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Remembering Gary Webb, the fallen messenger resurrected on film

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I always enjoy seeing fellow journalists and their work celebrated in a Hollywood blockbuster such as Kill the Messenger, which opens tomorrow. It’s even more exciting when that journalist is someone that one knows and admires, as I did the film’s protagonist, the late Gary Webb, author of the explosive “Dark Alliance” series connecting the CIA to cocaine trafficking in the ‘80s and early ‘90s.

I was happy to run a story on Webb and the film in this week’s paper, a piece written by former Sacramento News & Review editor Melinda Welsh, who hired me back in 2000 to be the paper’s news editor. I had already moved on to the Bay Guardian, in 2003, before Webb came to work for SN&R, so never got the chance to work directly with him, as Welsh did before Webb took his own life (her story, including this longer version from SN&R, is well worth reading).

But I did introduce Webb to the SN&R editor that I worked under, Tom Walsh, who was the worst boss I’ve ever had, a petty tyrant who made most of his employees (at SN&R and later SF Weekly) miserable. I met Webb through some journalistic colleagues one night at a party thrown by Robert Salladay, then a reporter with San Francisco Chronicle and now with Center for Investigative Reporting.

I was star-struck upon meeting Webb, remembering what a big impact his 1996 “Dark Alliance” series in the San Jose Mercury News had on me and other young newspaper journalists at the time. It exposed how the CIA turned a blind eye to the cocaine trafficking into the US that was being done by the Contra rebels that the Reagan Administration was supporting in Nicaragua. Perhaps even more significantly, it was the first big newspaper investigation of the Internet age, showing how online journalism could go viral and reach millions of people.

It was inspiring, but it was followed by dispiriting attacks by fellow journalists who tried to debunk its findings and the conclusions made by many of its readers, who went further than Webb in accusing the CIA of intentionally fueling the crack epidemic as a way of undermining African American communites in big cities.  

Those attacks helped deny Webb the Pulitizer Prize that he probably deserved (the CIA’s inspector general later confirmed Webb’s main findings) and led his own newspaper editors to sell him out, fueling his battle with depression and leading him to the job he had when I met him. He worked as an investigator for the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, an investigatory arm of the California Legislature staffed almost entirely by former journalists (he later got laid off during the state’s lean budget years).

We didn’t know each other very well — we had lunch or drinks a few times and he was a helpful source of mine in the Capitol on a few occasions — but we did talk about how he felt betrayed by his profession and yet still longed to get back into the work that he loved doing.

Journalism plays a critically important yet undervalued role in the US, where the profession has been losing journalists in droves to the public relations industry and corporate communications jobs, positions often designed to fool the public instead of inform it.

Welsh calls Webb’s story “a cautionary tale,” and it was indeed, both for journalism and the broader public interest. I’m looking forward to seeing the film, and hoping that it helps humanize Webb and his fellow messengers before we’re forced even further into the margins of civil society.  

Return of the messenger

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By Melinda Welsh

news@sfbg.com

This one has all the ingredients of a dreamed-up Hollywood blockbuster: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist uncovers a big story involving drugs, the CIA, and a guerrilla army. Despite threats and intimidation, he writes an explosive exposé and catches national attention. But the fates shift. Our reporter’s story is torn apart by the country’s leading media; he is betrayed by his own newspaper. Though the big story turns out to be true, the writer commits suicide and becomes a cautionary tale.

Hold on, though. The above is not fiction.

Kill the Messenger, an actual film coming soon to a theater near you, is the true story of Sacramento-based investigative reporter Gary Webb, who earned both acclaim and notoriety for his 1996 San Jose Mercury News series that revealed the CIA had turned a blind eye to the U.S.-backed Nicaraguan Contras trafficking crack cocaine in South Central Los Angeles and elsewhere in urban America in the 1980s. One of the first-ever newspaper investigations to be published on the Internet, Webb’s story gained a massive readership and stirred up a firestorm of controversy and repudiation.

After being deemed a pariah by media giants like The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post, and being disowned by his own paper, Webb eventually came to work in August 2004 at Sacramento News & Review. Four months later, he committed suicide at age 49. He left behind a grieving family — and some trenchant questions:

Why did the media giants attack him so aggressively, thereby protecting the government secrets he revealed? Why did he decide to end his own life? What, ultimately, is the legacy of Gary Webb?

Like others working at our newsweekly in the brief time he was here, I knew Webb as a colleague and was terribly saddened by his death. Those of us who attended his unhappy memorial service at the Doubletree Hotel in Sacramento a week after he died thought that day surely marked a conclusion to the tragic tale of Gary Webb.

But no.

Because here comes Kill the Messenger, a Hollywood film starring Jeremy Renner as Webb; Rosemarie DeWitt as Webb’s then wife, Sue Bell (now Stokes); Oliver Platt as Webb’s top editor, Jerry Ceppos; and a litany of other distinguished actors, including Michael K. Williams, Ray Liotta, Andy Garcia, and Robert Patrick. Directed by Michael Cuesta (executive producer of the TV series Homeland), the film opens in a “soft launch” across the country and in Bay Area theaters on Oct. 10.

Members of Webb’s immediate family—including his son Eric, who lives near Sacramento State and plans a career in journalism—expect to feel a measure of solace upon the release of Kill the Messenger.

“The movie is going to vindicate my dad,” he said.

For Renner — who grew up in Modesto and is best known for his roles in The Bourne Legacy, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, The Avengers and The Hurt Locker — the film was a chance to explore a part unlike any he’d played before. During a break in filming Mission Impossible 5, he spoke to us about his choice to star in and co-produce Kill the Messenger.

“The story is important,” said Renner. “It resonated with me. It has a David and Goliath aspect.

“He was brave, he was flawed. … I fell in love with Gary Webb.”

 

EARLY VIRAL JOURNALISM

There’s a scene in Kill the Messenger that will make every investigative journalist in America break into an insider’s grin. It’s the one where — after a year of tough investigative slogging that had taken him from the halls of power in Washington, D.C., to a moldering jail in Central America to the mean streets of South Central Los Angeles — Renner as Webb begins to write the big story. In an absorbing film montage, Renner is at the keyboard as it all comes together — the facts, the settings, the sources. The truth. The Clash provides the soundtrack, with Joe Strummer howling: Know your rights / these are your rights … You have the right to free speech / as long as you’re not dumb enough to actually try it.

It took the real Gary Webb a long time to get to this point in his career.

His father, a U.S. Marine, moved Webb around a lot in his youth, from California to Indiana to Kentucky to Ohio. He wound up marrying his high school sweetheart, Sue Bell, with whom he had three children. Inspired by the reporting that uncovered Watergate and in need of income, he left college three units shy of a degree and went to work at The Kentucky Post, then The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, where he rose quickly through the ranks of grunt reporters. Dogged in his pursuit of stories, Webb landed a job at the Mercury News in 1988 and became part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for reporting on the Loma Prieta earthquake.

It was the summer of 1996 when the lone-wolf journalist handed his editors a draft of what would become the three-part, 20,000-word exposé “Dark Alliance.” The series was exhaustive and complex. But its nugget put human faces on how CIA operatives had been aware that the Contras (who had been recruited and trained by the CIA to topple the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua) had smuggled cocaine into the United States and, through drug dealers, fueled an inner-city crack-cocaine epidemic.

When “Dark Alliance” was published on Aug. 18 of that year, it was as if a bomb had exploded at the Mercury News. That’s because it was one of the first stories to go globally viral online on the paper’s then state-of-the-art website. It was 1996; the series attracted an unprecedented 1.3 million hits per day. Webb and his editors were flooded with letters and emails. Requests for appearances piled in from national TV news shows.

“Gary’s story was the first Internet-age big journalism exposé,” said Nick Schou, who wrote the book Kill the Messenger, on which the movie is partially based, along with Webb’s own book version of the series, Dark Alliance. “If the series had happened a year earlier it, ‘Dark Alliance’ just would have come and gone,” said Schou.

As word of the story spread, black communities across America — especially in South Central Los Angeles — grew outraged and demanded answers. At the time, crack cocaine was swallowing up neighborhoods whole, fueling an epidemic of addiction and crime. Rocked by the revelations, U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, congresswoman for Los Angeles’s urban core to this day, used her bully pulpit to call for official investigations.

But after a six-week honeymoon for Webb and his editors, the winds shifted. The attacks began.

On Oct. 4, The Washington Post stunned the Mercury News by publishing five articles assaulting the veracity of Webb’s story, leading the package from page one. A few weeks later, The New York Times joined with similar intent.

The ultimate injury came when the L.A. Times unleashed a veritable army of 17 journalists (known internally as the “Get Gary Webb Team”) on the case, writing a three-part series demolishing “Dark Alliance.” The L.A. paper — which appeared to onlookers to have missed a giant story in its own backyard — was exhaustive in its deconstruction, claiming the series “was vague” and overreached. “Oliver Stone, check your voice mail,” summed Post media columnist Howard Kurtz.

