Consumer Group Can’t Be This Naive

It’s kind of cute. Apparently, the consumer group Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood really thought the people who make Dove soap came up with their much-praised “Campaign for Real Beauty” for some reason other than to sell bars of soap. But the scales have dropped from their eyes all right! According to the LA Times:

A consumer group accused Unilever of hypocrisy Tuesday for running conflicting advertising campaigns — one for Dove that praises women and their natural beauty and one for Axe that the group said “blatantly objectifies and degrades” them.

The Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood launched a letter-writing effort on its website and demanded the company pull ads for the Axe line of grooming products for men, which one online pitch says makes “nice girls turn naughty.”

Unilever shouldn’t be commended for Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty” while promoting products with a starkly different message, said Susan Linn, the consumer group’s director and an instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

“The campaign says they’re going to help girls to resist a toxic marketing environment but they’re creating that environment as well,” Linn said.

Both campaigns are clever attempts to push the right buttons to stimulate their respective target audiences. In this case, there is probably zero overlap between the horny teenage boys who are supposed to buy Axe and the skin-texture-obsessed women who buy Dove beauty soap.

The consumer groups surely understand this. They’ve just found a good PR angle to draw attention to themselves, albeit by insulting the intelligence of the rabble they seek to rouse.

Nevertheless, a flack tries to keep Santa alive for another season:

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PR Agencies Keep Trying “Stealth.” Why? (*Updated)

By now, you’d think the major PR firms, the ones staffed by the crème de la crème, that snag the biggest, most prestigious accounts, would have learned that you can’t get away with a campaign premised on hiding the identity of the client.

Doing so is regarded as unethical by everyone you’re trying to persuade. Disclosure–which is almost inevitable–has a disproportionately negative effect, and the client risks being left in a worse position than if they’d done nothing.

But “nothing” of course means “no fees for you.” So instead of giving clients a real-world expectation of the dangers of a super-secret stealth campaign in an era of relentless transparency, agencies push bad ideas that get them paid.

Burson-Marsteller has apparently spent the past few years paying no attention to their own industry. And Microsoft’s amnesia is truly incredible for a company that sells “memory.” Get a load of this from the UK Observer:

Microsoft is at the centre of an embarrassing row over an attempt by a lobby firm strongly linked with the Seattle computer giant to rally opposition against rival Google’s proposed acqusition of internet marketing firm DoubleClick.

The Observer has seen an email sent by a director at leading lobby firm Burson-Marsteller to a number of top UK businesses. The email urges board members to raise the issue of Google’s dominance of search engines with politicians, regulators and the media.

The email asks companies to join a new organisation – Initiative for Competitive Online Marketplaces – which in the next few weeks will make a series of announcements on Google, internet privacy and copyright.

The email’s author is Jonathan Dinkeldein, a director of B-M. He admitted the firm was working with Microsoft on the initiative. A spokeswoman for Microsoft agreed that the firm has an ‘ongoing relationship with Burson-Marsteller’ but said it is not lobbying for Microsoft.

Relations between Microsoft and Google are fraught and the development comes at a sensitive time. Concern over Google’s dominance in online advertising prompted the US federal trade commission to probe its £1.56bn takeover of DoubleClick. Google itself asked the European Commision to investigate the takeover.

Microsoft has objected to the tie-up on the grounds that it will combine the two largest advertising distributors on the internet.

It lost in the auction for DoubleClick.

When asked about the email, Dinkeldein admited the organisation was formed by Microsoft. Dinkeldein added that his initiative attracted several orgnanisations to join it.

But executives contacted by The Observer told of their disquiet at being ‘cold-called’ in this manner. The emails included newspaper articles from the Financial Times and the Economist which some executives were concerned broke copyright rules. Others suggested that by not disclosing who Burson-Marsteller was representing, the firm was breaking the spirit of political lobby firms’ code of conduct. Continue reading

Michael Deaver, R.I.P.

mike-deaver.jpgThe last thought I remember having before going to sleep last night was, “I wonder how Mike Deaver is doing.  I’ll have to e-mail (a mutual friend) to see if she knows what’s up.”  This morning, the first news story I saw on the internet was Mike’s obituary.    

I was aware of his diagnosis: Pancreatic cancer.  I first heard he had it about a year ago.  There was nothing in the news about it, but Deaver’s name was in the press for other reasons, suggesting he was working through his illness.  I hoped he would be one of the fortunate few who overcome what is almost always a fatal cancer.  That he survived a year is a testament to the heart of a fundamentally peaceful and kind man. 

You reading this know Michael Deaver as an historical personage; Ronald Reagan’s “media maestro,” a member of the “troika” guiding Reagan through his first term.  If you dislike Reagan, you might blame Deaver for using his masterful PR skills to sell him voters who were otherwise eager to reward Jimmy Carter with a second term or Walter Mondale with a first.  If you like Reagan, you might have mixed feelings about Deaver, too.  He was often suspected by the hard right of being something less than a true-blue conservative. 

I don’t know about any of that.  As brilliant as Deaver was, I think his reputation as a media hypnotist was overblown by political pundits struggling to figure out how this “amiable dunce” Reagan got elected.  “Must’ve been those American flags Deaver put behind him.”  And if Deaver wasn’t a consistent right-winger, that reflects the fact that Reagan wasn’t a consistent right-winger either.  Deaver was a true PR man, and the essential skill that PR people need to have is a clear picture of who or what it is they are selling.  Deaver understood Reagan the man, and that’s what enabled him to create Reagan’s image as a candidate.

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Here’s What “John From Cincinnati” Means

I get it.  The fact that I get it doesn’t make “John From Cincinnati” a good show, but if you’re wondering what it’s all about, it’s simple.

“John From Cincinnati” tried to answer the question of what would happen if the most potent figures from the New Testament, akin to John the Baptist, Mary Magdalene, Joseph and Mary and of course, Jesus Christ, were to emerge in a contemporary setting.  What would the people around them do? 

The show asks:  Do you believe the New Testament?  Do you take it as a matter of not just faith but fact that Jesus performed miracles like raising the dead and walking on water?  Was the purpose of these miraculous feats to persuade the people of his times to believe he was divine, and that his words were prophecies? 

