. Three, actually, if you count the live album. We feel like we’re definitely playing better and more solidly than we ever have been and we feel like it’s getting better. We feel like there’s a lot of work we’re capable of doing right now. So, it’s the first time we’ve ever had that feeling or maybe the first time in a while that we’ve felt it that strongly.

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Ulay vs. Marina Abramović: How the epic legal battle between art-world giants went down

Marina Abramovic

Marina Abramovic (Credit: AP/Domenico Stinellis)

The legal battle between two of the world’s most famous artists has ended. Frank Uwe Laysiepen, better known as Ulay, has emerged victorious, after a courtroom dispute that lasted nearly a year, against his former partner in life and art, Marina Abramović.

Although both are household names in the art world, the former couple are ironically best known today among the general public for a viral YouTube video of their meeting during Abramović’s 2010 performance at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which has been viewed by more than 29 million and counting. Ulay surprised Abramović with his appearance, taking a seat opposite her as she held court across a table and simply stared, immobile, at anyone who wished to sit before her. Emotion flowed in both of their eyes, and the video, which was edited and uploaded without the permission of either artist, appeared to show long-lost lovers reuniting. Unfortunately, the truth of the matter is rather different.

Art historian and journalist Noah Charney, one of the authors of this article, was first to break the news of the lawsuit in The Guardian, which shocked the art world, as well as the news about the conclusion of the lawsuit this week. Here, along with Dutch lawyer Edgar Tijhuis, is the first in-depth analysis of this case.

The suit, brought to court in Amsterdam, was over Ulay’s allegations, now proven, that Abramović was in breach of their contract. That contract, signed in 1999, laid out how they were to handle their joint oeuvre. They ended their relationship in dramatic fashion in 1988 with a performance, each setting off from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China and saying farewell when they met in the middle.

They were not in contact from 1988 until 1999, when Abramović’s gallerist, Sean Kelly, encouraged them to draw up a contract, which was prepared in Amsterdam. Ulay sold his physical archive of their joint works to Abramović, from which Abramović could produce artist prints for sale and arrange exhibitions and re-enactments of past performances. She was contractually obliged to inform Ulay of any activity related to their joint oeuvre.

Much of the court case dealt with the royalties that Abramović was contractually obliged to pay Ulay, based on her profits from the sale of their joint works. According to the 1999 contract, Abramović had to pay Ulay 20 percent of the total net income (defined as the gross income of Abramović after deduction of the production cost). According to Ulay, this meant 20 percent of the income raised with their joint works, but Abramović claimed before the court that this sum should be only 10 percent. She arrived at this reduced number by reasoning that the 50 percent cut for galleries should be deducted first, and Ulay would be entitled to 20 percent of the remaining 50 percent, thus only 10 percent of the income from selling the joint works (while Abramović would receive 30 percent).

In an exclusive interview, Ulay explained that the contract was largely ignored and that instead of 20 percent Abramović was giving him a 10 percent cut — and not even of all sales, many of which were not being reported to him or incompletely so.

Despite Ulay’s and Abramović’s claims and the text of the contract, the Dutch court explicitly ruled that the contract did not make clear how “gross income” should be defined. It appeared that Abramović might have a reasonable argument, at least in this aspect of the trial. So why did the Amsterdam court nevertheless grant all of Ulay’s demands?

How Abramović landed Ulay his victory

The answer to the question of how Ulay won so decisively in this case lies in a crucial difference between Anglo-Saxon and Dutch contract law and the fateful, at least for Abramović, decision in 1999 to choose Dutch law to govern any future disputes.

In the U.S., commercial contracts often contain an entire agreement clause, stipulating that the written agreement contains all the arrangements between the parties. This clause is related to the parol evidence rule, which applies to these traditions. Based on this principle, a written contract contains all the agreements between the parties, and evidence from outside this contract is, in principle, not admitted. In short, in the U.S., the contract is God and nothing else matters.

Dutch law, however, does not have the parol evidence rule. The so-called Haviltex standard, based on jurisprudence from the supreme court, is the main rule in the Netherlands. Decisive for the interpretation of a contractual provision is what the parties could both have reasonably attributed to the provision in the given circumstances and what they could reasonably expect from each other in this respect. In interpreting a contract, the court can therefore take note, for instance, of statements made by the parties. Thus, in the Netherlands, the contract is the focal point, but other considerations can be made.

Statements made by Abramović ironically helped lead to a clear victory for Ulay. In an email from March 6, 2006, Abramović wrote to Ulay: “For all of the other photo-works in the new editions, as I bought the rights from you, the works will be sold in the following way: 50% Gallery, 30% Marina, 20% Ulay.”

In 2008, she wrote a similar email and, in an interview on Nov. 1, 2010, she said, “The contract was really tough for me because everything, our work together, he always gets 20 percent from every sale. And I can’t sell without a gallery. So if we have 100 percent, the gallery would get 50 percent, I’d get 50 percent. From this 50 percent, he’d get 20. I’d get 30.”

And in the biography “When Marina Abramović Dies” by James Westcott, the same point was summarized: “On April 29, 1999, Abramović finally bought the entire archive. . . . Abramović gained complete control over the reproduction, exhibition, and sale of the work, though when she did sell it, Ulay was guaranteed 20 percent of the net proceeds.”

In other words, in three separate statements, she made clear a correct understanding of the contract, as opposed to the reduced “understanding” of it that she claimed in court.

In the end, the court ruled that Abramović must pay 252,000 euros in unpaid royalties, $50,000 for Ulay’s rightful cut of profits from a commercial re-enactment for Adidas of one of their joint performances, as well as 5,000 euros in compensation for damages to his “honor or good name.” Finally, she must pay 53,000 euros as compensation for the Ulay’s legal expenses — another difference between Dutch and U.S. legal traditions for in Europe it is standard that the losing party must cover the legal expenses of the winner, while this is not always the case in the U.S.

How Ulay’s heritage was almost lost and was reclaimed

Despite the significant financial implications of Abramović’s failure to live up to her contract with Ulay, his main concern was that he felt that Abramović was trying to push him out of the historical record of their joint projects. She even refused to grant Ulay permission to include images of some of their joint works in his book, “Whispers: Ulay on Ulay.” While she did not have legal right to block their inclusion, he decided to leave them out of the book and replaced them with pink squares as a form of protest that was echoed in a January 2015 performance he gave at the Museum of Modern Art in Amsterdam, in which he wrote the page numbers of the “pinked-out” images on a gallery wall.

In the lawsuit, Ulay complained about a range of occasions when Abramović, through her lawyers, tried to block exhibitions of joint or even solo work by Ulay. According to him, these attempts are likely to have a “chilling effect” on cultural institutions and lead them to refrain from collaborations with him. Although the court ruled that Abramović was allowed to contact these institutions, it also explicitly ruled that the noncommercial use of the works in exhibitions is allowed by law, and thus does not need the permission from his former partner.

The most stunning example here was the unique 1976 theft of “The Poor Poet,” Adolf Hitler’s favorite painting, from the New National Gallery in Berlin. This performance by Ulay, described as “Aktion” (the more loaded German term of the English equivalent), was documented on camera and led to the video “There is a Criminal Touch to Art.” This solo work by Ulay was not covered by the 1999 contract and therefore Abramović had no right to exploit this work. Nevertheless, she both offered the work for sale and tried to block exhibits of the work on more than one occasion, thus violating Ulay’s copyright, according to the Amsterdam court.

As the statement on behalf of Ulay, prepared by his lawyers, states, “The Court has ordered Abramović to respect her obligations under the agreement, ensure that Ulay is properly credited as joint author of these works, and desist from future infringement of his moral and economic rights. The Court has also ordered Abramović to pay Ulay a significant sum in relation to sales of joint works and a commercial re-enactment of a joint work made by Abramović in collaboration with a sportswear brand.”