Now, even some of Webb’s supporters admitted that his series could have benefited from more judicious editing. But why were the “big three” so intent on tearing down Webb’s work rather than attempting to further the story, as competing papers had done back in the day when Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein broke the Watergate scandal?

Some say it was the long arm of former President Ronald Reagan and his team’s ability to manipulate the gatekeepers of old media to its purposes. (Reagan had, after all, publicly compared the Contras to “our Founding Fathers” and supported the CIA-led attempt to topple the Sandinista government.)

Others say that editors at the “big three” were simply affronted to have a midsize paper like the Mercury News beat them on such a big story. An article in the Columbia Journalism Review claimed some L.A. Times reporters bragged in the office about denying Webb a Pulitzer.

One of their big criticisms was that the story didn’t include a comment from the CIA. When reporters at the big three asked the agency if Webb’s story was true, they were told no. The denial was printed in the mainstream media as if it were golden truth.

Other issues fueled controversy around Webb’s story. For example: It was falsely reported in some media outlets — and proclaimed by many activists in the black community — that Webb had proven the CIA was directly involved in drug trafficking that targeted blacks. He simply did not make this claim.

In some ways, Webb became the first reporter ever to benefit from, and then become the victim of, a story that went viral online.

After triumphing in the early success of the series, Webb’s editors at the Mercury News became unnerved and eventually backed down under the pressure. Jerry Ceppos, the paper’s executive editor, published an unprecedented column on May 11, 1997, that was widely considered an apology for the series, saying it “fell short” in editing and execution.

When contacted by us, Ceppos, now dean of the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University, said he was only barely aware of the film coming out and wasn’t familiar with the acting career of Oliver Platt, who plays him in the movie. “I’m the wrong person to ask about popular culture,” he said.

Asked if he would do anything differently today regarding Gary Webb’s series, Ceppos, whose apologia did partially defend the series, responded with an unambiguous “no.”

“It seems to me, 18 years later, that everything still holds up. … Everything is not black and white. If you portrayed it that way, then you need to set the record straight. I’m very proud that we were willing to do that.”

Some find irony in the fact that Ceppos, in the wake of the controversy, was given the 1997 Ethics in Journalism Award by the Society of Professional Journalists.

Webb, once heralded as a groundbreaking investigative reporter, was soon banished to the paper’s Cupertino bureau, a spot he considered “the newspaper’s version of Siberia.” In 1997, after additional run-ins with his editors, including their refusal to run his follow-up reporting on the “Dark Alliance” series, he quit the paper altogether.

But a year later, he was redeemed when CIA’s inspector general, Frederick Hitz, released his 1998 report admitting that the CIA had known all along that the Contras had been trafficking cocaine. Reporter Robert Parry, who covered the Iran-Contra scandal for The Associated Press, called the report “an extraordinary admission of institutional guilt by the CIA.” But the revelation fell on deaf ears. It went basically unnoticed by the newspapers that had attacked Webb’s series. A later internal investigation by the Justice Department echoed the CIA report.

But no apology was forthcoming to Webb, despite the fact that the central finding of his series had been proven correct after all.

 

‘STAND UP AND RISK IT ALL’

It was eight days after Webb’s death when a few hundred of us gathered in Sacramento Doubletree Hotel’s downstairs conference room for an afternoon memorial service. Photo collages of Webb were posted on tables as mourners filed into the room. There he was featured in an Esquire magazine article recounting his saga. Family members and friends, longtime colleagues, and SN&R staffers packed into the room.

My own distress at Webb’s passing wasn’t fully realized until my eyes lit on his Pulitzer Prize propped on a table just inside the entryway. It was the first one I’d ever seen. I wondered how many more exceptional stories he could have produced if things had gone differently.

“He wanted to write for one of the big three,” said Webb’s brother Kurt. “Unfortunately, the big three turned [on him].”

Praise for the absent journalist — his smarts, guts, and tenacity — flowed from friends, colleagues and VIPs at the event. A statement from now U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, then a senator, had been emailed to SN&R: “Because of [Webb]’s work, the CIA launched an Inspector General’s investigation that found dozens of troubling connections to drug-runners. That wouldn’t have happened if Gary Webb hadn’t been willing to stand up and risk it all.”

Renner was hesitant to say if those who watch Kill the Messenger will leave with any particular take-home lesson. “I want the audience to walk away and debate and argue about it all,” he said of his David and Goliath tale. And then, “I do believe [the film] might help create some awareness and accountability in government and newspapers.” And what would the real live protagonist of Kill the Messenger have thought of it all? It’s at least certain he’d have been unrepentant. In the goodbye letter his ex-wife received on the day of his suicide, Gary Webb told her: “Tell them I never regretted anything I wrote.”

The Doctorow is in

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arts@sfbg.com

LIT Like the Internet itself, Cory Doctorow seems to be everywhere all at once.

Novelist, essayist, activist, and co-founder of the influential website Boing Boing, the Canadian-born, London-based writer is having a particularly peripatetic autumn, traveling from the UK to various locations throughout Europe and North America.

October finds Doctorow — author of the science fiction novels Makers, Little Brother, and Homeland — making two stops in the Bay Area. First, he’ll be in Berkeley to sign In Real Life (First Second, 192 pp., $17.99), a graphic novel produced in collaboration with El Cerrito-raised, Los Angeles-based illustrator Jen Wang, then to San Francisco to discuss (with his Boing Boing business partner, David Pescovitz) his forthcoming nonfiction title, Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age (McSweeney’s, 192 pp., $22).

In Real Life is based on “Anda’s Game,” a 2002 Doctorow short story. While living in the Bay Area in the mid-1990s, Doctorow heard programmers and other techies expressing their anxieties about the trend toward outsourcing jobs to India. Having grown up in Toronto, not far from where the North American auto industry was headquartered, Doctorow was reminded how, in the years after NAFTA, car workers who were losing their jobs felt great animosity toward Mexican workers.

“Which I always thought was tremendously misplaced,” he says. “I mean, it wasn’t Mexican workers who moved the jobs to Mexico; it was the bosses living right around the corner.”

Some of those memories informed “Anda’s Game.” Its comics adaptation, In Real Life, follows a high school student as she learns to navigate Coarsegold Online, a massively multiplayer role-playing game. Anda loves being a hero and a role model in the digital word, but when she befriends a poor Chinese kid who works incredibly long hours on behalf of wealthier players from developed countries, she begins to understand the inequities of the system. When she pushes her new friend to stand up for his rights, Anda can’t foresee the consequences of her actions.

Wang, the author-illustrator of the graphic novel Koko Be Good, says she was introduced to Doctorow by First Second. Her adaptation of his original work required some back-and-forth by e-mail, and she ended up scrapping approximately half the book at one point and starting over.

“We did this all online,” she says. “So this will be the first time I’m meeting him, when he comes to do this book tour.”

Of collaborating with Doctorow, Wang says, “The biggest challenge for me was working with someone so [well-known]. I wanted to capture Cory’s vision, even though I was doing all of the drawing and writing, to produce something he could be proud of.”

In Real Life works well for both teen and adult readers, making its political points amid exciting depictions of digital battles. Wang’s manga-influenced style complements Doctorow’s subject and theme while finding a colorful vitality all its own.

“Jen did all the hard work and such a great job,” Doctorow says. “All the stuff that is less than salutatory in there I’m sure is my fault. Everything that is brilliant is hers.”

A former European director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Doctorow plays an entirely different game with his latest book-length nonfiction project, Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free. The volume explores the uses and abuses of copyright and presents a manifesto for creators of all stripes who want to succeed in the 21st century.

“It’s the latest incarnation of things I’ve taken a lot of runs at over the years,” he says. “I’ve been involved in information policy for a long time. I’ve written lots of articles and have a couple of collections of essays on the subject, but I really wanted to do something book-like and substantial.”

The inspiration for the book came in the wake of a 2009 O’Reilly Tools of Change Conference. Doctorow spoke at the event about how video game companies, the music industry, and film studios were all trying, through digital rights management and other strategies, to limit the public’s ability to share the information and entertainment they enjoyed. He proposed the following law: Any Time Someone Puts a Lock on Something That Belongs To You and Won’t Give You the Key, That Lock Isn’t There For Your Benefit.

After the speech, Doctorow chatted with his agent, Russell Galen, who also represented Arthur C. Clarke, famous not only for 2001: A Space Odyssey but for his Three Laws of science fiction. Galen told Doctorow, “If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that you can’t just have one law. You have to have three.”

Doctorow was able to complete the triad, and the new rules are part of his new book. They deal with the methods of capturing and holding attention on the Internet and what copyright means (Information Age: Fame Won’t Make You Rich, But You Can’t Get Paid Without It; and Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free, People Do).

During his appearance with Pescovitz at the JCCSF, Doctorow is likely to address questions from the book, such as whether lesser-known artists can flourish on the Internet and how giant entertainment companies can avoid alienating their customers. In both In Real Life and Information, Doctorow pays much attention to how the present-day Internet, with its ability to connect people while also spying on them, can be used for both liberation and suppression.