If you do believe these things, why would you find “John From Cincinnati” implausible? Isn’t there supposed to be a return?  Well, then, it could happen like it does on the show, couldn’t it?

shaun-butch-john.jpgThe show was rife with Christian mystical symbolism, but I don’t think the point of the show was to bring us all to Jesus.  It was, instead, a what-if, a fantasy, a film noir Second Coming. And yet, within the universe of the show, we are to believe that this particular Second Coming is a very good thing — for the characters in the show, and for humanity in general.  The crisis precipitated by 9/11 is “huge,” as John says.  Bigger than what we believe it to be already.  An existential threat that will require divine force to save us mere, frail humans from turning it into an apocalypse. Continue reading

Iced Cappucino, Scourge of Starbucks

If you order an iced cappucino at Starbucks, the cashier will tell you “we’re not supposed to make iced cappucino, but we’ll make one for you.” I guess you’re supposed to feel like they’re cutting you a break but, shh, don’t tell everyone.

Perhaps inspired by the current book I’m reading, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” I had an overly literal reaction to this disclosure. I pointed to the menu on the wall above the barrista’s station. It listed all the coffee drinks including cappucino. Each one could be purchased “hot or iced.”

“You got us on a technicality,” one of the employees said, laughing like the jig was up.

A technicality? “It’s on your menu. It’s been there for years.”

Finally, they let me in on the real secret. Apparently, the Starbucks corporation is worried about the possibility of bacteria forming growing when the heated foam hits the ice cubes. So employees are instructed to say what the cashier said to me. I assume the company’s lawyers came up with this.  Perhaps they have gotten a ruling that the company would not be liable if I come down with food poisoning after such a dialogue.

If I keel over in the next few hours, Starbucks will be able to say, “We warned him, but he ignored us, the poor chap.”

It’s a weird way to manage a liability problem, to orchestrate a conversation between employees and customers that’s supposed to seem friendly, spontaneous and intimate.

Corporate practices like this tend to replicate themselves.  I’m already used to being asked at Pavillion’s whether I want help carrying my groceries to my car, even if I’m only buying a tube of toothpaste.  You’d think the clerks would have figured out by now that I’m perfectly capable of pushing a cartful of groceries.  I’ve been shopping there for years, and I don’t recall ever passing out from exhaustion in their presence. But, of course, “we’re required to ask,” so this charade of a friendly offer will continue, and I will continue to be forced to say, “No, but thank you.”

But the Starbucks variation — “We’re not supposed to make it for you” — is a new one.  Anyone else run into something like this?

Tired Earth*

begleyrav4.jpgNot too long ago, having a celebrity at your environmental press conference was a sure way to attract the cameras and spread the word. Luckily, most of the celebs who agreed to appear were walk-the-walk types, like Ed Begley, Jr. You wouldn’t invite anyone who wasn’t serious about it. Begley would bicycle all the way from the Valley to Santa Monica to stand up for Heal the Bay or the Coalition for Clean Air. If someone had taken a satellite photo of his home, it would have embarassed neither him nor his cause. And he was never sanctimonious.

Now, the celeb phase of the environmental movement has achieved its absurd apotheosis and badly needs to be shut down. Billed as a massive teach-in on climate change, the Live Earth concerts were, politically, a train wreck. From Rasmussen Reports, a polling site:

The Live Earth concert promoted by former Vice President Al Gore received plenty of media coverage and hype, but most Americans tuned out. Just 22% said they followed news stories about the concert Somewhat or Very Closely. Seventy-five percent (75%) did not follow coverage of the event.

By way of comparison, eight-in-ten voters routinely said they were following news coverage of the recent Senate debate over immigration. Fifty-four percent (54%) said they followed news coverage of the President’s decision to commute Scooter Libby’s sentence.

Skepticism about the participants may have been a factor in creating this low level of interest. Most Americans (52%) believe the performers take part in such events because it is good for their image. Only 24% say the celebrities really believe in the cause while another 24% are not sure. One rock star who apparently shared that view is Matt Bellamy of the band Muse. Earlier in the week, he jokingly referred to Live Earth as “private jets for climate change.”

Only 34% believe that events like Live Earth actually help the cause they are intended to serve. Forty-one percent (41%) disagree. Those figures include 10% who believe the events are Very Helpful and 20% who say they are Not at All Helfpul. Adding to the skepticism, an earlier survey found that just 24% of Americans consider Al Gore an expert on Global Warming.

Given a choice of four major issues before the United States today, 36% named the war in Iraq as most important. Twenty-five percent (25%) named immigration, 20% selected the economy and only 12% thought Global Warming was the top issue.

Whatever needs to happen next to bring about a reversal of man-made global warming, that goal is now farther away, thanks to Al Gore, Madonna, Leo DiCaprio and the global concerteers, who only managed to persuade the public they received some personal benefit from their association with the issue. Neither the celebrities nor the event organizers never answered the question of their basic hypocrisy. In a TMZ/Defamer/Murdoch world, of course we’re all going to find out how much energy the movement’s stars use, how many times they fly in private jets, tour demands completely at odds with their stated positions, huge stock positions in companies that pollute the most, and the vast amounts of energy burned and pollution released by the concerts themselves.

Gore and the celebrities complain about the tabloidization of the news, and are especially bitter if the snark gets in the way of their unselfish efforts to, you know, change the world. But an intriguing NY Times Magazine piece about a neurological disorder called Williams Syndrome and its implications for understanding why the human brain evolved the way it did, contains a profound nugget of insight into why celebrities hurt the causes they seek to help, unless they’re willing to be more like Ed Begley, Jr., and less like the people we saw on those concert stages Saturday.

Bear with me, it will all make sense:

Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist and social-brain theorist, and others have documented correlations between brain size and social-group size in many primate species. The bigger an animal’s typical group size (20 or so for macaques, for instance, 50 or so for chimps), the larger the percentage of brain devoted to neocortex, the thin but critical outer layer that accounts for most of a primate’s cognitive abilities. In most mammals the neocortex accounts for 30 percent to 40 percent of brain volume. In the highly social primates it occupies about 50 percent to 65 percent. In humans, it’s 80 percent.

According to Dunbar, no such strong correlation exists between neocortex size and tasks like hunting, navigating or creating shelter. Understanding one another, it seems, is our greatest cognitive challenge. And the only way humans could handle groups of more than 50, Dunbar suggests, was to learn how to talk.