In an exclusive statement provided for this piece, Ulay described this protracted legal battle, with lawyers wrangling for two years before the courtroom drama began, as “three most unpleasant and distressful years.” He said, “I won the case on the most crucial points. The relief was like shedding my skin, physical and mental.” Ulay likened this battle over artistic recognition to his own successful victory over cancer: “My cancer ordeal was aggressively threatening my life and the massive legal battle with Abramović was threatening my existence. To my opinion, the court verdict was fair and just to the truth.”

The title of Abramović’s 2010 MOMA exhibition, “The Artist is Present” was ironically referenced in the lawsuit. As Ulay explained, ‘“The Artist is Present”’ borrows from our epic 90-day performance series, ‘Nightsea Crossing,’ which we performed between 1981 and 1987. For the MOMA performance, she just cut the table in half and invited visitors to sit opposite her instead of me, though I did show up.”

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Secular Jordanian writer murdered by extremist after U.S.-backed monarchy arrested him over cartoon

Relatives and friends of the Jordanian writer Nahed Hattar hold pictures of him during a sit-in in the town of Al-Fuheis

Relatives and friends of the Jordanian writer and activist Nahed Hattar hold pictures of him during a protest in the town of Al-Fuheis, near Amman, Jordan, on September 25, 2016 (Credit: Reuters/Muhammad Hamed)

AMMAN, Jordan — A prominent and outspoken Jordanian writer on Sunday was shot dead in front of the courthouse where he had been on trial for posting a cartoon deemed offensive to Islam on social media.

A Jordanian security official said the shooter was a former imam, or prayer leader, at a local mosque, and said the man had been motivated by his anger over the cartoon posted to Facebook by writer Nahed Hattar. The shooting was the latest in a string of deadly security lapses in Jordan.

Witnesses and police said Hattar, 56, was preparing to enter the courthouse for a hearing when the gunman shot him at close range.

“He was standing at a short distance of about one meter (yard) in front of Nahed on the stairs of the Supreme Court,” a witness told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, fearing repercussions. The official Petra News Agency said Hattar was shot three times.

The witness said the shooter, who was immediately arrested, was wearing a long grey robe and long beard characteristic of conservative Muslims.

Jordanian media, citing anonymous officials, identified the shooter as Riad Abdullah, 49, a former imam in northern Hashmi, a poor neighborhood in Amman. The reports said Abdullah had recently returned from a trip abroad, but gave no further details.

The security official declined to confirm the suspect’s name. But he said he had confessed to the shooting and claimed he had acted alone and had no connections to any militant group.

Prosecutors charged the man with premeditated murder, committing a deadly terrorist act and possession of an unlicensed weapon. The suspect was detained for 15 days while the case was referred to the State Security Court.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said the suspect said he was motivated by the cartoon, which depicted a bearded man, smoking and in bed with two women, asking God to bring him wine and cashews. All physical depictions of God or the Prophet Muhammad, even respectful ones, are forbidden under mainstream Islamic tradition.

Government spokesman Mohammad Momani condemned the killing as a “heinous crime.”

“The government will strike with an iron hand all those who exploit this crime to broadcast speeches of hatred to our community,” he told the Petra agency.

But supporters of Hattar said they held the government responsible for the shooting, accusing Prime Minister Hani al-Mulki of creating a hostile atmosphere that encouraged violence against the writer.

“The prime minister was the first one who incited against Nahed when he ordered his arrest and put him on trial for sharing the cartoon, and that ignited the public against him and led to his killing,” said Saad Hattar, a cousin of the writer.

Hattar has long been a controversial figure in Jordan. Years ago, he claimed that the late King Hussein had arrested and tortured him many times for his critical writings and vowed not to mourn the king, who died in 1999.

While born a Christian, he considered himself an atheist. He was a strong supporter of Syrian President Bashar Assad and an outspoken critic of the Islamic State group and al-Qaida.

Hattar was detained in August after sharing the cartoon on Facebook. Relatives said the cartoon was meant to illustrate what Hattar viewed as the twisted religious views of Islamic State extremists.

The post was quickly deleted after many angry responses. Jordan is an overwhelmingly Muslim and deeply conservative society.

Hattar was briefly detained for two weeks before he was released on bail.

In a statement, the family called on the government to hold accountable all those who had incited against Hattar.

“Many fanatics wrote on social media calling for his killing and lynching, and the government did nothing against them,” they said.

Jordan is a close Western ally and has been largely spared from the violence engulfing neighboring Syria and Iraq. But a series of recent attacks has raised concern about security in the kingdom.

Late last year, a Jordanian police captain opened fire on instructors at an international police training center in Jordan’s capital, killing at least five people, including two Americans, before being shot dead by security forces. In June, a suicide car bomb attack near the Syrian border killed seven Jordanian soldiers.

Hundreds of Jordanians have been sentenced to prison, are awaiting trial or are being held for questioning about links to IS. Under toughened anti-terror laws, even liking or sharing the group’s propaganda on social media can land someone a prison sentence.

But on Sunday, social media accounts of prominent Islamists in Jordan and elsewhere were celebrating Hattar’s death, saying he deserved it for blasphemy.

Anja Wehler-Schoek, resident director of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Jordan, said she found the social media posts “shocking.” The German foundation promotes democracy and political education in the region.

“This is clearly a very dark day for Jordan, which has long been celebrated as a model of peaceful co-existence,” she said. “I am very worried we are seeing the end of an era here and more and more problems to come in the future.”

___

Daraghmeh reported from Ramallah, West Bank.

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The bleak future of food criticism: Yelp reviews, puff pieces and no accountability for restaurants

Woman in Restaurant

(Credit: Getty/knape)

My family didn’t go to restaurants very often when I was young. When we did, it was usually for a special occasion, a celebration of a new job or because we had company from out of town. For birthdays, we got to pick just what we wanted and my mom would cook it for us. It was a loving gesture but also a cost-saving one. It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized how tight things had been financially for us when I was growing up. We had enough, but it wasn’t fancy.

Even though I rarely went to restaurants, they fascinated me. I loved the opportunity to try foods I’d never had before or to sample something familiar done in a different way. I was precociously flirting with waitstaff before I was 12, stepping into a timeless restaurant dance I still continue with bartenders, baristas and servers whenever possible. Dining out was a form of entertainment just like going to a movie or a play.

I became a restaurant critic for a local magazine in the second largest city in Washington State shortly after I graduated from college with an English degree. I wasn’t making enough money to call it my primary job, but I loved that I got to sneakily try new restaurants, and it didn’t hurt that someone else was paying for my meals either. Although I often tried less than stellar places, I glowed every time I thought about it. I was living my younger self’s unspoken dream: Someone was paying me to eat in restaurants.

Around this time, someone recommended Ruth Reichl’s book “Garlic and Sapphires,” a memoir about her time as The New York Times food critic in the 1990s. She writes about the fabulous restaurants she went to (and those that weren’t), the disguises she used to avoid being recognized from the photo posted in every restaurant’s kitchen and the politics of the paper. I soaked it in, trying to find bridges between this big-city critic and my small, growing food scene. In one fancy restaurant, she encounters a young couple, dressed up and obviously excited. They look like they’ve saved up for this evening out. Ruth becomes more and more depressed with the prix fixe dinner as she goes and notices that the couple seems to be as well. At the end of the meal, she pays for their dinner and gives them a recommendation for another restaurant. There, I thought, that’s what I want to do.