“Regardless of our own individual fortunes or needs, our primary allegiance needs to be to a free and fair society,” Doctorow insists. “The arts should always be on the side of freedom and fairness and free speech.” 2

IN REAL LIFE

Oct. 16, 7:30pm, free

Mrs. Dalloway’s

2904 College, Berk

www.mrsdalloways.com

INFORMATION DOESN’T WANT TO BE FREE

Oct. 29, 7pm, $25-35

Jewish Community Center of San Francisco

3200 California, SF

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Drag queens win, Facebook says “real name” changes coming

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Put on your six-inch pumps and throw some glitter, the drag queens have won. After the newest round of negotiations with Facebook today, the social-media giant bowed to pressure and told Sup. David Campos, drag queens, and other activists it would change its controversial “real name” policy

“Drag queens spoke, and Facebook listened,” Campos told us in a phone interview just after the announcement was made. 

As we’ve previously reported, the whole ball started rolling after prominent drag queen Sister Roma, of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, was notified her Facebook profile would be deleted if she did not begin using her “real” name (actually, her birth name). Sister Roma then led the charge to change Facebook’s policy of using birth names versus chosen names (and Facebook’s tendency to shut down profiles of those who don’t comply). Facebook maintained it was alerted by the community about use of pseudonyms, which is a policy the company said was to report users who are stalkers, or frauds, using fake accounts.

But then it was used to out drag queens and other people who use pseudonyms for safety, or privacy in dividing their personal and professional lives. Now that will change.

“They began the meeting by saying the policy has flaws, and they will work with us to take all necessary steps to right this wrong, and take technical steps to rectify the situation,” he said.

Whereas in the last meeting Campos, Sister Roma, and others met with low-level Facebook officials unable to make decisions on behalf of the company, this time they met Chris Cox, Facebook’s chief product officer. Cox is part of the “M-Team” that meets with founder Mark Zuckerberg regularly on the new direction of Facebook, according to TechCrunch. He’s said to be affable, and perhaps that’s why Campos left the talks with a rosy outlook on future negotiations.

“We had an incredible meeting with Facebook, which began with them apologizing to the group and the community with how they handled the situation,” Campos said. “For a big company like Facebook to take that step, we were grateful.”

activists

 

A photo from today’s negotiations, courtesy of Tom Temprano.

But perhaps also the pressure was wraught by a combination of factors: heightened national news coverage over the names issue, and a mass migration of Facebook users to niche social-media site Ello.

Either way, the changes are coming.

Campos told us Facebook said it would restore some deleted Facebook profiles, and work in concert with drag queens, activists and Campos to make significant changes to its real name policy, although exactly those changes weren’t identified. Still, the direction discussed at the meeting made clear that the “real name” policy would end.

Facebook did indicate it would seek another solution to verify real profiles from fake ones, as spam accounts are a problem it has highlighted in the past.

Sister Roma, a member of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and lead organizer of the meeting said, in a statement, “I always knew that Facebook would do the right thing. The people who work at Facebook live in San Francisco and are part of our community. You can’t be a San Franciscan and not love drag queens. I’m just happy I’ll have my name back.”

San Francisco drag queens Sister Roma, Heklina, BeBe Sweetbriar, and Lil Miss Hot Mess launched the hashtag #MyNameis to garner attention to the issue. Those performers still plan to hold a rally  Thursday afternoon at San Francisco Civic Center to attend to expand awareness and give more details about the recent meeting.

As Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club co-President Tom Temprano told us when this issue started, “The 11th commandment is: Don’t fuck with drag queens.”

UPDATE 2:20: Facebook Chief Product Officer Chris Cox issued an apology, via (of course) Facebook:

I want to apologize to the affected community of drag queens, drag kings, transgender, and extensive community of our friends, neighbors, and members of the LGBT community for the hardship that we’ve put you through in dealing with your Facebook accounts over the past few weeks.

In the two weeks since the real-name policy issues surfaced, we’ve had the chance to hear from many of you in these communities and understand the policy more clearly as you experience it. We’ve also come to understand how painful this has been. We owe you a better service and a better experience using Facebook, and we’re going to fix the way this policy gets handled so everyone affected here can go back to using Facebook as you were.

The way this happened took us off guard. An individual on Facebook decided to report several hundred of these accounts as fake. These reports were among the several hundred thousand fake name reports we process every single week, 99 percent of which are bad actors doing bad things: impersonation, bullying, trolling, domestic violence, scams, hate speech, and more — so we didn’t notice the pattern. The process we follow has been to ask the flagged accounts to verify they are using real names by submitting some form of ID — gym membership, library card, or piece of mail. We’ve had this policy for over 10 years, and until recently it’s done a good job of creating a safe community without inadvertently harming groups like what happened here.

Our policy has never been to require everyone on Facebook to use their legal name. The spirit of our policy is that everyone on Facebook uses the authentic name they use in real life. For Sister Roma, that’s Sister Roma. For Lil Miss Hot Mess, that’s Lil Miss Hot Mess. Part of what’s been so difficult about this conversation is that we support both of these individuals, and so many others affected by this, completely and utterly in how they use Facebook.

We believe this is the right policy for Facebook for two reasons. First, it’s part of what made Facebook special in the first place, by differentiating the service from the rest of the internet where pseudonymity, anonymity, or often random names were the social norm. Second, it’s the primary mechanism we have to protect millions of people every day, all around the world, from real harm. The stories of mass impersonation, trolling, domestic abuse, and higher rates of bullying and intolerance are oftentimes the result of people hiding behind fake names, and it’s both terrifying and sad. Our ability to successfully protect against them with this policy has borne out the reality that this policy, on balance, and when applied carefully, is a very powerful force for good. 

All that said, we see through this event that there’s lots of room for improvement in the reporting and enforcement mechanisms, tools for understanding who’s real and who’s not, and the customer service for anyone who’s affected. These have not worked flawlessly and we need to fix that. With this input, we’re already underway building better tools for authenticating the Sister Romas of the world while not opening up Facebook to bad actors. And we’re taking measures to provide much more deliberate customer service to those accounts that get flagged so that we can manage these in a less abrupt and more thoughtful way. To everyone affected by this, thank you for working through this with us and helping us to improve the safety and authenticity of the Facebook experience for everyone.

Project Censored 2014

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joe@sfbg.com

Our oceans are acidifying — even if the nightly news hasn’t told you yet.

As humanity continues to fill the atmosphere with harmful gases, the planet is becoming less hospitable to life as we know it. The vast oceans absorb much of the carbon dioxide we have produced, from the industrial revolution through the rise of global capitalism. Earth’s self-sacrifice spared the atmosphere nearly 25 percent of humanity’s CO2 emissions, slowing the onslaught of many severe weather consequences.

Although the news media have increasingly covered the climate weirding of global warming — hurricane superstorms, fierce tornado clusters, overwhelming snowstorms, and record-setting global high temperatures — our ocean’s peril has largely stayed submerged below the biggest news stories.

The rising carbon dioxide in our oceans burns up and deforms the smallest, most abundant food at the bottom of the deep blue food chain. One vulnerable population is the tiny shelled swimmers known as the sea butterfly. In only a few short decades, the death and deformation of this fragile and translucent species could endanger predators all along the oceanic food web, scientists warn.

This “butterfly effect,” once unleashed, potentially threatens fisheries that feed over 1 billion people worldwide.

Since ancient times, humans fished the oceans for food. Now, we’re frying ocean life before we even catch it, starving future generations in the process. Largely left out of national news coverage, this dire report was brought to light by a handful of independent-minded journalists: Craig Welch from the Seattle Times, Julia Whitty of Mother Jones, and Eli Kintisch of ScienceNOW.

It is also the top story of Project Censored, an annual book and reporting project that features the year’s most underreported news stories, striving to unmask censorship, self-censorship, and propaganda in corporate-controlled media outlets. The book is set for release in late October.

“Information is the currency of democracy,” Ralph Nader, the prominent consumer advocate and many-time presidential candidate, wrote in his foreword to this year’s Project Censored 2015. But with most mass media owned by narrow corporate interests, “the general public remains uninformed.”

Whereas the mainstream media poke and peck at noteworthy events at single points in time, often devoid of historical context or analysis, Project Censored seeks to clarify understanding of real world issues and focus on what’s important. Context is key, and many of its “top censored” stories highlight deeply entrenched policy issues that require more explanation than a simple sound bite can provide.

Campus and faculty from over two dozen colleges and universities join in this ongoing effort, headquartered at Sonoma State University. Some 260 students and 49 faculty vet thousands of news stories on select criteria: importance, timeliness, quality of sources, and the level of corporate news coverage.

The top 25 finalists are sent to Project Censored’s panel of judges, who then rank the entries, with ocean acidification topping this year’s list.

“There are outlets, regular daily papers, who are independent and they’re out there,” Andy Lee Roth, associate director of Project Censored, told us. Too many news outlets are beholden to corporate interests, but Welch of the Seattle Times bucked the trend, Roth said, by writing some of the deepest coverage yet on ocean acidification.