“The conventional view,” Dunbar notes in his book “Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language,” “is that language evolved to enable males to do things like coordinate hunts more effectively. . . . I am suggesting that language evolved to allow us to gossip.”

Dunbar’s assertion about the origin of language is controversial. But you needn’t agree with it to see that talk provides a far more powerful and efficient way to exchange social information than grooming does. In the social-brain theory’s broad definition, gossip means any conversation about social relationships: who did what to whom, who is what to whom, at every level, from family to work or school group to global politics. Defined this way, gossip accounts for about two-thirds of our conversation. All this yakking — murmured asides in the kitchen, gripefests in the office coffee room — yields vital data about changing alliances; shocking machinations; new, wished-for and missed opportunities; falling kings and rising stars; dangerous rivals and potential friends. These conversations tell us too what our gossipmates think about it all, and about us, all of which is crucial to maintaining our own alliances.

For we are all gossiped about, constantly evaluated by two criteria: Whether we can contribute, and whether we can be trusted. This reflects what Ralph Adolphs, a social neuroscientist at the California Institute of Technology, calls the “complex and dynamic interplay between two opposing factors: on the one hand, groups can provide better security from predators, better mate choice and more reliable food; on the other hand, mates and food are available also to competitors from within the group.” You’re part of a team, but you’re competing with team members. Your teammates hope you’ll contribute skills and intergroup competitive spirit — without, however, offering too much competition within the group, or at least not cheating when you do. So, even if they like you, they constantly assess your trustworthiness. They know you can’t afford not to compete, and they worry you might do it sneakily.

The sentence I emphasized suggests why a global TV event featuring movie stars and pop-music performers might be just about the worst way to convey environmental information — or in fact, any important political message. In the very same global village Live Earth sought to educate, we are consumed with gossip about the stars who pretend to teach us–the truth about how they live as opposed to what they want us to hear and believe.

Stars attract attention, but the audience’s relationship with them is complex. We’re suspicious of their motives, don’t completely buy their idealism, and are on the lookout for hypocrisy — which this group of stars gave us by the carload. The media doesn’t create this; it’s human nature.

That is why the “carbon offset” concept is not working and should be dumped forthwith. All it does is emphasize that rich entertainers can’t bear to sacrifice and will buy their way out of living their lives in anything remotely resembling the fashion the rest of us must do. It destroys any possibility of consensus on dealing with climate change.

Climate change is a scientific issue. It raises complex issues for governments. Individuals can’t do very much about it, but they are avidly interested in considering viable solutions offered by experts. Of course, we might want to know something about those experts to determine if they’re trustworthy, but we wouldn’t be bombarded on a daily basis with stories about their incredibly opulent lives. Instead, the focus would be where it belongs, on the points of debate leading toward a political solution that, one would hope, would make a difference in earth’s environment.

green-city-hall.jpgIronically, in “the entertainment capitol of the world,” there was no Live Earth concert. Just Mayor Villaraigosa, Begley, produce Lawrence Bender and a few supporting-actor types from TV like Daphne Zuniga and Sharon Lawrence, turning on some lights that made City Hall look green. I was glad the mayor mentioned that “Los Angeles recycles more than any other metropolitan city.” Hurray for the Bureau of Sanitation!

*Edited, 7/9/07

Help Wanted: Democratic Candidate to Run for President that People Don’t Hate

It is said that while the right looks for converts, the left looks for heretics.  The consequences of that tendency are demonstrated in this perceptive story from the LA Times:

It is a paradox of the 2008 presidential race. By a wide margin, several polls show, voters want a Democrat to win — yet when offered head-to-head contests of leading announced candidates, many switch allegiance to the Republican.

In a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll conducted this month, this dynamic was most clearly evident with Clinton.

When registered voters were asked which party they would like to win the White House, they preferred a Democrat over a Republican by 8 percentage points. But in a race pitting Clinton against former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, the Republican was favored by 10 percentage points.

Clinton’s showing against Giuliani was the starkest example of how the general Democratic edge sometimes narrows or vanishes when voters are given specific candidates to choose between.

The poll also showed Clinton trailing when matched against two other Republicans, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. The deficits, however, were within the survey’s margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

These results, as well as follow-up interviews of poll respondents, reflect the array of difficulties that Clinton could face as the Democratic nominee.

Plenty of time remains for Clinton to temper resistance to her candidacy. But for now, her failure to match her party’s generic advantage underscores the primacy of personal appeal in a presidential race, regardless of political context.

“Personal appeal” is part of the problem, but I don’t think it really captures it.  Hillary, Edwards and Obama are anything but repellent personalities.  In their own ways, they can be charismatic.  The problem is the toll that being a Democratic leader takes against a candidate’s image for strength and having a core of beliefs.

The one-issue caucuses within the party, especially labor, put so much pressure on candidates to carry their water regardless of how the general public feels, regardless of what common sense and experience shows that one of two things happens.  The Democratic leader becomes unviable because the special interests exert their veto power; or they become a flip-flopping ball of confusion, totally reliant on careful parsing of words and PR spin to make their positions seem coherent and principled.

To some degree, the netroots phenomenon was supposed to overcome this.  Kos is a “just win baby” Democrat who wants the party to unite around broad principles.  But despite the good intentions, the netroots have somehow evolved into yet another single-issue constituency — the “get out of Iraq now” caucus.   Both Clinton and Obama joined a small minority of Democrats in opposing the troop funding bill, because they believed they would otherwise be crucified.  But that position is likely to come back to haunt them later.

Travels of Ace Smith

Well, this story certainly got my attention when it was linked by LA Observed today.  It’s all about a San Francisco political operative with the dubious distinction of being known as “the best (opposition) research guy on either side of the aisle.”  

(Ace) Smith, 48, surprised California political veterans by jumping from the role of top political researcher to the role of campaign manager during Antonio Villaraigosa‘s successful 2005 run for mayor of Los Angeles against then-incumbent James Hahn.

Villaraigosa credits Smith with making the “biggest difference” in the campaign’s message in what became a landslide victory.

Hmm.  If you read a little further in the story, you find out what that “biggest difference” really amounted to.  