In my five years as a critic, I often thought about Ruth, about that couple and about my own family as I wrote reviews. It wasn’t hard to imagine what it might be like to not be able to afford to go out often. If the magazine wasn’t paying, I certainly wasn’t trying the newest places. I was checking Groupon and asking my friends if we could meet for coffee instead of lunch. When I had a disappointing meal as part of a reviewing experience, I thought about how I would feel if this meal was my special treat. Would I have the guts to send back the burnt chicken potpie?

A couple of years ago, a new restaurant opened, a sister to a popular spot. I went with high hopes, which crashed, promptly, to the ground. It was as if the restaurant was trying so hard to be interesting, that the chef forgot that food still needs to taste good. I looked at the tables around me and wished that I could pull a Ruth Reichl and buy everyone’s food and send people somewhere better. I couldn’t do that. But I could write a review.

As important as it was to be honest about what wasn’t working, I loved championing what was. Often these were people quietly working hard, without time or money for lots of advertising or PR. When I found places like these, I delighted in sharing them with my readers. Far from wanting to wield my power to harm the food scene, I wanted to encourage the creativity budding in the community. When I first moved here from California, restaurants largely meant Applebee’s, Longhorn Barbecue and Olive Garden. Now there is a range of interesting choices. You can get crepes that taste like a bite of France, authentic ceviche and excellent craft cocktails. There are only a handful of truly wonderful places, but it’s a start. It’s worth celebrating.

My job is to act as a sort of scout. I case the joint, making mental notes about the interior, the sort of hospitality I encounter, the quality of the food and whether or not you can hear yourself think inside the dining room. At least, it was my job until this spring. Editorial changes left me wondering about the future of the food section and my reviews. A call with the new editor confirmed my worst fears. The magazine’s leadership was transitioning away from reviews. It wanted more features, more profiles, more behind-the-scenes stories.

My last review ran in May and since then I get calls and texts several times a week from friends who used to read my reviews. What should I check out? What’s new in the food scene? I have to answer: I don’t know. I can’t afford to be up on it anymore.

Our magazine was the last in our city doing professional critique. The newspaper and the alt-weekly both stopped long ago. Now, there is only Yelp.

There’s been a lot of well-placed critique of food criticism in recent years. People talk about critics who cozy up to chefs and publicists, writing glowing copy in return for comped meals. There’s also the much-debated issue of anonymity, which critics are shedding at a steady rate. It’s hard to imagine that an anonymous critic would have the same experience as one making no attempts at secrecy.

When the New Yorker recently profiled Pete Wells, the New York Times’ current restaurant critic, it was clear that he accepts that his attempts at anonymity will fail. Although, unlike Ruth Reichl, who purchased special wigs and clothes, going so far as to develop a backstory for each costume, Pete doesn’t do anything special to cloak his identity. I would guess that he is frequently served better dishes than those very same menu items placed on other tables around the room.

One of my best assets as a critic was that I don’t look like one. I’m small, youthful and female. Over the years I have heard complaints against management from waitstaff, constantly had first sips of wine poured for my male companion and been served inexpertly cooked food. Unlike many of Pete Wells’ experiences, mine are very similar to what any normal person might encounter at that same restaurant. When I wrote a review under those circumstances, I wasn’t worried that my cover had been blown or that I was getting special treatment. I could have an experience as a surrogate, attracting no attention at all.

Recently as part of research for an article, I spoke with several female food critics across the county. Over and over again, I heard them echo Ruth’s mission, which I’ve claimed as my own. They wanted to know how a restaurant would treat a family with kids, or someone who didn’t look wealthy or two women eating alone. In short, they wanted to know how a restaurant would respond to people like them. They wanted to leave clues in their reviews so that readers might know whether they were likely to feel comfortable in a place, whether it was worth it to save up and go. I’m sure there are male critics who think like this, too, and there are women who don’t. This type of critic is the one I’ve always tried to be, and who I would like to read.

Whatever our problems with food criticism, the alternative is playing out in my food scene now. There are feature stories and interviews with local chefs. There are ads and events and announcements of openings. There is Yelp. But no one is holding chefs accountable. No one is consistently looking out for families like mine, or that couple Ruth met. Now if we want to know what a restaurant is like, we have to pay to find out.

Source: New feed

Spinning science news: How the FDA keeps manipulating the media

FDA

This article was originally published by Scientific American.

Scientific American It was a faustian bargain — and it certainly made editors at National Public Radio squirm.

The deal was this: NPR, along with a select group of media outlets, would get a briefing about an upcoming announcement by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration a day before anyone else. But in exchange for the scoop, NPR would have to abandon its reportorial independence. The FDA would dictate whom NPR’s reporter could and couldn’t interview.

“My editors are uncomfortable with the condition that we cannot seek reaction,” NPR reporter Rob Stein wrote back to the government officials offering the deal. Stein asked for a little bit of leeway to do some independent reporting but was turned down flat. Take the deal or leave it.

NPR took the deal. “I’ll be at the briefing,” Stein wrote.

Later that day in April 2014, Stein — along with reporters from more than a dozen other top-tier media organizations, including CBS, NBC, CNN, The Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times — showed up at a federal building to get his reward. Every single journalist present had agreed not to ask any questions of sources not approved by the government until given the go-ahead.

“I think embargoes that attempt to control sourcing are dangerous because they limit the role of the reporter whose job it is to do a full look at a subject,” says New York Times former public editor Margaret Sullivan. “It’s really inappropriate for a source to be telling a journalist whom he or she can and can’t talk to.” Ivan Oransky, distinguished writer in residence at New York University’s Journalism Institute and founder of the Embargo Watch weblog, agrees: “I think it’s deeply wrong.”

This kind of deal offered by the FDA — known as a close-hold embargo — is an increasingly important tool used by scientific and government agencies to control the behavior of the science press. Or so it seems. It is impossible to tell for sure because it is happening almost entirely behind the scenes. We only know about the FDA deal because of a wayward sentence inserted by an editor at The New York Times. But for that breach of secrecy, nobody outside the small clique of government officials and trusted reporters would have known that the journalists covering the agency had given up their right to do independent reporting.

Documents obtained by Scientific American through Freedom of Information Act requests now paint a disturbing picture of the tactics that are used to control the science press. For example, the FDA assures the public that it is committed to transparency, but the documents show that, privately, the agency denies many reporters access — including ones from major outlets such as Fox News — and even deceives them with half-truths to handicap them in their pursuit of a story. At the same time, the FDA cultivates a coterie of journalists whom it keeps in line with threats. And the agency has made it a practice to demand total control over whom reporters can and can’t talk to until after the news has broken, deaf to protests by journalistic associations and media ethicists and in violation of its own written policies.

By using close-hold embargoes and other methods, the FDA, like other sources of scientific information, are gaining control of journalists who are supposed to keep an eye on those institutions. The watchdogs are being turned into lapdogs. “Journalists have ceded the power to the scientific establishment,” says Vincent Kiernan, a science journalist and dean at George Mason University. “I think it’s interesting and somewhat inexplicable, knowing journalists in general as being people who don’t like ceding power.”

The press corps is primed for manipulation by a convention that goes back decades: the embargo. The embargo is a back-room deal between journalists and the people they cover — their sources. A source grants the journalist access on condition that he or she cannot publish before an agreed-on date and time.

A surprisingly large proportion of science and health stories are the product of embargoes. Most of the major science journals offer reporters advance copies of upcoming articles — and the contact information of the authors — in return for agreeing not to run with the story until the embargo expires. These embargoes set the weekly rhythm of science coverage: On Monday afternoon, you may see a bunch of stories about the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA published almost simultaneously. Tuesday, it’s the Journal of the American Medical Association. On Wednesday, it’s Nature and the New England Journal of Medicine. Science stories appear on Thursday. Other institutions have also adopted the embargo system. Federal institutions, especially the ones science and health journalists report on, have as well. Embargoes are the reason that stories about the National Laboratories, the National Institutes of Health and other organizations often tend to break at the precisely same time.