“There are reporters doing the highest quality of work, as evidenced by being included in our list,” Roth said. “But the challenge is reaching as big an audience as [the story] should.”

Indeed, though Welch’s story was reported in the Seattle Times, a mid-sized daily newspaper, this warning is relevant to the entire world. To understand the impact of ocean acidification, Welch asks readers to “imagine every person on earth tossing a hunk of CO2 as heavy as a bowling ball into the sea. That’s what we do to the oceans every day.”

Computer modeler Isaac Kaplan, at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration office in Seattle, told Welch that his early work predicts significant declines in sharks, skates and rays, some types of flounder and sole, and Pacific whiting, the most frequently caught commercial fish off the coast of Washington, Oregon, and California.

Acidification may also harm fisheries in the farthest corners of the earth: A study by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme outlines acidification’s threat to the arctic food chain.

“Decreases in seawater pH of about 0.02 per decade have been observed since the late 1960s in the Iceland and Barents Seas,” the study’s authors wrote in the executive summary. And destroying fisheries means wiping out the livelihoods of the native peoples of the Antarctic.

Acidification can even rewire the brains of fish, Welch’s story demonstrated. Studies found rising CO2 levels cause clown fish to gain athleticism, but have their sense of smell redirected. This transforms them into “dumb jocks,” scientists said, swimming faster and more vigorously straight into the mouths of their predators.

These Frankenstein fish were found to be five times more likely to die in the natural world. What a fitting metaphor for humanity, as our outsized consumption propels us towards an equally dangerous fate.

“It’s not as dramatic as say, an asteroid is hitting us from outer space,” Roth said of this slowly unfolding disaster, which is likely why such a looming threat to our food chain escapes much mainstream news coverage.

Journalism tends to be more “action focused,” Roth said, looking to define conflict in everything it sees. A recently top-featured story on CNN focused on President Barack Obama’s “awkward coffee cup salute” to a Marine, which ranks only slightly below around-the-clock coverage of the president’s ugly tan suit as a low point in mainstream media’s focus on the trivial.

As Nader noted, “‘important stories’ are often viewed as dull by reporters and therefore unworthy of coverage.” But mainstream media do cover some serious topics with weight, as it did in the wake of the police officer shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. So what’s the deciding factor?

As Roth tells it, corporate news focuses on “drama, and the most dramatic action is of course violence.”

But the changes caused by ocean acidification are gradual. Sea butterflies are among the most abundant creatures in our oceans, and are increasingly born with shells that look like cauliflower or sandpaper, making this and similar species more susceptible to infection and predators.

“Ocean acidification is changing the chemistry of the world’s water faster than ever before, and faster than the world’s leading scientists predicted,” Welch said, but it’s not getting the attention is deserves. “Combined nationwide spending on acidification research for eight federal agencies, including grants to university scientists by the National Science Foundation, totals about $30 million a year — less than the annual budget for the coastal Washington city of Hoquiam, population 10,000.”

Our oceans may slowly cook our food chain into new forms with potentially catastrophic consequences. Certainly 20 years from now, when communities around the world lose their main source of sustenance, the news will catch on. But will the problem make the front page tomorrow, while there’s still time to act?

Probably not, and that’s why we have Project Censored and its annual list:

 

2. TOP 10 US AID RECIPIENTS PRACTICE TORTURE

Sexual abuse, children kept in cages, extra-judicial murder. While these sound like horrors the United States would stand against, the reverse is true: This country is funding these practices.

The US is a signatory of the United Nations’ Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, but the top 10 international recipients of US foreign assistance in 2014 all practice torture, according to human rights groups, as reported by Daniel Wickham of online outlet Left Foot Forward.

Israel received over $3 billion in US aid for fiscal year 2013-14, according to a Congressional Research Service report. Israel was criticized by the country’s own Public Defender’s Office for torturing children suspected of minor crimes.

“During our visit, held during a fierce storm that hit the state, attorneys met detainees who described to them a shocking picture: in the middle of the night dozens of detainees were transferred to the external iron cages built outside the IPS transition facility in Ramla,” the PDO wrote, according to The Independent.

The next top recipients of US foreign aid were Afghanistan, Egypt, Pakistan, Nigeria, Jordan, Iraq, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. All countries were accused of torture by human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Kenyan police in Nairobi tortured, raped, or otherwise abused more than 1,000 refugees from 2012 to 2013, Human Rights Watch found. The Kenyan government received $564 million from the United States in 2013-14.

When the US funds a highway or other project that it’s proud of, it plants a huge sign proclaiming “your tax dollars at work.” When the US funds torturers, the corporate media bury the story, or worse, don’t report it at all.

 

3. TRANS-PACIFIC PARTNERSHIP, A SECRET DEAL TO HELP CORPORATIONS

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is like the Stop Online Piracy Act on steroids, yet few have heard of it, let alone enough people to start an Internet campaign to topple it. Despite details revealed by Wikileaks, the nascent agreement has been largely ignored by the corporate media.

Even the world’s elite are out of the loop: Only three officials in each of the 12 signatory countries have access to this developing trade agreement that potentially impacts over 800 million people.

The agreement touches on intellectual property rights and the regulation of private enterprise between nations, and is open to negotiation and viewing by 600 “corporate advisors” from big oil, pharmaceutical, to entertainment companies.

Meanwhile, more than 150 House Democrats signed a letter urging President Obama to halt his efforts to fast-track negotiations, and to allow Congress the ability to weigh in now on an agreement only the White House has seen.

Many criticized the secrecy surrounding the TPP, arguing the real world consequences may be grave. Doctors Without Borders wrote, “If harmful provisions in the US proposals for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement are not removed before it is finalized, this trade deal will have a real cost in human lives.”

 

4. CORPORATE INTERNET PROVIDERS THREATEN NET NEUTRALITY

This entry demonstrates the nuance in Project Censored’s media critique. Verizon v. FCC may weaken Internet regulation, which Electronic Frontier Foundation and other digital freedom advocates allege would create a two-tiered Internet system. Under the FCC’s proposed new rules, corporate behemoths such as Comcast or Verizon could charge entities to use faster bandwidth, which advocates say would create financial barriers to free speech and encourage censorship.

Project Censored alleges corporate outlets such as The New York Times and Forbes “tend to highlight the business aspects of the case, skimming over vital particulars affecting the public and the Internet’s future.”

Yet this is a case where corporate media were circumvented by power of the viral web. John Oliver, comedian and host of Last Week Tonight on HBO, recently gave a stirring 13-minute treatise on the importance of stopping the FCC’s new rules, resulting in a flood of comments to the FCC defending a more open Internet. The particulars of net neutrality have since been thoroughly reported in the corporate media.

But, as Project Censored notes, mass media coverage only came after the FCC’s rule change was proposed, giving activists little time to right any wrongs. It’s a subtle but important distinction.

 

5. BANKERS REMAIN ON WALL STREET DESPITE MAJOR CRIMES

Bankers responsible for rigging municipal bonds and bilking billions of dollars from American cities have largely escaped criminal charges. Every day in the US, low-level drug dealers get more prison time than these scheming bankers who, while working for GE Capital, allegedly skimmed money from public schools, hospitals, libraries, and nursing homes, according to Rolling Stone.

Dominick Carollo, Steven Goldberg, and Peter Grimm were dubbed a part of the “modern American mafia,” by the magazine’s Matt Taibbi, one of the few journalists to consistently cover their trial. Meanwhile, disturbingly uninformed cable media “journalists” defended the bankers, saying they shouldn’t be prosecuted for “failure,” as if cheating vulnerable Americans were a bad business deal.

“Had the US authorities decided to press criminal charges,” Assistant US Attorney General Lanny Breuer told Taibbi. “HSBC (a British bank) would almost certainly have lost its banking license in the US, the future of the institution would have been under threat, and the entire banking system would have been destabilized.”

Over the course of decades, the nation’s bankers transformed into the modern mafioso. Unfortunately, our modern media changed as well, and are no longer equipped to tackle systemic, complex stories.

 

6. THE “DEEP STATE” OF PLUTOCRATIC CONTROL

What’s frightening about the puppeteers who pull the strings of our national government is not how hidden they are, but how hidden they are not.

From defense contractors to multinational corporations, a wealthy elite using an estimated $32 trillion in tax-exempt offshore havens are the masters of our publicly elected officials. In an essay written for Moyer and Company by Mike Lofgren, a congressional staffer of 28 years focused on national security, this cabal of wealthy interests comprise our nation’s “Deep State.”

As Lofgren writes for Moyers, “The Deep State is the big story of our time. It is the red thread that runs through the war on terrorism, the financialization and deindustrialization of the American economy, the rise of a plutocratic social structure and political dysfunction.”

This is a story that truly challenges the mass media, which do report on the power of wealth, in bits and pieces. But although the cabal’s disparate threads are occasionally pulled, the spider’s web of corruption largely escapes corporate media’s larger narrative.

The myopic view censors the full story as surely as outright silence would. The problem deepens every year.