I will quote two words spoken by Tom Hanks’ character in “Saving Private Ryan”Earn this.  It better have been worth it.  I don’t want to hear about any more “setbacks” in education reform, especially not if I have to read about it in a prison cell.  No, I need to see a full-on Los Angeles renaissance.  Anything less and I have a right to be pissed.  

Elsewhere in the story, there’s a heartwarming yarn about why Smith decided to specialize in “opposition research.”

Smith’s education in politics began at the knee of his father, former San Francisco District Attorney Arlo Smith. He eventually gravitated toward unearthing devastating political information because the task allowed him to work for campaigns but be at home with his family — wife Laura Talmus, a community and political fundraiser, and children Abram and Lili, now 15 and 13.

You can imagine how happy that makes me feel.   Smith’s life is a perfect combination of “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” and “Thank You for Smoking.”  In fact, what a great idea for a new reality show. 

The point of the SF Chronicle story was that Smith is bringing his “devastating” talents to help the presidential campaign of Hilary Rodham Clinton.  Perfect.  

I’m re-reading The Great Gatsby.  I’m not at the end yet, but I know I’ll eventually come across this famous quote:

“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

It’s not precisely applicable.  You really can’t say Ace Smith and his candidate made “a mess.”  They won.

Elliot Mintz Mulling a Return Ticket to Hell

According to a gossip columnist on E! Online, Elliot Mintz is now describing his fond farewell to Paris Hilton as “a bit premature.” 

…today (Mintz) tells me he is “very optimistic” that the two will reunite. 

“We had a telephone conversation last night,” Mintz said. “It was a good and healthy exchange. We are having dinner tonight…I think the world of her.”

Okay, I’m done with this story. 

For a minute there, Elliot M. had a nice glow.  The timing for a fade-out was good; followed perhaps by a memoir.  The difference between then and now… John Lennon’s message of imagining peace in the Vietnam era, versus Paris Hilton’s message of empty-headed glitz in the Iraq/Al-Queda era… And yet, the ties that bind, the synchronicity!  John & Yoko, exposing their genitals on an album cover.  Paris, exposing hers pretty much everywhere. 

It could have had an existential quality. He could have helped us make sense of his strange journey.  But it turns out that glow was just a tanning salon malfunction. 

Now Mintz is getting pathetic. What’s he going to do, camp out in front of the jail? “Today, Paris continued her hunger strike. She is insisting on a licensed pedicurist, and she refuses to eat any more mashed potatoes until her rights are respected.”

Elliot… Walk toward the light… Walk toward the light… 

UPDATE:  It’s official.  Per Mintz:

I shall continue to respect and support her as her media rep and friend.

And Paris Hilton is just a great friend.

Elliot Mintz Falls on His Sword, Escapes in Two Pieces

I’m sure this is not the first place you’ve seen the news that Elliot Mintz has parted company with Paris Hilton and her family, in the wake of his disastrous, failed attempt to take the blame for her probation violation.  For giving this testimony, he was rebuked by Superior Court Judge Michael Sauer, who all but called him a liar. 

Which also meant Paris Hilton was, in the judge’s eyes, a liar, because she testified she relied on Mintz’ shaky grasp of the law before deciding whether to get behind the wheel with her suspended license.  Combined with Hilton showing up to court 10 minutes late–an offense that by itself can get you a night behind bars–her lack of credibility earned her a 45 day sentence in an especially scary jail. 

To Mintz, Hilton’s sentence was The Call.  Like the general of a failed army, like a CIA spy caught behind enemy lines by the Russkies, like a samurai warrior following his master into the Next World, Elliot Mintz was required by the unwritten code of public relations to commit ritual suicide — figuratively, of course, via an apology.  His words do contain echoes of another time, when honor mattered:

“The day after the hearing, I sent Paris an e-mail expressing my sadness over the ruling of the judge and the irrational sentence he imposed.”

(snip)
“In that e-mail [to Paris],” Mintz said in his message to PEOPLE, “I also offered my sincerest apology for any misunderstanding she received from me regarding the terms of her probation. To the extent that I have miscommunicated information I received from her attorneys … I am deeply and profoundly sorry.”

He added, “I told her that I assume personal responsibility for my part in this matter.”

The message continues: “I believe when Paris stated in court that she believed it was o.k. for her to drive under certain circumstances she was being absolutely truthful.

“Due to this misunderstanding, I am no longer representing Paris.”

He concludes, “For the record, I have nothing but love and respect for Paris and her family. Paris is a wonderful person and does not deserve the punishment that was handed down by the court. I only wish her my best.”

He might have gone on to say:

But I’ve got a job to do, too. Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do, you can’t be any part of. Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that. Now, now… Here’s looking at you kid. 

But she probably wouldn’t have gotten the reference.  Oh well.  Such is life for a 62-year-old man who once helped John & Yoko turn on the world, but will forever be remembered* for his post-midnight drive to a hospital to tell Paris Hilton what to say about her monkey.  

Elliot Mintz is now a free man**, which is more than I can say for the rest of us, still forced to watch this cipher’s endless and inescapable reality show.  Unlike Mintz, we’ll always have Paris.

*Times Select, subscription required.

** Not so fast. 

The Virginia Tech Tragedy: Blame vs. Accountability

There is no shortage of commentary in the media and blogosphere saying, in effect, Let’s not blame anyone but the killer for the massacre at Virginia Tech yesterday morning. This commentary often decries the tendency to look for scapegoats when something horrible happens. The mature attitude is supposed to be Life is unfair. There are crazy people out there. You can’t do anything about them. The traumatized students who are criticizing the administration are understandably upset. But they’re wrong. Tsk Tsk.

Up to a point, of course I agree. Perfect safety, perfect security, does not exist.

But isn’t the opposite tendency just as telling about our culture? Why the rapid closing of ranks around university and police officials? To me, that is just as premature, and just as sad a reflection on our culture as the rush to assign blame or to exploit the issue for political gain.

Instead of a scapegoat, the students at VT see an emperor with no clothes.

“I don’t know why they let people stay in classrooms,” Sean Glennon, a junior from Centreville and the quarterback on the Hokies football team, said Monday. “A lot of people are angry that campus wasn’t evacuated a little earlier.”