Embargoes were first embraced by science reporters in the 1920s, in part because they take the pressure off. After all, when everybody agrees to publish their stories simultaneously, a reporter can spend extra time researching and writing a story without fear of being scooped. “[Embargoes] were created at the behest of journalists,” says Kiernan, who has written a book, “Embargoed Science,” about scientific embargoes. “Scientists had to be convinced to go along.” But scientific institutions soon realized that embargoes could be used to manipulate the timing and, to a lesser extent, the nature of press coverage. The result is a system whereby scientific institutions increasingly control the press corps. “They’ve gotten the upper hand in this relationship, and journalists have never taken it back,” Kiernan says.

The embargo system is such an established institution in science journalism that few reporters complain or even think about its darker implications, at least until they themselves feel slighted. This January the California Institute of Technology was sitting on a great story: researchers there had evidence of a new giant planet — Planet Nine — in the outer reaches of our solar system. The Caltech press office decided to give only a dozen reporters, including Scientific American’s Michael Lemonick, early access to the scientists and their study. When the news broke, the rest of the scientific journalism community was left scrambling. “Apart from the chosen 12, those working to news deadlines were denied the opportunity to speak to the researchers, obtain independent viewpoints or have time to properly digest the published research paper,” complained BBC reporter Pallab Ghosh about Caltech’s “inappropriate” favoritism in an open letter to the World Federation of Science Journalists.

When asked about why Caltech chose to release the news only to a select group of reporters, Farnaz Khadem, Caltech’s head of communications, stated that she is committed to being “fair and transparent” about how and when Caltech shares news with journalists. She then refused to talk about the Planet Nine incident or embargoes or press strategy, and she would not grant access to anyone at Caltech who might talk about such matters. As a consequence, it is hard to know for certain why Caltech decided to share the news with only a select group of reporters. But it is not hard to guess why journalists such as Ghosh were excluded. “It wasn’t that they were not good enough or not liked enough,” Kiernan speculates. “There was a real effort here to control things, making sure that the elite of the elite covered this story and covered it in a certain way, which would then shape the coverage of all other journalists. It’s very clearly a control effort.”

Caltech is not the only institution that steers coverage by briefing a very small subset of reporters. (As I was writing this piece, I received a note from a U.S. Air Force press officer offering a sneak preview of video footage being offered to “a select number of digital publications.”) For years the FDA has been cultivating a small group of journalists who are entrusted with advance notice of certain events while others are left out in the cold. But it was not the game of favorites that ignited a minor firestorm in the journalism community in January 2011 — it was the introduction of the close-hold embargo.

Like a regular embargo, a close-hold embargo allows early access to information provided that attendees not publish before a set date and time. In this case, it was a sneak peek at rules about to be published regarding medical devices. But there was an additional condition: reporters were expressly forbidden from seeking outside comment. Journalists would have to give up any semblance of being able to do independent reporting on the matter before the embargo expired.

Even reporters who had been dealing with the FDA for years were incredulous. When one asked the agency’s press office if it really was forbidding communications with outside sources, Karen Riley, an official at the FDA, erased all doubt. “It goes without saying that the embargo means YOU CANNOT call around and get comment ahead of the 1 P.M. embargo,” she said in an e-mail.

“Actually it does need some saying, since this is a new version of a journalistic embargo,” wrote Oransky in his Embargo Watch blog. Without the ability to contact independent sources, he continued, “journalists become stenographers.” Kiernan echoes the sentiment: “[When] you can’t verify the information, you can’t get comment on the information. You have to just keep it among this group of people that I told you about, and you can’t use it elsewhere. In that situation, the journalist is allowing his or her reporting hands to be tied in a way that they’re not going to be anything, ultimately, other than a stenographer.”

The Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ), of which I am a member, publicly objected to the close-hold embargo, noting that it “will be a serious obstacle to good journalism. Reporters who want to be competitive on a story will essentially have to agree to write only what the FDA wants to tell the world, without analysis or outside commentary.” Faced by this opposition, the agency quickly backtracked. After a meeting with AHCJ leaders, Meghan Scott, then the agency’s acting associate commissioner for external affairs, wrote: “Prior to your inquiry, the FDA did not have a formal news embargo policy in place.” The FDA was now establishing new ground rules that “will better serve the media and the public.”

Initially published online in June 2011, the FDA’s new media policy officially killed the close-hold embargo: “A journalist may share embargoed material provided by the FDA with non-journalists or third parties to obtain quotes or opinions prior to an embargo lift provided that the reporter secures agreement from the third party to uphold the embargo.” Due diligence would always be allowed, at least at the FDA.

Health and science journalists breathed a sigh of relief. The AHCJ expressed gratitude that the FDA had changed its tune, and Oransky’s Embargo Watch congratulated the agency for backing down: “For doing the right thing, the FDA has earned a spot on the Embargo Watch Honor Roll. Kudos.” And the FDA had cleared up the misunderstanding and affirmed that it was committed to “a culture of openness in its interaction with the news media and the public.”

In reality, there was no misunderstanding. The close-hold embargo had become part of the agency’s media strategy. It was here to stay — policy or no policy.

It is hard to tell when a close-hold embargo is afoot because, by its very nature, it is a secret that neither the reporters who have been given special access nor the scientific institution that sets up the deal wants to be revealed. The public hears about it only when a journalist chooses to reveal the information.

We have a few rare instances where journalists revealed that close-hold embargoes were being used by scientists and scientific institutions after 2011. In 2012 biologist Gilles-Eric Séralini and his colleagues published a dubious — later retracted and then republished — paper purportedly linking genetically modified foods to cancer in rats. They gave reporters early access under a close-hold embargo, quite likely to hamstring the reporters’ ability to explore gaping holes in the article, a situation science journalist Carl Zimmer described as “a rancid, corrupt way to report about science.” In 2014 the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (also called the CSB) released a report to journalists under a close-hold embargo. When challenged, the then managing director of the CSB, Daniel Horowitz, told Oransky’s Embargo Watch that the close-hold embargo was used “on the theory that this would provide a more orderly process.” He then stated that the board was going to “drop the policy in its entirety for future reports.” Privately, however, a CSB public affairs specialist noted in an e-mail, “Frankly, I wish we did have more stenographers out there. Government agencies trying to control the information flow is an old story, but the other side of the story is that government agencies that do good work often have a difficult time getting their story told in an era of journalistic skepticism and partisan bickering and bureaucratic infighting.”

Also in 2014 the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) used a close-hold embargo when it announced to a dozen reporters that researchers had discovered subtle signals of gravitational waves from the early universe. “You could only talk to other scientists who had seen the papers already; we didn’t want them shared unduly,” says Christine Pulliam, the media relations manager for CfA. Unfortunately, the list of approved scientists provided by CfA listed only theoreticians, not experimentalists — and only an experimentalist was likely to see the flaw that doomed the study. (The team was seeing the signature of cosmic dust, not gravitational waves.) “I felt like a fool, in retrospect,” says Lemonick, who, as one of a dozen or so chosen journalists, covered the story for Time (at the time, he was not on the staff of Scientific American).

The FDA, too, quietly held close-hold embargoed briefings, even though its official media policy forbids it. Without a source willing to talk, it is impossible to tell for sure when or why FDA started violating its own rules. A document from January 2014, however, describes the FDA’s strategy for getting media coverage of the launch of a new public health ad campaign. It lays out a plan for the agency to host a “media briefing for select, top-tier reporters who will have a major influence on coverage and public opinion of the campaigns … Media who attend the briefing will be instructed that there is a strict, close-hold embargo that does not allow for contact with those outside of the FDA for comment on the campaign.”