“There are now 854,000 contract personnel with top-secret clearances — a number greater than that of top-secret-cleared civilian employees of the government,” Lofgren wrote, of a group that together would “occupy the floor space of almost three Pentagons — about 17 million square feet.”

 

7. FBI DISMISSES PLOT AGAINST OCCUPY AS NSA CRACKS DOWN ON DISSENT

Nationally, law enforcement worked in the background to monitor and suppress the Occupy Wall Street movement, a story the mainstream press has shown little interest in covering.

A document obtained in FOIA request by David Lindorff of Who, What WHY from the FBI office in Houston,, Texas revealed an alleged assassination plot targeting a Occupy group, which the FBI allegedly did not warn the movement about.

From the redacted document: “An identified [DELETED] as of October planned to engage in sniper attacks against protestors (sic) in Houston, Texas if deemed necessary. An identified [DELETED] had received intelligence that indicated the protesters in New York and Seattle planned similar protests in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin, Texas. [DELETED] planned to gather intelligence against the leaders of the protest groups and obtain photographs, then formulate a plan to kill the leadership via suppressed sniper rifles.”

Lindorff confirmed the document’s veracity with the FBI. When contacted by Lindorff, Houston Police were uninterested, and seemingly (according to Lindorff), uninformed.

In Arizona, law enforcement exchanged information of possible Occupy efforts with JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, according to a report by the Center for Media and Democracy titled Dissent on Terror. The CEO meant to evade possible protests, and local law enforcement was happy to help.

Law enforcement’s all-seeing eyes broadened through the national rise of “fusion centers” over the past decade, hubs through which state agencies exchange tracking data on groups exercising free speech. And as we share, “like,” and “check-in” online with ever-more frequency, that data becomes more robust by the day.

 

8. IGNORING EXTREME WEATHER CONNECTION TO GLOBAL WARMING

In what can only be responded to with a resounding “duh,” news analyses have found mainstream media frequently report on severe weather changes without referring to global warming as the context or cause, even as a question.

As Project Censored notes, a study by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting found extreme weather events in 2013 spurred 450 broadcast news segments, only 16 of which even mentioned climate change. National news outlets have fallen on the job as well, as The New York Times recently shuttered its environmental desk and its Green blog, reducing the number of reporters exclusively chasing down climate change stories.

Unlike many journalists, ordinary people often recognize the threat of our warming planet. Just as this story on Project Censored went to press, over 400,000 protested in the People’s Climate March in New York City alone, while simultaneous protests erupted across the globe, calling for government, corporate, and media leaders to address the problem.

“There is a huge mismatch between the magnitude of the challenge and the response we heard here today,” Graca Machel, the widow of former South African President Nelson Mandela, told the United Nations conference on climate change. “The scale is much more than we have achieved.”

 

9. US MEDIA HYPOCRISY IN COVERING UKRAINE CRISIS

The US battle with Russia over Ukraine’s independence is actually an energy pipeline squabble, a narrative lost by mainstream media coverage, Project Censored alleges.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has drawn fire from the media as a tyrant, without complex analyses of his country’s socio-economic interests, according to Project Censored. As the media often do, they have turned the conflict into a cult of personality, talking up Putin’s shirtless horseback riding and his hard-line style with deftness missing from their political analysis.

As The Guardian UK’s Nafeez Ahmed reported, a recent US State Department-sponsored report noted “Ukraine’s strategic location between the main energy producers (Russia and the Caspian Sea area) and consumers in the Eurasian region, its large transit network, and its available underground gas storage capacities,” highlighting its economic importance to the US and its allies.

 

10. WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION SUPPRESSES REPORT ON IRAQ IMPACTS

The United States’ legacy in Iraq possibly goes beyond death to a living nightmare of cancer and birth defects, due to the military’s use of depleted uranium weapons, a World Health Organization study found. Iraq is poisoned. Much of the report’s contents were leaked to the BBC during its creation. But the release of the report, completed in 2012 by WHO, has stalled. Critics allege the US is deliberately blocking its release, masking a damning Middle East legacy rivaling the horrors of Agent Orange in Vietnam. But Iraq will never forget the US intervention, as mothers cradle babies bearing scars obtained in the womb, the continuing gifts of our invasion.

Good things, small packages

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arts@sfbg.com

MUSIC In 2004, shortly following the Napster-fueled revolution of file-sharing, the preeminence of the album as popular music’s default narrative device was endangered. And forget vinyl; the medium had been left for dead a generation earlier. That year, though, David Barker had an idea.

In his capacity as an editor at Continuum, a modestly sized academic publisher in London, Barker launched 33 1/3: a proposed series of portable, novella-sized volumes, named for the speed of a record album, with the purpose of giving writers of all stripes an outlet with which to ruminate on an LP of personal significance, allowing plenty of room for experimentation and creative freedom.

Fast-forward to 2014, and Bloomsbury — the imprint that bought Continuum in 2011 — is celebrating 33 1/3’s 10th anniversary. Coinciding with the publication of its 100th volume, Susan Fast’s take on Dangerous by Michael Jackson, a big party at Brooklyn’s Powerhouse Arena on Oct. 2 will feature discussions with past writers, all to commemorate the series’ now-sweeping archive of critical analyses, making-of’s, memoirs, and even fiction.

In a musical landscape that has learned to embrace vinyl all over again (sales have more than quadrupled in the last decade), the series has single-handedly built a market for long-form music journalism that hadn’t existed before its arrival.

The impetus for 33 1/3’s creation came shortly after Barker, who “grew up in the 1980s on a hardcore diet of the NME and Melody Maker,” moved to NYC from London, and found himself deeply underwhelmed by the music sections at even the most world-class independent bookstores.

“There seemed to be such a lack of anything approaching interesting analysis,” Barker told the Bay Guardian. “Lots of decent biographies, lots of mediocre ones, and not much else. So the series was really an attempt to create a space where writers and readers who love music could meet to express and share opinions and try out different ways of writing about music.”

Reaching far beyond the dry, biographical style of most music-oriented bookstore fare, and mass-market publishers’ tendencies towards major artists like U2 and Jimi Hendrix, Barker set out to address canonized albums (The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds; James Brown’s Live at the Apollo) and niche classics (Van Dyke Parks’ Song Cycle, Throbbing Gristle’s 20 Jazz Funk Greats) alike, written with a rabid fervor that the record-collector contingency could get behind.

It’s worth noting that although Continuum and now Bloomsbury have thrived on a scholarly reputation, the selection process for new volumes in the 33 1/3 series — an annual, monthlong open call for proposals — is quite egalitarian in its approach.

“It’s just amazing to read proposals from such a massive range of people,” Barker said. “High school students in the US, scholars in Australia, musicians in Scotland, journalists in Canada, and so on.”

Encompassing critics, superfans, and musicians such as The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy (who dissected the Replacements’ Let It Be) and John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats (who took on Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality), 33 1/3’s base of writers has come to resemble a group of music-lovers more than a pack of scholars. In addition to producing some first-rate accounts of crucial albums and their respective recording processes, this approach has resulted in some volumes that’ve ventured off the deep-end of “criticism” into something else entirely.

Kevin Dettmar used Gang of Four’s Entertainment! as a springboard from which to explore Marxist theory, while Darnielle took his favorite Black Sabbath album into fictional territory, with the account of a 15-year-old boy trapped in a mental institution. LD Beghtol responded to the Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs with an encyclopedic, alphabetical rundown of paragraph-long snippets, while Douglas Wolk framed James Brown’s Live at the Apollo with Cold War politics, flipping between that legendary night in Harlem, and the peak of the Cuban Missle Crisis.

“It was always intended to be experimental,” Barker said, “and for the pool of writers to include journalists, novelists, musicians, broadcasters, and anyone else who had a story to tell about a record they loved.”

However, according to Ally Jane Grossan, who assumed the duty of series editor after Barker moved back across the pond, the 33 1/3 series is set to take on its first non-album entry, opening the door for a whole new set of possibilities.

“Andrew Schartmann proposed a volume on the ‘Super Mario Bros.’ soundtrack (yes, the video game) during the last open call,” Grossan said, “and my first thought was ‘That’s not exactly an album.’ I quickly banished that thought and replaced it with, ‘Actually, this book is going to be amazing. Here’s a musicologist and passionate composer writing about one of the most important and revolutionary pieces of music in the 20th century.’ If that’s not a ’33 1/3,’ I don’t know what is!”

Thanks to the relative success of independent booksellers (with large chains disappearing), and the new resurgence of vinyl heightening the cult appeal of small record stores, the 33 1/3 series has found a proprietary niche in between the musical and literary worlds over the past 10 years, delivering a level of in-depth analysis and reflection that Internet-based writing has mostly failed to reach.

Just as Barker and now Grossan have approached the series as a love letter to the ritual of record collecting, and to the narrative cohesion of the album format, a certain breed of music-lover has come to fetishize the 33 1/3 brand in a similar way — stacking the sleekly packaged volumes on his or her bookshelf with the same care and sentimentality that defines a lovingly curated record collection. In a culture of music driven by the immediate, if ultimately insubstantial, delivery system of the Internet, 33 1/3’s arrival at the 10-year mark is a testament to the collector in us all.