There was a double-homicide on campus. Based on statements made by officials yesterday, the U. decided to treat it as a “domestic dispute” with no possible further ramifications, even though the killer was still at large, still armed, and had killed at least one person who was not a party to the alleged love triangle that drove this student over the edge.

The university also decided not to take advantage of the instantaneous communications available to them for more than two hours. If for no other reason than rumor control, I would have advised them to move much more quickly.

Should they have foreseen 31 more murders? Of course not. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have reacted differently. If they had, would lives have been saved? No one can say that for sure. But officials’ assumption that the crisis was over, despite awareness of a killer still in the wind, seems like muddled and misguided thinking. The traumatized students as well as the victims’ survivors, deserve to understand what went into that thinking.

One term I haven’t seen used anywhere regarding the university’s responsibility: ‘In loco parentis.’ It’s a concept dating back to British common law. We parents send our students to school for several hours each day, or for months at a time if the child goes off to college. We do this in the belief that the university will act as a parent would act. That’s why campuses can have rules that go beyond state or federal law. For example, in Virginia, it’s legal to carry a firearm. But not at Virginia Tech. The university’s administration has decided it needs extra protection to make sure its students are safe. Schools are allowed to search lockers without a search warrant, to censor free speech in the campus newspaper, to prohibit alcohol even for those of legal drinking age.

Much of the case law on ‘in loco parentis’ seems to be focused on whether it is okay to invade students’ constitutional rights (generally the answer is yes.) But isn’t the spirit behind the concept a need for increased vigilance to protect the students, since the parents aren’t there to provide it?

Would a parent have been so slow in notifying their own kids about a killer on the loose in their immediate midst? Just to be safe, and even if it was inconvenient or disruptive, wouldn’t a parent have taken the addition step of telling the child to return home or find a secure location, at least until the situation was under control?

Don’t blame me for the problems of the world is not, to me, an acceptable position for a university president, or any other top school official.

Here’s another thing that bugged me. From the Washington Post, emphasis mine:

Lucinda Roy, an English professor who taught a creative writing class that Cho attended, told CNN that she grew so concerned by some of his writings in the fall of 2005 that she went to university officials to see if anything could be done. She said authorities told her there was nothing they could do because the writings, while disturbing, did not point to an immediate threat and because they did not want to violate Cho’s free speech rights. Roy told the network that she decided to teach him one-on-one for a semester and urged him to get counseling.

“Several of us became concerned,” she said. “I contacted some people to try to get some help for him because I was deeply concerned myself.” She declined to give details of the troubling passages in his written work, citing a request by investigators.

This seems deeply, deeply confused. His “free speech rights” were not the issue. It’s almost absurd. Professor Roy was not talking about censoring Cho, or locking him up for what he said. She was concerned about his well-being and the safety of others.

Did no one at VT think to notify Cho’s parents? They would have been completely within their rights to send the writing samples to the parents and to urge them to get their child help.

Protecting free speech does not equate to being completely numb to the content of the speech. Not all speech is equal. Speech sometimes precedes action — action that could be dangerous and violent. It is a fundamental misunderstanding of the First Amendment to use it as a barrier against acting to pursue possible criminal activity.

Here, from the LA Times, is a description of Cho’s writing, and a fellow student’s reaction following the murders:

“His writing, the plays, were really morbid and grotesque,” (Stephanie) Derry said.

“I remember one of them very well. It was about a son who hated his stepfather. In the play the boy threw a chainsaw around, and hammers at him. But the play ended with the boy violently suffocating the father with a Rice Krispy treat,” she said.

“When I got the call it was Cho who had done this, I started crying, bawling,” Derry said. “I kept having to tell myself there is no way we could have known this was coming. I was just so frustrated that we saw all the signs, but never thought this could happen.

What Derry is describing is an outgrowth of our culture. Clearly, many of Cho’s fellow students and teachers had a visceral reaction to his writing, and sensed danger. And then suppressed these feelings, believing that to do otherwise would be considered judgmental.

Blame is cheap. There is a lot of blaming going on around this incident that is very cheap. But accountability is precious. The university officials, professors and the police need to be held to account for the decisions they made, decisions they made in loco parentis, beginning with the decision not to react to the disturbing writings. I just want them to explain why they did what they did, not hide behind platitudes. Where their thinking was unsound, I want to highlight it so others can learn from it. Don’t let the leadership off the hook so easily.

PR By Association

Let’s say you’re a PR professional. Like I was, you’re interested in public affairs and crisis work. Most of your clients were controversial — to somebody. You looked at your job — or serving your client, if you worked in an agency like I did — as a craft, a profession. You do your job with integrity, you play the role of honest broker between your client (boss) and the media, you implement various tactics to help make sure your target audience hears an accurate version of your client/boss’ position and, hopefully, the audience is persuaded by it. You do your job well, you move on to bigger and better things.

Not so fast.

There is a trend afoot of judging PR people by all their past clients/bosses and what they did for them. Here’s an example, from the hugely popular blog Boing Boing:

DNC appoints RIAA shill to run Public Affairs for convention

Today, Jenni Engebretsen was named “Deputy CEO for Public Affairs,” for the upcoming Democratic National Convention in Denver — but she is better known as the Director of Communications for the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). The RIAA is the most hated “company” in America, according to a recent poll on the Consumerist. The RIAA’s campaign of suing thousands of American music lovers has been the single biggest PR disaster in recent industrial history — which is why Engebretsen’s employer beat out Halliburton, Blackwater and Wal-Mart for the coveted “Worst Company” slot.

Engebretsen’s PR approach is centered around stonewalling and avoiding difficult press calls. She contacted me in 2005 to deny that the RIAA had sent a takedown notice to a website called RPGFilms.net, and promised to answer my followup questions in a day or two. After four months of emailing and calling her, I finally got through to her (by calling her from a different phone, so she couldn’t see who was phoning).

She said that the RIAA had no comment.

The liberal blogosophere is united on many fronts — not just disliking US foreign policy. We also hate the RIAA — for suing our friends, for lobbying for laws that suspend due process rights of the accused (the RIAA’s favorite law, the DMCA, was used by Diebold to suppress information about failures in its voting machines), and for demanding the right to “pretext” (commit wire fraud) in order to catch “pirates.”