Why? The document gives a glimpse: “Media coverage of the campaign is guaranteed; however, we want to ensure outlets provide quality coverage of the launch,” the document explains. “The media briefing will give us an opportunity to shape the news stories, conduct embargoed interviews with the major outlets ahead of the launch and give media outlets opportunities to prepare more in-depth coverage of the campaign launch.”

Ten reporters — from The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, the Associated Press, Reuters, ABC, NBC, CNN and NPR — were invited to have their stories shaped. The day after the briefing, on February 4, everybody — except for The New York Times — ran with stories about the ad campaign. Independent comment was notably missing. Only NPR, which went live hours after the others, and CNN, in an update to its story midday, managed to get any reaction from anyone outside of the FDA. CBS plunked down an out-of-context quotation from the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, probably in hopes that readers wouldn’t notice that it was two months old. Nobody else seems to have tried to get anyone who could critique the ad campaign.

The result was a set of stories almost uniformly cleaving to the FDA’s party line, without a hint of a question about whether the ad campaign would be as ineffective as many other such campaigns. Not one of the media outlets said anything about the close-hold embargo. From the agency’s point of view, it was mission accomplished.

The FDA had a much harder task two months later. The agency was about to make public controversial new rules about electronic cigarettes. It was nearly impossible to keep the story from leaking out ahead of time; days before the new rules were going to be published in April 2014, rumors were flying. Reporters around the country could smell the story and began to e-mail the FDA’s press office with questions about the e-cigarette rules. The agency flacks would have to use all the powers at their disposal to control the flow of information.

“I’ve heard a number of rumors that the FDA will be releasing its proposed e-cigarette regulations on Monday,” Clara Ritger, then a reporter with the National Journal asked on Friday, April 18. “I wanted to see if I could confirm that? If that’s not accurate, do you have a timeline?” Stephanie Yao, then an FDA press officer, dodged the question: “The proposal is still in draft form and under review. As a matter of policy, the FDA does not share draft rules with outside groups while a rule is still under review.”

The fencing match was on. “Thank you for following up with the statement,” Ritger responded. “While I know the proposal is still in draft form and under review, for my planning purposes I wanted to find out when the proposed regulations will be coming out?”

“Have you subscribed to FDA press announcements?” Jenny Haliski, then another FDA press officer, wrote back on Monday. “The proposed rule itself will be published in the Federal Register.”

“Thanks for sending! I signed up,” Ritger responded. “The only other question I had was when the proposed regulations would come out, off the record, for planning purposes?”

Not even an offer of being off the record could get the agency to spill the beans. “The FDA can’t speculate on the timing of the proposed rule,” Haliski replied.

But this was a carefully crafted half-truth. There was no need to speculate. Haliski and others in the press office knew quite well not just that the rule was going to be published on Thursday, April 24, but also that there was going to be a close-hold embargoed briefing on Wednesday. It’s just that Ritger and the National Journal weren’t invited.

The invite list had been drafted days earlier, and, as usual, the briefing was limited to trusted journalists: the same outlets from the ad campaign briefing in February, with the addition of a few more, which included the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, Bloomberg News, Politico and the Congressional Quarterly. At the very same moment that the agency was discussing the embargoed briefing with some of their chosen reporters, anyone outside that small circle, like Ritger, was being thrown off the trail. Not even Fox News was allowed in.

Some within the FDA press office wondered why Fox was excluded, unlike the other major networks. “BTW, we noticed that Fox still wasn’t on the invite list,” Raquel Ortiz, then an FDA press officer, told Haliski.

“I have no national Fox reporter who had contacted me on this topic,” Haliski responded. “All reporters invited to the briefing needed to have covered tobacco regulatory issues before.”

Ortiz realized that this wasn’t an honest answer: “But they definitely cover FDA/CTP [Center for Tobacco Products] and tobacco stories — [a colleague has] seen them.”

“We don’t have a good contact for Fox,” Haliski insisted, rather lamely. A contact would not have been hard to find had they bothered to look. And, as chance would have it, the contact found them. Early the next morning, with plenty of time before the briefing, Fox’s senior national correspondent — John Roberts, one-time heir apparent to Dan Rather — contacted Haliski asking for access. “I’m aware that the FDA will likely come out with its deeming rule regarding e-cigarettes in the next week or so. I’d like to have a story ready to go for the day (holding to any embargo),” he wrote. “Can we make that happen?”

“Hi, John, Have you subscribed to FDA press announcements?” Access denied.

“I was particularly troubled by it because I was the medical correspondent for CBS Evening News for a couple of years, and I had a very good relationship with the FDA and everybody there,” says Roberts, who found out he was excluded after the other correspondents’ stories came out. “I was told by these folks that Fox news wasn’t invited because of ‘past experiences with Fox.’”

A little after noon on Wednesday, April 23, the briefing went on as scheduled. All the reporters present understood the terms, as announced: “As discussed, under this embargo you will not be able to reach out to third parties for comment on this announcement. We are providing you with a preview of the information with this understanding.” But by 2:30 P.M., the close-hold embargo was already fraying at the edges. FDA officials apparently got wind that a reporter was trying to talk to a member of Congress about the new rules. Even though it was not clear that this was a breach of the embargo — the interview was scheduled for after the embargo expired, and the reporter presumably did not share any crucial information ahead of time — it was bending the close-hold rules, and the FDA was livid. Within half an hour, FDA’s Jefferson had fired off an angry e-mail to the close-hold journalists.

“It has been brought to our attention that there has already been a break in the embargo … Third-party outreach of any kind was and is not permitted for this announcement. Everyone who participated agreed to this,” she wrote. “Moving forward, we will no longer consider embargoed briefings for news media if reporters are not willing to abide by the terms an embargo … We take this matter very seriously, and as a consequence any individuals who violated the embargo will be excluded from future embargoed briefings with the agency.” Violate the rules, even in spirit, and you’ll be left out in the cold with the rest.

The denials flew in. “This is very frustrating as someone who has consistently played by the rules and has covered CTP/FDA for years to be lumped in with a group of reporters that cannot respect your requests not to reach out to third parties,” insisted then AP reporter Michael Felberbaum. “I have of course always advocated that you work more closely with reporters like myself who clearly understand and cover this area consistently instead of reporters who are just assigned to handle on a whim.”

But despite the scare about a breach, the secrecy held. When the embargo expired and the early news stories went online, the FDA had little to complain about; the embargo had worked once again to shape coverage. Felberbaum’s piece, for example, quoted Margaret Hamburg, then head of the FDA, and Mitch Zeller, the head of the agency’s CTP, but nobody else. Even after he updated his piece later in the day to get some outside comments, there was little hint of how controversial the new rules were. Members of the tobacco industry were generally unhappy with increased federal regulation of their business, while antitobacco advocates tended to argue that the new regulations were far too weak and took way too long to promulgate. And there was no mention, in Felberbaum’s article, at least, that the agency had tried to regulate e-cigarettes several years earlier but was slapped down with a stinging rebuke from the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. (When asked about his work for the AP, Felberbaum — who has since quit his job as a reporter to become an FDA press officer — said, “I’m not really sure whether I’m comfortable discussing that at this point.”)

Some of the other outlets, like NPR, injected a little more nuance into their pieces, despite the restrictions, by doing additional reporting after the embargo expired. (In a statement, NPR said that agreeing to the FDA’s conditions was not a violation of ethics guidelines and “in no way influenced which other voices or ideas were included in the coverage.”) Still, even those pieces did not stray far from the key messages that the agency wanted to get across. Again the FDA found little to complain about. Except for one little thing.