The intern behind an epic blunder: Docs illuminate Asiana fake pilots’ names debacle

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Remember when a July 2013 KTVU-TV news broadcast went viral and caused jaws to drop because the anchorwoman read out fake, offensive pilots’ names in the wake of the Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crash?

KTVU producers were fired in the wake of the blunder. The National Transportation Safety Board – the federal agency KTVU said it had checked the names with – issued a public apology, saying a summer intern had “acted out of scope” in confirming the names, which sounded like the punch line of a racist joke.

Someone submitted a public records request to the NTSB, shaking loose nearly 900 pages of documents, and we at the Bay Guardian received a copy. Names were redacted, but an internal statement written by a NTSB staff member provides the detailed backstory behind this extraordinary snafu.

According to that account, a KTVU producer first called the NTSB and read out the list of (fake) crewmembers’ names, asking if NTSB could confirm them. According to various news reports, KTVU had received the names in an email from a source it considered reputable.

The public affairs intern who answered KTVU’s call later told his supervisor that he “wanted to be helpful so he went online to search for the crew names but said that he made it clear to the KTVU producer that he was getting the information from an Internet search. … He said that the names he’d been given sounded like the ones that he had seen referenced on the Internet so he told me that he told the producer that he ‘believed’ that those were the names.” 

When the KTVU producer called back half an hour later, to double-check that the names were accurate, the intern put the producer on hold and then asked his supervisor if NTSB confirms crewmembers’ names. The supervisor, who apparently had no idea who had called, responded that it’s not the NTSB’s policy to confirm names, but that the caller could easily find the crewmembers’ names online from reputable news sources, since Asiana had in fact already released them.

Evidently, the intern ignored his supervisor’s instructions. As the supervisor later recounted, after hearing about the call from KTVU: “[The station manager] said that his producer told him that [the intern] said that he could confirm the names through the NTSB, but not to use [unknown] name in the report.”

Was that last redaction the intern’s own name? Did the intern realize that he was in a position to allow a callous prank to go forward, and try to take steps to avoid being publically associated with it?

“I asked [the intern] if he had used the word ‘confirm’ with the producer,” the supervisor’s account explains. “He said that he may have used that word. I asked him if he disagreed with the producer’s recounting of their interaction with [the intern] saying that KTVU could confirm the names through the NTSB but not to use [unknown] name in the report. [The intern] said he did not disagree with that account.”

In the end, the intern got fired, the KTVU producers got fired, and the NTSB weathered an onslaught of bad press. The federal agency went into damage control mode and tried to smooth things over with KTVU, Asiana, and outraged members of the Korean community, the documents show.

Here’s another tidbit from the trove of internal NTSB documents that shed light on the internal climate. (Click here to download the full PDF.)

“I am, unfortunately, not surprised this happened,” a different NTSB staff member wrote in an email. “Last week, I repeatedly told one of the interns that he needed to get the caller’s contact information and refer the questions to the appropriate Public Affairs Officer, rather than trying to answer the questions himself. I also heard [a different NTSB staff member] give him similar instruction. In fact, during the hearing last week, [a different NTSB staff member] (for all intents and purposes) told me to beat the kid to the phone. The intern pouted and kept his hand on the phone for the rest of the day. I’m not surprised that the kid overstepped.

“The big question, though, is who made up those names. The kid is overzealous and tries too hard, but he took the job much too seriously than to make up fake names. I think that it was probably a prank gone wrong from the station. We just got caught in the crossfire.”

Head First

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HEAD FIRST I never liked anything in my ass until I spent a couple hours with Charlie Glickman. I met him at a party in Oakland while I was complaining about 20-something guys and their tendency to try to spear my anus with their dicks. Having spent most of my life in suburban America, I was only exposed to boys who had nothing but Internet porn and impatience, so even though I’d been interested in trying butt stuff, I never had the opportunity. I was close to giving up hope.

So in a small huddle of party goers, I voiced my desperation for someone who knew how to touch an asshole. I needed an expert. A hero.

“You know I wrote a book on that, right?” Glickman chimed in, holding his paper plate of vegetable kabobs out in front of him. He had a confident grin. So a few weeks later, I gave him the chance to back it up.

I didn’t know there were such things as sexological bodyworkers. But apparently, there are people certified by the state of California to stick their fingers inside of you and figure out why you can’t come as hard as you’d like. Glickman is one of those people. Don’t get it twisted, though: body workers are like private tutors for people who want to have better sex and experience more pleasure in their bodies. Their aim is to teach. They’re not prostitutes.

A few weeks post-party, I was sitting in his office, which is a small room with a window, a couch, and a massage table draped in a white sheet. Before I arrived I’d spoken on the phone with him about what to expect during the session and had filled out an intake form about my sexual history. We sat on the couch and talked about how we could do anal massage for relaxation only, but we could also do an erotic massage (with orgasms), if I so chose. And I did indeed choose.

He took my hand. It was time to practice consent.

“Tell me to take my hands off you,” Glickman said.

So I did. Then I told him to put them back. This was his way of showing me I had control over what happened in the session. I wasn’t worried.

He instructed me to sit on the massage table and told me he was going to teach me to breathe through my ass, which meant pushing out with my butt hole.

“I want you to try to kiss the table with your anus when you inhale,” Glickman said. He breathed in and out with me as my asshole made out with the table’s surface. My body relaxed with each breath of my badonk.

I took off my clothes and lied face down on the massage table, wondering if he saw the pimple next to my nipple. I shrugged. This guy probably gets poop on his gloves. My zit is the least of his worries.

If you think it’s strange that I’d put myself in such a compromising position after having so many bad experiences in the past, I don’t blame you. It’s not like I forgot the burning sensation of many a helmet head diving into my foxhole. So why risk putting myself through more misery?

Though some may see my tenacious try-try again attitude as ignorant, I’d like to see my curiosity not as something to kill the cat, but something to nurture the sex kitten within. If all the women who had endured some kind of sexual abuse just closed their legs and asses up for good, the human race would probably be doomed. The world needs brave ladies.

Plus, I came to San Francisco to try the things that small Maryland towns can’t offer. I came here to do the things other women don’t have the courage to try. I came here to be the ray of sexual hope in the dark hole that is this universe.

So there I was, ass out on the table, ready to take one for humanity.

Glickman rubbed me down with some coconut oil and massaged me a bit before putting on a pair of purple, non-latex gloves. He asked me if it was okay if he touched my ass. I gave him an “Mhm.”

Glickman ran his finger around the outside of my asshole for awhile to get my ass to relax, explaining that the external sphincter muscles were the ones I could control. After asking if I was ready, he started to rub the inside, telling me that he was touching the internal sphincter muscles, which I had no control over.

“Is that why this feels like I’m taking a shit?” I asked.

“It can mimic that sensation,” he replied.

The littlest movement of his finger created huge waves of feeling in my butt. Sometimes, without warning, my ass would clamp down defensively on his finger like a bear trap. The idea that dudes just wanted to immediately cram their dicks into that tiny hole became even more unbelievable as Glickman moved his finger inside of me. I wanted to smack all those dumb 20-somethings upside their heads. Like, what the fuck, guys?

We did the relaxing anal massage for awhile, and Glickman asked me if I wanted the session to get erotic. I was down. So I flipped over onto my back.

He handed me a mirror and I held it between my legs so he could show me what he was doing. He did things that no man or woman had ever done to me, and he taught me to do them to myself. (By the way, there’s this particular way of rubbing the insides of the outer labia that makes your crotch freak out in a good way. FREAK…OUT!)

All of it felt so good that before I knew it, I was ready for a finger all the way in my ass. Then there were fingers in my vagina. Then there were fingers on my clitoris. Then there were TWO fingers in my ass. It felt like there were fingers everywhere. “How many fingers does this guy have?” I thought, as I had a bunch of big, sweaty orgasms.

When the session was over, he left me to bask in the aftermath of coming a lot. I slowly sat up and stared through the back window at a few construction dudes throwing lumber into a truck in the parking lot below. I felt completely relaxed and grounded in my body. My hands and feet tingled. I got up to take a piss.

So now I know that I can have an orgasm with something in my ass, but only when someone is stimulating my cooch. (The clitoris will always be the MVP.) Ass play isn’t a hopeless venture, but any guys who try to rip me a new one certainly are.

As I slinked out of the bathroom and curled up on the couch, Glickman said I looked like a cat who’d eaten something delicious. I nodded and smiled, and he had a look of pride, like he’d saved a stray in need. He proved that fingers in the ass ain’t bad — I took two for humanity.

You can read Krissy Eliot’s Head First column every Thursday on the Guardian’s Sex SF blog (www.sfbg.com/sexsf) and read her past work at www.krissyeliot.com.