Worse still, the RIAA are part of the initiative to corrupt net neutrality, imposing centralized controls on the transmission of information across the network.

It has been Engebretsen’s job to sell these initiatives to the American public. She’s failed to sell this to the American public. Not only does she take a paycheck for selling gangsters to the public — she’s not very good at it!

The DNC can do better. This represents a potential shear with the left-wing blogosphere. I hate what the GOP has done to this country, but the RIAA isn’t much better.

Funding for the Democratic National Convention comes from a different pool than general DNC operations. Here’s a list of the largest donors to the DNC for the past two election cycles. If you know these people, you can contact them and urge them not to contribute to the DNCC.

You can also contact the DNC directly, using the information on its website.

And it goes on from there. Obviously, the intent here is for the blogger and his supporters to put pressure on a friendly entity, the Democratic National Committee, to fire the former flack for an unfriendly entity, the RIAA.

I don’t know Engebretsen, but it wouldn’t surprise me if helping the recording industry justify its policies was not her passion or her calling. It was her job. I don’t know whether she was “good at it,” which the blogger Cory Doctorow questions. What was her objective? Maybe Engebretsen told the RIAA “no matter what I do, they’ll hate you,” thus lowering expectations. The RIAA is still in business, and no one has stopped them from suing music fans.  Maybe that’s all she was supposed to accomplish — to prevent adverse regulation. 

I think PR people who stonewall the media are misguided, but there are a lot of prominent PR people who do it and get away with it.  So that’s just a matter of taste, style, or strategic thinking.

The question is, should Jenni Engebretsen be tarred for the rest of her career for the work she did at the RIAA?  Is it fair to demand she be fired?  Is it fair to call for a boycott from contributing to the DNC if they don’t?

The answer is: People will do whatever they want to do.  Cory Doctorow and his blog are a major force now.   They can hang a scarlet letter on Engebretsen and any other PR person who works for an entity they don’t like.  If it sticks, it sticks.  But I bet Engebretsen and the thousands of PR people like her weren’t expecting anything like this to happen.  Maybe Engebretsen wouldn’t have taken the RIAA job if she’d known their perceived misdeeds would follow her around like this.

Or maybe this is another sign of the end of the PR industry as we know it.  PR people can’t be “hidden persuaders” anymore. Transparency kills them like sunlight kills vampires. In a polarized political world, PR people are in the free-fire zone, getting strafed by all sides, for what they do, what they did, and what they might do in the future.

For companies, it could become a huge disincentive to engage hired guns who made their names elsewhere.  After Doctorow’s post, all the RIAA baggage has landed on the DNC’s doorstep, and will go away only if Engebretsen goes with it.  How long will she be radioactive like this?  Is she now faced with only one PR career path — back to the RIAA?

This story has a medieval quality to it.  It’s worth watching. If Engebretsen in fact loses her new job, I predict the consequences for the PR industry, and for especially the fieldworkers like Engebretsen, will be immense.

LA Times’ Triple-Dip of Imus

Three fascinating pieces in today’s LA Times about the demise of that tedious (and, I think, clearly racist) old fart Don Imus.

First, in the news section, a story that should get a lot more attention: Imus’ unique role as a conduit for liberal and Democratic politicians to white, male voters:

With Imus’ show canceled indefinitely because of his remarks about the Rutgers University women’s basketball team, some Democratic strategists are worried about how to fill the void. For a national radio audience of white men, Democrats see few if any alternatives.

“This is a real bind for Democrats,” said Dan Gerstein, an advisor to one of Imus’ favorite regulars, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.). “Talk radio has become primarily the province of the right, and the blogosphere is largely the province of the left. If Imus loses his microphone, there aren’t many other venues like it around.”

Jim Farrell, a former aide to 2000 presidential candidate and Imus regular Bill Bradley, said the firing “creates a vacuum.”

This week, when Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) was asked by CNN why he picked Imus’ show to announce his presidential candidacy, Dodd explained: “He’s got a huge audience; he gives you enough time to talk, not a 30-second sound bite, a chance to explain your views; … and a chance to reach the audience who doesn’t always watch the Sunday morning talk shows.”

This is sad on so many levels. “Come for the racism, stay for the liberal talking points?” Because, let’s face it, Imus has been doing this kind of schtick for years, as documented here, here, and here, just for starters. But I guess Imus functioned as a kind of good-old-boy cultural guide for elitist Democrats, as best illustrated by his famous “Stop it, you’re going to ruin this,” scolding to John Kerry after the disastrous speech at Pasadena City College. Imus was trying to protect the Democrats’ chances to win over white males in the 2006 election, and he saw Kerry’s insult to the troops as dangerous.

There is at least one good liberal talk show host who seems to have an affinity for white males and vice-versa: Ed Schultz. He’s not a favorite of the left blogosphere, but then, for that matter, neither was Imus.

The next LA Times Imus piece that caught my eye was from an unlikely source: The pathetic “humor” columnist on the op-ed page, Joel Stein. It’s really worth reading! Stein explains that he first discovered Imus in junior high and liked him because he called everybody a “weasel.” Then, in high school, Stein switched to the funnier Howard Stern and forgot about Imus.

I was pretty shocked when Imus reemerged as a political cognoscente. Senators and journalists happily suffered the fool. Imus asked people such as John McCain dumber questions than Stern asked strippers, and they laughed it off. But without the sexy little giggle.

That’s because society’s aspirationals use politics as a refuge for their stupidity. They sucker you into long conversations at dinner parties about how Bush is stupid and how Bush is also really stupid. They feed on political blogs and newspaper columnists that reflect their side and parrot the best one-liners they can find. These are the people who furiously scream about policy decisions mostly because they need to furiously scream about something. If they were one rung down the socioeconomic ladder, instead of yelling about Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Syria they’d be shouting about Kobe’s refusal to pass.

This isn’t to say that politics aren’t important or interesting. It’s to say that most people who talk about politics aren’t important or interesting. And Imus was their king. He got to pretend to be smart with actual smart people.

The arena of politics is too confined to encapsulate all the topics worthy of intellectual debate. It’s as though we all go to a college where everyone has to major in political science. Newspaper columns, talk radio and cable news channels rarely have serious debates about art, literature, technology, sex, fashion or religion. If it weren’t for Monica Lewinsky, newspapers still wouldn’t acknowledge the existence of the thong. Look at the lengths Britney Spears had to go to just to inform us of long-standing fashion changes in personal grooming.