Of all the media outlets, The New York Times was the only one to mention the close-hold embargo: “FDA officials gave journalists an outline of the new rules on Wednesday but required that they not talk to industry or public health groups until after Thursday’s formal release of the document.” (“I felt like I wanted to be clear with readers,” Sabrina Tavernise, the author of the story, later told Sullivan, The New York Times’ public editor at the time. “Usually you would have reaction in a story like this, but in this case, there wasn’t going to be any.”)

The FDA was not pleased that the omertà had been broken. “I have to say while I generally reserve my editorial comments, I was a little surprised by the tone of your article and the swipe you took at the embargo in the paper — when after combing through the coverage no one else felt the need to do so in quite that way,” the FDA’s Jefferson upbraided Tavernise in an e-mail. “To be clear, this is me taking stuff personally when I know I shouldn’t, but I thought we had a better working relationship than this … I never expect totally positive coverage as our policies are controversial and complex, but at least more neutral and slightly less editorialized. Simply put, bummer. Off to deal with a pissed Fox News reporter.”

Tavernise promptly apologized. “Geez, sorry about the embargo thing. Editors were asking why we didn’t get to see it so I was asked to put a line in to explain,” she wrote. (Tavernise declined to comment for this article; Celia Dugger, one of The New York Times editors who handled the piece, said via e-mail: “As to the decision to describe the conditions of the embargo in the story, Sabrina and I talked it over and agreed it was best to include them.”)

The FDA was not pleased that the secret of the close-hold embargo was out, and the excluded press was confused and angry. “In this particular instance, it struck me as very strange,” says Fox’s Roberts. “It was a government agency picking and choosing who it was going to talk to on a matter of public policy, and then the fact that I had a longstanding relationship with the FDA that, with this new administration, didn’t seem to matter.”

Oransky complained again on Embargo Watch about the FDA’s attempts to turn journalists “into stenographers.” Sullivan asked a few pointed questions of Jefferson, who, in Sullivan’s words, insisted that the FDA’s intent was “not to be manipulative but to give reporters early access to a complicated news development” and noted, in passing, that Tavernise had not objected to the terms of the close-hold embargo. But the damage was short-lived. Very little came of the complaints; Sullivan said that she would “like to see The Times push back — hard — against such restrictions in every instance and be prepared to walk away from the story if need be,” but there is no evidence of any substantial pushback by anyone.

The two-tiered system of outsiders and insiders that undergirds the close-hold policy is also still enforced. Major press outlets such as Scientific American and Agence France-Presse have written to the FDA to complain about being excluded but have not received any satisfaction from the agency. Months after the e-cigarette affair and following a different FDA story about food labeling that insiders had early access to, Time magazine complained about its lack of access to a select-press-only phone call. “Time was not included … (they weren’t even on my radar to be honest with you), but we handled all their queries” the day after the call, then FDA press officer Jennifer Corbett Dooren wrote.

Absent any indications from the agency, it is anyone’s guess whether the close-hold embargo is still in use at the FDA and, if so, how frequently. Unfortunately, the FDA refused to answer any questions. Because I am suing the agency for access to documents about embargo practices at the FDA, the press office, in a statement that failed to answer any specific questions, said that news embargoes “allow reporters time to develop their articles on complex matters in an informed, accurate way” and that its use of embargoes conforms to relevant government guidelines and best practices. The press office referred all questions to the FDA’s Office of the Chief Counsel, which did not supply answers.

Since The New York Times slip, no journalist covering the agency has openly mentioned being subject to such restrictions. Scientific American made a significant effort to contact many of the reporters believed to have agreed to an FDA close-hold embargo — including the AP’s Felberbaum, The Times’ Tavernise, NPR’s Stein, and other reporters from Reuters, USA Today and the LA Times. None could shed any light on the issue. Some explicitly refused to speak to Scientific American; some failed to return queries; two had no recollection of having ever agreed to a close-hold embargo, including Tom Burton, a Pulitzer Prize–winning Wall Street Journal reporter and the only one willing to answer questions. “I didn’t remember it at all, and [even] after you told me, I didn’t remember,” he said. As far as he knows, Burton added, such embargoes are rare.

No matter how rare it might be, there is documentary evidence of its happening multiple times, and each instance since 2011 is a violation of the FDA’s official media policy, which explicitly bans close-hold embargoes. This policy still stands, just as it did before the last close-hold embargo. The smart money says that the agency’s unofficial policy still stands, too — and the favoritism and close-hold embargoes continue. It is apparently too sweet an arrangement for the FDA simply to walk away.

Despite the difficulty of measuring the use of close-hold embargoes, Oransky and Kiernan and other embargo observers agree that they — and other variations of the embargo used to tighten control over the press — appear to be on the rise. And they have been cropping up in other fields of journalism, such as business journalism as well. “More and more sources, including government sources but also corporate sources, are interested in controlling the message, and this is one of the ways they’re trying to do it,” says The New York Times’ Sullivan. “I think it should be resisted.”

As much blame as government and other institutions bear for attempting to control the press through such means, the primary responsibility lies with the journalists themselves. Even a close-hold embargo wouldn’t constrain a reporter without the reporter’s consent; the reporter can simply wait until the embargo expires and speak to outside sources, albeit at the cost of filing the story a little bit later.

Says Oransky: “We as journalists need to look inward a little bit and think about why all of us feel we absolutely have to publish something at embargo [expiration] when we don’t think we have the whole story?” Alas, Kiernan says, there isn’t any movement within the journalism community to change things: “I don’t know that journalists in general have taken a step back, [looking] from the 50,000-foot view to understand how their work is controlled and shaped by the embargo system.

Source: New feed

Be afraid, be very afraid: Trump is trying to cow journalists out of doing their work

Donald Trump

Donald Trump speaks to the media in Portsmouth, New Hampshire on April 27, 2011, after having addressed Barack Obama’s release of his original birth certificate earlier that morning. (Credit: Getty/Matthew Cavanaugh)

This piece originally appeared on BillMoyers.com.

When I saw that Donald Trump has charged unnamed “media” with “want[ing] debate moderators to ‘go after’ him,” my mind reeled back in time.

High-ranking among the shall-we-dance rituals performed every four years by journalists and the presidential campaigns is the degrading game of setting expectations. In 2000, when George W. Bush ran for president against Al Gore, his campaign put out the line that Gore was such an accomplished debater it would be all Bush could do to hold his own. When Bush succeeded in speaking, at times, in whole sentences, he was deemed to have done “better than expected,” which counted as a win in the debased horse race terms to which we have become accustomed.

In one of those debates, Gore was widely considered to have committed a gaffe when he walked up to Bush and asked him, ineptly, to take a position on a Patients’ Bill of Rights (“Dingell-Norwood”) then before Congress. The following Sunday, on ABC’s “This Week,” George Stephanopoulos gamely tried to clarify what Gore had so awkwardly been talking about, an issue that actually could have a direct impact on voters’ lives. But those masters of insider mirth, Cokie Roberts and Sam Donaldson, made hay over how funny “Dingell-Norwood” sounded. The major impression they left: Gore is a klutz. That fit their narrative: The helpless wonky Al Gore is roped in by the Beltway. Not a guy you could sit down and start a war with.

A refreshing number of reporters have, in recent days, woken up to Trump’s serial lies, his changes of subject, his refusal to answer straight questions. They’ve shown they understand that they have to keep hammering, even at his enablers, to get any shot at a straight answer. On Sunday’s “This Week,” Martha Raddatz unrelentingly kept after Mike Pence as he dissembled — hell, lied — about Trump’s birther obsession.