The funkmaestro of Vulfpeck on gaming Spotify, German pronunciation mishaps, and Google search optimization

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By Jonathan Kirchner

Members of the band Vulfpeck describe themselves as a “half-Jewish German-American rhythm section.” Creators of severely catchy, mostly-instrumental grooves, the four-piece — who first met in a German literature class at the University of Michigan — have built a following with their quirky YouTube videos: Each album track is accompanied by a cleverly shot and edited video of its recording. The videos not only capture the band’s camaraderie, loose attitude, and sense of humor, but also their musical cohesion as a group. Each song is endlessly and effortlessly funky.

As we listened to their fourth EP, Fugue State, released last week, a passerby commented on how their music has a distinctly familiar quality. This makes sense, for a group modeled after the great rhythm sections of the ’60s and ’70s: tight-knit groups of studio players like those in Detroit (Motown), Memphis (Stax) and Muscle Shoals (Atlantic, Chess) that played on not only countless soul and R&B hits, but on classic pop and rock records as well.

The LA-based band created a bit of a stir earlier this year with their Sleepify album — a collection of 31-second-long silent tracks that they told their fans to stream on Spotify, on repeat, as they slept. (That’s the minimum song length after which the music streaming service pays bands a small fee.) The group promised to use the Spotify proceeds to fund a tour of free shows, booked around the cities where the album was streamed the most — and that’s just what they did, after raising about $20,000. (Spotify has since removed the album.)

We spoke over the phone with Jack Stratton, multi-instrumentalist, audio/video engineer, and mastermind for the band, ahead of their upcoming performance at Brick & Mortar Music Hall on Mon/15. It’s a free show, of course. Frequent Vulfpeck collaborator Joey Dosik opens.

San Francisco Bay Guardian Do you want to talk a little about Sleepify and how it came about?

Jack Stratton The first time we had talked about touring, we were trying to play live, because there’s somewhat of a demand from our fans of the YouTube videos. So we were just talking about ways to do that, and get information from other groups about what it costs, and it seemed like a losing-money venture.

So we were trying to think up ways for it to make sense, because really we enjoy playing live, and simultaneously we were talking about this demand-funded tour, where you say: If 100 people in any given place say they’ll go, we’ll show up. And we talk about Spotify all the time when we release stuff — whether it hurts sales or has no effect. It’s hard to judge. So all of those conversations kind of collided into this demand-funded Spotify tour.

SFBG Would you consider it a success so far?

JS Oh, absolutely, yeah. Especially since our last release, it’s hard to say how many fans came in from Sleepify. Probably the majority of people were just interested in the Sleepify part of it, but people did end up checking out the band and enjoying it. I think it almost doubled our fanbase since then, so there’s no way to spin it negative, really.

SFBG I know you’re based in LA. Are all the members there these days?

JS No, not right now; we’re all scattered.

SFBG How do you find time to get together and make music?

JS Vulfpeck is a strict Monday-through-Friday workweek, once a year. Our last album we did in a week in Ann Arbor, and definitely the eventual goal is to be doing that way more often, with other artists, like a classic rhythm section. That’s the vision.

SFBG Do you seek out freelance work backing up other singers? It seems like your records could serve as a great demo tape.

JS Yeah, we’ve done a little bit of that. That’s definitely the vision for it, because you can put out a lot more material. Like, you watch any documentary about [classic soul/R&B rhythm sections], and they played on so many hits. Because with any single artist, there’s just a limit to how much new material you want to hear in a year, [but a rhythm section] can just crank it out — and we’re very fast.

The larger concept to start a rhythm section was that — name a band. If you name any band, I could name their dramatic falling out, but all the rhythm sections, they just kinda do their thing. And then there’s a documentary 50 years later and they’re all still hanging out.

SFBG Fugue State is your fourth EP; how would you say the band’s sound has evolved?

JS Well, I’ve gotten better at mixing, we’ve all gotten better at playing, we’ve gotten better as an ensemble…so those are hard to quantify. The team is improving. We’ve had a mastering engineer since the second album, Devin Kerr, and that’s really helped the overall sound.

SFBG I saw that you and Devin released a Vulf compressor plugin for other musicians to use. Not a lot of bands can say that. How did that come about?

JS Yeah, I’m very excited about that. That was, man, a long time in the works. Not heavy duty work, but I was really into, at one point, this sound of Madlib and Flying Lotus and J Dilla. Whatever that sound was, that pumping, where the whole track pumps — I was like “What the hell is that?”

And I did some research, and the Internet is a magical thing, and I was directed to these late 90s/early 2000s digital samplers. And the compressors on those, certainly Madlib was using them, so I went to Devin and was like, “Check out these sounds I’m getting with these digital compressors.” And he was trying to replicate it with his plugins and he couldn’t do it at all, so he just did a ton of listening to these characteristics, that were not, I think, programmed.

SFBG Right, they might have been bugs or imperfections…

JS Yeah, and actually they were, because [the manufacturers] started phasing out certain effects that were classics. They just didn’t know. [Devin’s] a dangerous dude because he’s very good at DSP [Digital Single Processing] and he’s a mastering engineer, so he’s very musical and has this very technical side. So he did his thing and we would test it out and it was really thrilling. And then our friend Rob Stenson did the interface with Devin and now its in beta and eventually it’ll be out. 

SFBG Do you have a take on analog vs. digital recording?

JS We’re fans of both. We’ll do stuff to tape; we’ll use a nice mixing board and go into the computer or some funky cassette preamp. We’ll do it all — no hangups.

SFBG A lot of your videos are shot in living rooms and bedrooms and they look pretty impromptu. 

JS Yeah, I was kind of all about building a nice tricked-out studio for us. But Theo [Katzman, drummer-guitarist] mentioned part of the charm is all of these different locations and how rugged the setups are.

SFBG The last couple records have each featured a song with Antwaun Stanley [on vocals]. Do you envision more collaboration with him in the future?

JS Oh yeah, I mean, he rules. It’s really fun to work with him. Honestly, not many people could [with us]. It’s not just picking a good voice with us; the person has to be a really good improvisor, like Antwaun, because they have to make it happen on the spot, and there’s no overdubs or background vocals. It’s not just a nice timbre; you have to be a really talented singer and improvisor — a performer.

SFBG Did you write the lyrics or did he?

JS I wrote those. That is one of the greatest joys I wish everyone could experience is having Antwaun Stanley sing your lyrics. Because they go from, like, ridiculousness, to sounding like they were meant to be.

SFBG In general, do you write all of the parts for the band or is it more of a collaborative process as far as the arrangements go?

JS Depends on the tune. I like how versatile everyone is: We’ve done tunes where it’s completely arranged, we’ve done tunes where it’s like: “Do your thing.” Generally, one person comes in with the nugget and they’ll kind of be producer on that track and get to call the shots, but it’s collaborative within that.

SFBG You’ve got some multi-instrumentalists in the band. [Theo Katzman doubles on drums and guitar and Jack plays drums, various keyboards and guitar.] How do you choose who’s going to be on drums, and who’s on keys, etc., for each song?

JS It’s mostly a decision of who will be able to pick up the parts fastest, because it’s all on-the-spot — there’s no rehearsal. Theo’s got a really good ear harmonically. I don’t really, I can’t pick up tunes that quick. If I’ve written the tune on keyboards, I’ll play keyboards, but if it’s someone else’s tune and it’s difficult, he’ll play guitar [and I’ll play drums].

SFBG What does Vulfpeck mean?

JS That was kind of the earliest part of it: It’s “wolfpack,” pronounced by a German, but phonetically spelled out in English. So, if a German saw the word wolfpack, it would probably come out “vulf-pock,” which I screwed up at the time. I thought it would be “peck,” but apparently it’s “pock.”

But that’s the whole idea, and it’s endless joy, because I love the name and it’s great for the Internet, you know? Getting all the [web] addresses. I think there was one military dating profile — that was it — when I first Googled it. I was like “Alright, I think this is open.”

SFBG Search engine optimized…

JS Our Google splash page is — I mean you can’t control these things — but nice, man, it’s all us.

VULFPECK
With Joey Dosik
9pm, free
Brick & Mortar Music Hall
1710 Mission, SF
www.brickandmortarmusic.com

 

Internet Slowdown marks fight on net neutrality

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Don’t be surprised if you go online tomorrow [Wed/10] and see a “loading” symbol – aka the proverbial “spinning wheel of death” – staring you in the face. No, that isn’t actually a technical problem – that’s what happens when geeks organize an online campaign.

Wed/10 marks the Internet Slowdown Day, in which sites across the web, many of which are based in San Francisco, will display the loading sign as a way to encourage web users to fight back against proposed rules that threaten net neutrality. Websites of companies and organizations ranging from Netflix to the Sierra Club will be participating in the digital show of opposition, to send a signal to the Federal Communications Commission, Congress, and the White House that the Internet should remain a level playing field.

In May, the FCC issued a proposal to allow Internet service providers to charge major companies, such as Amazon and Netflix, for faster access to consumers, creating so-called “Internet fast lanes.”