The more serious side of the LA Times emerges in the penseés of Tim Rutten, their ponderous, old-school media columnist.  In his piece, he asks the really important question:  How has Imus gotten away with making these kinds of comments for so long, while retaining the fawning support of the political and media elite?

This guy has been doing this stuff for years — insulting and disparaging not only African Americans but Jews and gays.

This week the Anti-Defamation League distributed a statement pointing out that it has been lodging protests about Imus’ anti-Semitic remarks for years and nothing has been done. There are examples it cites that, frankly, can’t be quoted in this column because they’re too purely offensive, including a characterization of Washington Post columnist Howard Kurtz that’s straight out of Julius Streicher. (He habitually referred to the late Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. with a similarly racist epithet.)

Why did he get away with it?

IT happened because he made millions for his network and syndicators and covered himself with a very shrewd strategy. He positioned himself as the thinking person’s shock jock and, when he wasn’t dishing out racism, prejudice or misogyny, invited onto his show a virtual who’s who of the national news media and publishing elite. Those people were only too happy to ignore their responsibility to call Imus on his reprehensible behavior because they profited from the promotional opportunities his program granted them. He helped sell books and journalists’ careers.

Another devil’s bargain, in the same mold as the Democrats’.  What does this say about the cynicism of the writers, broadcasters and politicians who seek to lead and instruct us, that they would find in Imus a useful tool?   Because from what Rutten and the various Democratic spokespersons quoted above are saying, we can expect the sales of books by journalists to drop, along with the percentage of white males voting Democratic, if Imus isn’t there to shine his peculiar light on them.

The mind reels at the implications.

How To Get To Dodger Stadium, 2007*

navy-seals-attack.jpg

and here’s how to get out:

doves-at-dodger-stadium.jpg

I’m so lucky that the people with whom I attended today’s game insisted on getting there almost two hours early. The traffic was apocalyptically bad. A relatively small crowd of us saw all this pomp and circumstance. Many more only heard explosions and flyovers from their cars. There were still plenty of empty seats as late as the fourth inning, and traumatized fans started heading for the exits in the seventh, in hopes of avoiding a worse ride home.

The McCourts should

a) apologize;

b) completely ditch the new traffic scheme, which negates the institutional knowledge Dodger fans have developed from dealing with the quirky parking patterns at Chavez Ravine since 1962, without offering any improvement;

c) tell the parking lot attendants who were just standing around, watching this mess passively that, if they can’t think of what to do about it, at least pretend to care.

The owners’ dream of 4 million in attendance will not be achieved this season. In fact, I predict that even if this pretty good Dodger team reaches the playoffs, attendance will take a big step back, because no one will be willing to put up with this nightmare.

The Dodgers lost, 6-3, but the game was okay, the weather was great, and it was fun to see our new ace pitcher, Jason Schmidt, hit a home run. Bowing to advanced age and wisdom, I only drank cold water, but in that sun, it was good as beer. I had a good time, and am grateful I got to go.

But the day will be remembered as the day the McCourts’ incompetence, which is effectively obscured when the team plays well, finally became impossible to ignore. They are in a jam. There is no PR solution to it. They need to admit their grievous error, and fix it fast.

*Update, 4/10/07:  A formerly regular Dodger Thoughts comment poster, Tommy Naccarato, articulates what I was trying to say, except more eloquently. 

This is not just a bunch of sports fans whining about parking.  This is a story out of social anthropology; what happens when outsiders try to fix something that only looked broken, and in doing so, changing what was once a challenging but live-giving experience into something confusing and oppressive: 

You see Dodger Stadium used to be a sanctuary for me. I could escape my life and completely forget about the problems going on. I could think about roster moves; what pitcher should be in the bullpen warming up; Who should be pinch hitting and which mustard was best on my once affordable Dodger Dog. I thought of just how good I had it, right then at that very precise moment.

But that’s all changed now.

Today I experienced something at the Stadium I never fully felt before–I was being controlled from the very moment I entered up until 2 1/2 hours after the Game, when we finally got out of the newly named, “Sunset Lot” through a broken down fence–and fought the traffic out the Academy Gate, down to Stadium Way.

If we would have waited for the Sunset crowd to leave, it would have taken 3/4′s of a tank of gas waiting for it to clear and maybe at least 45 minutes more. Even one of the attendants chided with us of how ridiculous the new system was, knowing that the implementation of the old system would probably mean the end of his job there!

The system that was designed 45 years ago for Walter O’Malley’s dream ballpark had it’s quirks and turns, but knowledge of the ballpark; the ability to get out of the right gate the fastest way in relation to the size of the crowd–well you learned. I know I might be a bit resistant to change and that change is good, but honestly, and I say this knowing that your being released into traffic at rush hour–even at night, this is going to be a disaster, and frankly it’s not something I’m looking forward to for the rest of the year. At least not when you can stay at home, watch the game on T.V. and save money.

I guess it all amounts to this: What was so wrong with the old system? Even during sell outs, like last year’s season ending loss to the Mets, I was out of there quicker then I got in.

But most, it’s presents an even more alarming thought of what is left to come.  

If you want to read the whole thing, it’s comment #157 to this post.  

P.S. Welcome, LA Observed readers, and thank you Kevin Roderick for pointing to this post.

P.P.S. And welcome also to Dodger Thoughts readers.  I’m proud I could make Jon Weisman laugh.

Rough Week for the PR Biz

First, there was this oops (as described by Wired Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson)….

One of the feature stories in (Wired’s) package is a case study by Fred Vogelstein of Microsoft’s blogging initiative, which is something I’ve been really impressed by. Today the company has more than 3,500 bloggers and its corporate messaging has gone from mostly press releases and scripted executive speeches to more of an authentic conversation in public between rank-and-file employees and customers.

(snip)

Yet the old company culture is not gone, as evidenced by an executive briefing memo from Microsoft’s PR firm, Waggener Edstrom, that Vogelstein was inadvertently sent in the body of a scheduling email. At nearly 6,000 words, it’s an amazing document and a telling counterpoint to the laissez-faire spirit of the open blogging initiative. Because it so aptly illustrates the parallel open vs. closed cultures that now exist at Microsoft, as in any big company trying to evolve a command-and-control messaging process to an out-of-control age, we decided to post the whole thing online in the spirit of transparency.