RADDATZ: We counted since April of 2011, and that’s the year that Barack Obama gave his long form birth certificate from Hawaii. We counted 67 times where Donald Trump tweeted or retweeted messages questioning his birthplace. He has kept this going. He has been a leader in this birther movement.

PENCE: Well, and I know there’s news reports that trace this birther movement all the way back to Hillary Clinton’s campaign back in 2008.

RADDATZ: You believe that Hillary Clinton started the birther movement.

PENCE: Look, I’ll let the facts speak for themselves.

RADDATZ: Well, no, I want to talk about the facts. What’s the proof of that?

The L word even showed up in a Times headline: “Donald Trump Clung to ‘Birther’ Lie for Years, and Still Isn’t Apologetic.” The article introduced thusly, by Michael Barbaro, was technically a “news analysis,” not a “straight news” piece. But still, progress is progress. The Washington Post’s Eric Wemple picked up the cue and ran with it:

Journalism is now examining how it should treat Donald Trump. Shouldn’t we signal to readers high up in stories that he’s a liar? That he’s a racist? The answer from The New York Times today appears to be yes. “Unwinding a Lie: Donald Trump and ‘Birtherism,’” reads the headline of a story written by reporter Michael Barbaro. If The New York Times had ever before published such a strong headline in its news section, this lifelong reader surely missed it.

“I didn’t write the headline, but I like it,” says Joe Kahn, the Timesman who is now moving from three titles — assistant editor for international, international editor and co-leader of the NYT Global group — to a single, more exalted one — managing editor. “That piece shows that where there is a clear falsehood, that covering it in an entirely traditional way in which the headline appears to indicate a wide range of possibilities and quote a wide range of sources and step back with the premise that you’re going to let the reader decide for himself or herself … didn’t feel quite right.”

Interviewing New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on the same subject, CNN’s Jake Tapper once again stepped up as recounted in a story on the network’s website:

Though Trump had been asked whether he now believes Obama was born in the United States as recently as 2016 and hadn’t affirmed that position, Christie refuted [they meant rebutted — TG] Tapper’s questioning saying: “It’s just not true that he kept it up for five years.”

Tapper: “Sure he did.”

Christie: “It’s simply not true.”

Tapper: “It is true.”

Christie: “No, Jake. It wasn’t like he was talking about it on a regular basis … And when the issue was raised, he made very clear the other day what his position is.”

If you believe Chris Christie, I have a George Washington Bridge you might want to stop traffic on.

As for Trump, his game is crystal clear. It’s the game of the thug. He’s going way beyond Bush’s 2000 conventional exercise in expectation-lowering. What you’ll see and hear isn’t about his performance; it’s about the moderators’: He aims to pre-insulate himself from serious questioning. He’s whining already: They hit me first! They’re in the tank! Bring back Matt Lauer! If a moderator corrects a falsehood, points out that he hasn’t answered a question, asks him to do so — all of which they are obliged to do if they care about truth — he’ll accuse them of doing Hillary Clinton’s work for her. If they toss him anything but a cream puff, he’ll say he told us so, those disgusting reporters have rigged the game against him.

Trump is showing his hand. He’s trying to cow journalists out of doing their work. The moderators will decide whether he runs away with the game.

Source: New feed

What happened to Netflix? The film buff’s dream library is Adam Sandler’s house now

The Ridiculous Six

(Credit: Netflix)

Netflix wants to get exclusive.

According to CFO David Wells, the platform plans to go all-in on its growing slate of original programming, which includes popular television shows like “Orange Is the New Black” and “Jessica Jones” and its less successful film lineup. In 2014, Netflix offered Adam Sandler a four-picture deal that produced critical duds like “The Ridiculous 6” and “The Do-Over.” The company, which has struggled with a consistent brand model, has also produced misfires like the toothless Ricky Gervais satire “Special Correspondents” and “XOXO,” a saccharine love letter to EDM. The recent “Tallulah,” a sharply observed Ellen Page dramedy about a slacker who accidentally kidnaps a baby, though, has shown Netflix to be headed in the right direction.

Wells, addressing the Goldman Sachs Communacopia Conference on Thursday, said that the company’s goal is a 50/50 divide between Originals and licensed content, the library of contemporary and classic films on which the platform made its name. He claimed that Netflix is “one third to halfway” to reaching that mark.

This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who has been a longtime Netflix subscriber. When the service, which launched in 1997, gained in popularity in the early to mid-2000s, it was marketed on its boundlessness. Here was a company that could provide consumers what their local video store couldn’t—a seemingly endless catalog of films. If Ed, the guy with the spaghetti hair at the corner Blockbuster Video, thought Fellini was a type of cocktail, Netflix had “8 ½” and “City of Women” available whenever you wanted, provided you had made your peace with the capricious whims of the U.S. postal service.

In 2016, DVDs have become a niche service for Netflix, with just 4.5 million subscribers left. The platform even tried to spin its mail service off into a different company with the failed launch of Qwikster in 2011.

Streaming offered an incredible opportunity for the industry leader to bring its coveted library to a mass audience, but that promise has never quite materialized. The appeal of Spotify, for instance, is that the music streaming service offers nearly every song to which you could dream of listening, as long as it isn’t produced by Taylor Swift. If the new Frank Ocean, Beyoncé, or Kanye West album isn’t available—due to exclusive deals through Spotify’s competitors—just wait a couple of weeks. It will be.

That utopic vision of infinite access was perhaps never possible for Netflix, as The Verge’s Bryan Bishop astutely points out. The streaming wars have gone too nuclear—with the company’s rivals shelling out unthinkable sums to play keep-away from the biggest kid on the block. Housing all nine seasons of “Seinfeld” cost Hulu $180 million, while Amazon is home to critically acclaimed shows like “Mr. Robot” and “Orphan Black.”

Netflix, though, has backed away from its ever-shrinking digital library with a fierce intensity reserved usually for Donald Trump gaffes. Its film selection of today is less enviable than serviceable, filled with the kinds of movies one might watch drunk on a plane (see: “The Switch,” “Scary Movie”). “Netflix is no longer where you go to find something great,” Bloomberg’s Megan McArdle once wrote, “it’s where you go to kill some time with whatever it has available.” There are gems in each section, to be sure, and it’s hard to harbor a grudge toward any streaming platform that houses Otto Preminger’s stupendous film noir “Laura,” the best movie ever made about a guy who wants to have sex with a painting.

If Netflix killed its DVD selection, which in turn killed the video store, the service never devised a sustainable way to replace either one of those options, and it’s no longer trying.

That trend began in earnest in 2015, when the company let its deal lapse with Epix, the media company that represents MGM, Paramount and Lionsgate. Following that partnership’s collapse, films like “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” “Rocky,” “Star Trek: Into Darkness,” “Robocop,” and “Wolf of Wall Street” were all pulled from Netflix’s site, migrating to Hulu instead. Shortly after, “Interstellar,” “Mission Impossible—Rogue Nation,” “Selma,” and “Top Five” joined them. Prior to the Epix disaster, a similar deal with Starz fell through in 2011.

To blame this solely on Netflix would be absurd and unfair. It’s partly due to the economics of content sharing, which tend to leave all parties feeling jilted and undervalued. “Starz realized just how much value it gave to Netflix and ended up pulling out of negotiations,” Bishop writes. “At the time, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings estimated that Starz content accounted for 8 percent of Netflix’s domestic viewing, and his company’s stock plunged appropriately.”