But as Evan Greer, a spokesperson for digital rights advocacy organization Fight for the Future, told the Bay Guardian, “We know that inherently that means there’s also a slow lane.”

The federal agency is now soliciting public comment on that proposal, with a deadline of Sept. 15.

Internet activists fear that as deep-pocketed companies seeking prioritized consumer access pile into the fast lanes, those without the ability to pay a premium will be relegated to the slow lane. And that sets a very bad precedent for the future of the Internet overall.

“Slowing down content is really tantamount to censorship,” Greer said. “What’s at stake here isn’t just about how fast or slow our videos load – it’s about the future of our democracy and the Internet’s role in it.”

The “spinning wheel of death” symbols won’t actually slow down access to participating websites, but the widgets will feature links allowing web users to send a petition to the FCC, Congress, and the White House.

“Everyone has a role in this, and everyone’s trying to pass the buck,” Greer noted. “Obama is saying, oh look, the FCC is an independent agency. Everyone is taking money from the telecom industry. Comcast has been donating to Republicans and Democrats across the aisle, and they’re gaining political influence because of it.”

Making matters worse, Greer said, is that Tom Wheeler, the chair of the FCC, was formerly a lobbyist for the National Cable and Telecom Association – the industry association that’s on the side of the companies advocating against the proposal that threatens net neutrality.

Other organizations involved in organizing the Internet Slowdown Day include Demand Progress, Free Press and Engine Advocacy.

And if you’re curious to learn more about net neutrality, no explanation is more fun to watch than John Oliver’s.

The Breeders barrel on

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esilvers@sfbg.com

LEFT OF THE DIAL The first rule of interviewing former Pixies bassist Kim Deal is that you do not say the word “Pixies” while speaking to Kim Deal.

After it has been made clear to you, multiple times and in no uncertain terms, that you are forbidden from asking her about the iconic rock band she co-founded in 1986, quit, re-joined, and then quit again in 2013, it would be understandable if you were slightly apprehensive about said phone interview — worried, perhaps, that Deal might be cranky or unpleasant regardless of your following the rules, or else that you might suddenly develop a very specific and unfortunate case of Tourette’s that leads to you uncontrollably shouting Frank Black’s name or Pixies album titles into the phone as epithets.

All of this anxiety would be for naught. Kim Deal, 53, is in great spirits when she picks up the phone at home in her native Dayton, Ohio. She’s hilarious, actually. “Hellooo, how are you?” she drawls in an overly perky telemarketer accent of sorts. Then, laughing, before switching into her unmistakable real voice: “Sorry, I don’t know why I’m talking like that.”

If anything, she’s in a bit of a silly mood because she’s been cooped up in rehearsals. It’s about two weeks before she heads out on tour with The Breeders, the band she co-leads with her twin sister Kelley, whose nearly identical voice blends with Kim’s sultry, sharp-edged alto in a way that creates addictively salty-sweet harmonies — and a band whose chart-topping contributions to the Steve Albini era of early ’90s alt-rock are so significant that only co-founding a band like the Pixies, as Kim did, could relegate it to “secondary reason for fame” status.

Anyway: The Breeders have been rehearsing in Deal’s basement, like old times. Getting on each other’s nerves, like old times. Bassist Josephine Wiggs was convinced there was a weird sound coming out of her amp last night when they were practicing. “I swear I can’t hear what she’s hearing,” says Deal, like a stand-up comedian launching into a routine about his wife’s cooking. “It’s an 810 SVT bass amp, so it sounds like a big fucking bass amp. It’s distracting you? Scoot over and you won’t hear it anymore.”

“She’s British, though,” concludes Deal with a sigh.

And how about working with her twin sister day in, day out?

“I love her more than anything in the world, but she was bothering me so much at practice the other day that I took a lamp and put it between us so I didn’t have to look at her while we were playing,” Deal says cheerfully. “Once somebody starts doing something that annoys me I kind of get a red light around them. The lamp has moved around each day as we all [get annoyed at each other]. It’s subtle.”

They might piss each other off from time to time, but if there were any doubts about the place the Breeders still occupy in their fans’ hearts, last year’s wholly sold-out 60-date tour, in honor of the 20th anniversary of the band’s biggest commercial success, Last Splash, should have laid them to rest. (Two nights at The Fillmore last August saw the band playing the entirety of that album – which was recorded in San Francisco, then rode the same angsty wave to national fame Nirvana saw that year, propelled by its most catchy and most delightfully inane song, “Cannonball.” Then they left the stage for 10 minutes before coming back to play the entirety of Pod, the band’s 1990 Kurt Cobain-influencing debut, as an encore. Deal, who had just quit the power play of the Pixies for the second time, was noticeably exuberant as a frontwoman, and seemingly could not stop smiling.)

Still, not counting last year’s 20th anniversary reissue of Last Splash (LSXX), it’s been five years since the Breeders put out new material (though it’s been a much less dramatic break than the seven-year hiatus between Last Splash and Title TK, during which time the band famously imploded in part due to Kelley Deal’s heroin use).

In lieu of new Breeders records, however — and in lieu of, er, bringing up her most recent few years with the Pixies, which, it could be noted, some of us were excited about mostly because of the chance to hear “Gigantic,” which she wrote, which is arguably the best song in the entire decades-spanning Pixies catalog — Deal has quietly issued eight 7-inch singles of solo material since January 2013. It’s something she began doing when she “couldn’t find anybody who could be in a band” with her, she says, especially living in Ohio.

“The industry dropped out of the music,” she says simply. “Musicians need jobs now. There used to be enough money in music that people who played in bands could actually make their rent. Maybe they’d sling weed on the side or do some pizza delivery, but they could hit their rent. Now that’s just not possible. Even bands that people know pretty well, they need real jobs — they design websites, then they go home to their band. Unless you’re [at the star status] where you’re, like, making perfume.”

So she started making music by herself. Though she’s brought in old friends and bandmates to play along (Slint drummer Britt Walford, whom Deal ran into at Steve Albini’s 50th birthday party, makes an appearance), the songs are unmistakably hers. Their moods shift from volatile bass-driven fuzz (“Walking With a Killer”) to cooing sing-song with an almost creepy Velvet Underground edge (“Are You Mine?”).

In an age when we’re used to artists simply throwing up a SoundCloud link and announcing “I have a new single,” she’s done something increasingly rare, as well: She released each song as an old-school single with an A and a B side, a physical product, each with its own album art. Long known for her perfectionism and attention to detail when it comes to gear and a studio’s technical specs, 2013 and 2014 were the years when Deal became entranced by the physical process of distributing music.

“It makes it more real to me,” she explains. “If I just put it out as a download, I feel like I just emailed my sister the song. Nothing even happens, it doesn’t make sense to me — I’m like, ‘Where do I put the title, the song name?'” Plus, since she self-issued Fate to Fatal in 2009, she realized she enjoyed the process of calling around to research manufacturers, assigning ISRC codes (kind of like serial numbers for songs), getting physical mail back when she sent something out.

She has no current plans to compile the tracks into an album, however — for one, each has “really different levels of production.” She feels a little like she’d be ripping people off, since the songs are all out already. And somehow she doesn’t expect “normal people” to be interested in buying these tracks, anyway, though a large portion of the Internet (and the majority of music critics) might disagree with that.

At the moment, though, Deal is in full-band mode. This current Breeders tour came about when Neutral Milk Hotel asked them to join a bill at the Hollywood Bowl; the Breeders structured the rest of the three-week tour around the gig. (In San Francisco, the band will play The Fillmore this Saturday, Sept. 13.) The tour will be a chance to try out new material, though Deal seems a little nervous about that.

“We have about four new songs right now that we can really play, and I’m working on the words for this other song Josephine wrote,” she explains. “She seems so smart, and she’s English, so I can’t just go, like, ‘ooga chooga,'” you know? I want to really say something with it.” Deal’s been reading The Power of Myth, the anthology of conversations between scholar Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, and thinking a lot on the hero’s journey. Specifically, what would happen if the hero completely ignored the advice of the gatekeeper/mentor character at the beginning of the arc.

“We’ve been working on this stuff all year, so when [Neutral Milk Hotel] asked us, even though it’s way out there, we thought ‘Hey, let’s give it a shot. And hope to hell nobody records on cell phones,'” she says.

And then there’s the act of traveling together at this stage in the game, with bandmates she’s known for 20-plus years. (After a decade or so of other members, the current lineup is the original Last Splash crew: Wiggs on bass, Jim McPherson on drums, and the inimitable sisters Deal in the center ring on vocals and guitars.)

People can get snippy on tour, says Kim — especially in Florida, “things get weird…but we get along for the most part, no one’s an asshole, that’s important. There’s just really not a rude person in this bunch.”

In the van, especially, you can always put on headphones. And if all else fails, “You get lamped,” she says. “There’s always the lamp.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PghwbxtcJo8

THE BREEDERS

With Kelley Stoltz
9pm, $28.50
The Fillmore
1805 Geary, SF
(415) 346-3000
www.thefillmore.com