For Netflix, it makes a great deal of sense then to simply do it yourself. When you build the house—and everything that goes in it—you control the means of production. You have no masters. As opposed to ending up in a bidding war with Hulu over “Fear the Walking Dead,” the zombie spinoff purchased along with the rights to all of AMC’s lineup, the blowback from producing “Narcos” or “The Ranch” is fairly minimal. I’ve never actually met someone who watches “The Ranch,” but its failure is certainly less costly than the risk factor of “Seinfeld.” Many suggested the show was overpriced when its bid was set at $90 million.

Continuing to double down on exclusive content is simply too good for the bottom line to pass up. “The decreasing cost of production and the increasing number of bidders in the streaming market making it cheaper to take chances on shows and movies,” writes Rich McCormick, also of The Verge, of the company’s shift toward original programming.

Netflix, though, is taking bigger gambles. Although Cary Joji Fukunaga’s “Beasts of No Nation,” which was picked up by the company during the 2015 festival circuit, cost the platform relative pennies, it spent a record $90 million (for a streaming platform, anyway) on “Bright.” The film, co-starring Joel Edgerton and Noomi Rapace, will reunite director David Ayer with Will Smith for the first time since “Suicide Squad,” a film nearly everyone loathed. There’s also the $20 million Netflix tossed at Brad Pitt to star in “War Machine,” a comedy about the spin doctors pulling the strings of the war in Afghanistan.

Netflix’s romance with its Originals, however, puts the platform’s streaming library in a precarious position. One count suggests that 4,097 films are available to stream instantly on Netflix’s website, but if the company hopes to grow its deepening bench of exclusives to be on par with its repertory selection, that number will have to shrink considerably. If you’ve been paying attention, it already has. A report from earlier this year estimated that Netflix’s streaming content had already shrunk by 30 percent since January 2014.

That’s not all bad news. Movie lovers looking for something better than “White Chicks” will be forced to get their movies the old-fashioned way: by paying for them. Amazon Video has picked up where Blockbuster and the Netflix of yore left off, offering a frankly amazing variety of films at a reasonable rental price. Audiences with more discerning tastes can check out selections as diverse as “The Conformist,” “Sorry Wrong Number,” “In the Mood for Love” and “Blue Velvet.” Many others, though, in an era where consumers are notoriously allergic to paying for content when it’s not delivered in bulk, may just download these films illegally; the less adventurous will opt out altogether.

This isn’t just about giving aesthetes a better movie to watch than Adam Sandler’s “The Cobbler,” the only Jewish gentrification body-switch movie that will ever be made, but preserving film for future generations. For Netflix, it might be just business. But for those who eagerly signed up for the service in 2005—when the vast recesses of cinema were just a mailbox away—the slow death of its streaming library is an affront to everything that was great about Netflix.

Source: New feed

Come clean, racists! Closeted Trump supporters and racism-deniers are a lot more dangerous

Men Whispering

(Credit: Getty/sharpshutter)

I had an annoying three-and a-half-hour layover at Philadelphia International Airport. Like most grownups in such a situation, I went on a hunt for food and booze to fill the time. I spotted two seats open at a bar that sold both things and had the Orioles game on as a bonus. As I approached the empty chairs, I heard two middle-aged white men singing Trump’s praises. One even referred to Hillary as a “naggy bitch” who steals, before birthing a huge chuckle.

“Can I help you, brotha?” the bartender said.

“Yeah, I’ll take a menu.”

They looked at me, saw I was black and muted their conversation as if I were Bill Clinton, wearing an “I’m with her” shirt. I thought nothing of it.

* * *

A week later I took a trip up to ESPN in Bristol, Connecticut, to discuss a show segment that will be created around an article I wrote. Some editors and I decided to skip the onsite food and head to a little Mexican joint not too far away from the network’s campus. The restaurant was on a block straight out of Mayberry: I kept waiting for that kid Opie to come through on a Huffy bike with a stack of newspapers in a wicker basket strapped to the front. We parked about three doors away from the restaurant and headed over.

There was an unoccupied storefront with a huge glass window next door to the restaurant. A few people were walking around, checking out the inside. I noticed a huge stack of Trump-Pence signs sitting in the window sill. I pointed at the signs and we joked about the irony of Trump supporters setting up shop next to a Mexican restaurant. Do Trump supporters eat Mexican food? Will they build an additional wall between the two spaces, and if so, who will pay for it?

* * *

The food was delicious; we inhaled it and made our way out of the restaurant. I glanced at the window and the signs had been flipped upside down.

“Yo! They saw us laughing and moved them!” I said.

We shared a laugh as a woman peeked out of the door. “This is America!” she said. “Right? Everyone is entitled to a choice!”

There was no time or energy to go back and forth with her. And to me, she’s not the problem. She was brave enough to declare her support. I don’t know who flipped those signs over, but they were flipped for a reason. The same reason those guys abandoned their conversation at the airport bar. It’s because people like that are the most dangerous adversaries in our battle to enhance social relations­­ — they are the closet Trump supporters, deniers of racism or, in the worst cases, the secret racists.

* * *

Why would a person hide their support for Trump? The only logical reason is that they know he’s a racist, running a racist campaign, who is 100 percent unqualified to be the president of anything except a second-rate local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.

If you haven’t been paying attention over the last year, Donald Trump publicly trashed a person with special needs, disrespected our military by making fun of the Purple Heart, offered no real economic or policy plans in general, lied about his relationship with ex-Klan leader David Duke (and with Vladimir Putin), lied by promising that Mexico will pay for a wall but was scared to ask the Mexican president when he had the chance, lied by saying he could deport 11 million immigrants, encouraged the Russians to hack and basically attack us, mismanaged and misused campaign funds, used charity money to pay his legal fees and lied about raising $6 million for veterans. To name a few. PolitiFact has reported that roughly 70 percent of Trump statements were false, collectively naming his utterances as their “2015 Lie of the Year.”

And he also has zero political experience coupled with a collection of bankrupt companies sitting on top of his I’m-a-successful-businessman platform. Donald Trump is so bad that George H.W. Bush, the next-to-last Republican president, isn’t even voting for him. So obviously the Trump woman from that Connecticut store was just clueless; I refuse to believe, however, that every Trump supporter is the same. Many Trump supporters are aware of the multiple shortcomings and all the things he’s done to disqualify his candidacy. They still support him because a vote for Trump maintains white supremacy.

Anybody could see that Trump’s visit to an African-American church in Detroit was a staged joke. All his black-church visits just look stupid, and any attempt at black outreach by Trump is 100 percent political symbolism. In case you think he was even a little bit sincere, he tapped Fox News’ Sean Hannity, the undisputed heavyweight champion of American racism, to host a town hall at a black church in Cleveland. It’s these Hannity-type decisions, treating racism as a joke or flat-out denying its existence, along with the faint David Duke affiliations, that excite the closet racists — the dangerous ones who want to make America hate again.

I’m talking about the kind of racist who doesn’t own white robes, won’t shout out the N-word in front of a group of black people and won’t burn a cross on your lawn; no, they’ll just deny you a well-deserved job opportunity, turn you down for a loan you’re qualified for, declare you guilty before your trial starts and justify police murder while saying things like, “Racism doesn’t exist anymore! I know because I have a black friend!”

I like my racism to be slam-dunked in my face, like Jordan from the foul line or Shaq in his 20s. I prefer Klan rallies, bright-blue Trump 2016 shirts, “soggy Make America Great Again” snapbacks, and dusty overalls held up by extra-large and extra-shiny Confederate flag belt buckles. Give me swastika face tattoos any day, as disgusting as they may be — at least that’s honest.  Knowing who is against me and who’s with me makes it easier to navigate American reality. These closeted Trump supporters who want to hide in the closet and conceal their racism pose a more difficult roadblock on our way to equality­­ — whatever that is.

Source: New feed