The memo coaches the executives on what to say and what not to say. It talks about Vogelstein’s interviewing style and possible biases (also how he’s “tricky” and “digs for dirt”–the memo cautions the executives to avoid certain paths and to watch out for traps).

(snip)

On a personal note, it’s kind of freaky to read the memo describe how I was wooed (even manipulated, if you want to think of it that way) into commissioning the piece:

“CharlesF met with Chris Anderson during his fall tour in ’06, placing the idea that Microsoft is thinking differently and creatively about its outreach….Dan’l Lewin met with Chris Anderson in October and also emphasized the company’s work in the arena, pushing the story further…Jeff Sandquist traveled to the Bay Area to meet with Chris and his editorial team. They were highly engaged in Jeff’s conversation…” 

Yes, that’s pretty freaky.  Also freaky:  6,000 words, which works out to 13 single-spaced pages, much of it in 10-point type.  All this in preparation for what was evidently going to be a positive story.  The memo itself is linked in the body of Anderson’s post.  I started to read it, but then realized happily that I’m not being paid to read that kind of crap anymore. 

Hoo boy.  If I might offer a critique, if this was designed to prep an executive to be interviewed, it’s too much.  You’d freak him out.  When I worked in PR, I was accused of overwriting when I let a two-page memo stretch to three.

Then there’s the New Yorker’s long piece about my former firm’s (Edelman) work for Wal-Mart, and their efforts to get the Democratic Party to see the good in the discount giant.   The writer, Jeffrey Goldberg, lets us know early what he thinks of Edelman, Wal-Mart and the PR business with this little summary of the players:

The job of the Edelman people—there are about twenty, along with more than three dozen in-house public-relations specialists—is to help Wal-Mart scrub its muddied image. Edelman specializes in helping industries with image problems; another important client is the American Petroleum Institute, a Washington lobbying group that seeks to convince Americans that oil companies care about the environment and that their profits are reasonable. Edelman does its work by cultivating contacts among the country’s opinion élites, with whom it emphasizes the good news and spins the bad; by such tactics as establishing “Astroturf” groups, seemingly grass-roots organizations that are actually fronts for industry; and, as I deduced from my own visit to Bentonville, by advising corporate executives on how to speak like risk-averse politicians.

After that paragraph, I’m sure the folks in Bentonville hit the liquor department (does Wal-Mart sell liquor?).  The rest of the story doesn’t get any better.  Out of respect to my former colleagues, I won’t quote any more of it.  Just so they all know: I don’t think the story is entirely fair. 

Back to the Wag-Ed mistake: I have been there!  When I was at Edelman, we represented Community Memorial Hospital during part of its fight with Ventura County over something the hospital’s president, an eccentric fellow named Dr. Michael Bakst, believed would cost his privately-run institution a whole lot of money. I don’t recall the details.

I was up in Ventura, getting ready for an important press conference.  Unfortunately and unavoidably, the press conference coincided with an in-house event at the largest paper in Ventura, the Star, which all reporters were required to attend.  I worked it out with the reporter that we would fax him the release when we made the announcement. (In 1995, we weren’t e-mailing press releases yet.)  I had a secretary in LA all set to do this.  I told him where the release was, where the right stationary was, the fax number, what time to send it….

Somehow, my secretary thought it was okay to print a document onto the stationary, and then, without looking at it, shove it straight into the fax machine.  Whoever was supposed to be supervising him figured he couldn’t screw that up, and let him handle it alone.  After the fax went through, the secretary looked at what he’d sent. 

It was a draft of a memo written by one of my colleagues — a distressingly cynical memo, splattered with scare quotes that made it seem like, wink-wink, we knew the press conference just was a big scam to manipulate stupid reporters.  The secretary, realizing his error, called the reporter and begged him to destroy the erroneous fax.  The reporter said he would. 

The secretary figured he was in the clear, so he never told me about this.  I talked to the reporter later that day, and never gave me any hint of the fax he had seen. The story that ran in the next day’s paper was completely straightforward.  Nobody had any reason to suspect anything was amiss, least of all me.  It seemed like it had been a successful day.

A week later, my phone rings.  It’s Dr. Bakst.  “What kind of operation are you people running down there in Los Angeles? Trying to make me look bad?”  Dr. Bakst had a suspicious streak, and I’d encountered it already a couple of times.  The hospital’s administration was full of rumor-mongers.  I thought this was just another test of my loyalty.  I tried to calm him down, but he continued, accusing me of telling the editor of the Star he was “some kind of phony, trying to put one over on the media.” 

“I never talked to the editor of the Star.”

“Oh yeah?  Well, where did he get these quotes?” which he proceeded to read to me from the editor’s weekly column.  “I’m seriously thinking about firing you guys.”

All sense of reality seemed to be ebbing away. How…what…huh?  I told Dr. Bakst I’d investigate and hung up.  I started storming around the office like a confused rooster in a solar eclipse.  Hearing this ruckus, my secretary quietly approached me:  “I think I might know something about this.”

After he told the story, I fired him on the spot–the only time I’ve ever done that–not for his idiotic mistake, but for keeping it a secret.   My staff and I tried to do damage control, but it was too late.  The client bolted — a client we could ill-afford to lose. Dr. Bakst later hired Fleishman-Hillard, but not before calling to offer me a job, which seemed like a strange thing to do as he was kicking me out the door.

Although I might appear to have been an innocent victim, I do accept the blame to this extent:  About a week earlier, the secretary had come to see me to ask my advice about “investments.”  It turned out he was being drawn into a pyramid scheme by some people he’d met at a dance club.  I couldn’t believe he was that stupid, to fall for such an obvious rip-off.  And yet I trusted someone that dumb to perform a crucial task. 

Hang ‘Em All, Says Mickey Kaus…and Other Thoughts About the LA Times

The LA Times’ implosion over the “how dare you think my PR person girlfriend influenced my decision to give her client some great PR” scandal (I can’t think of a shorter shorthand for it) has led Mickey Kaus to call for… well, I’ll let him say it:

Conclusion that’s now clearer than ever: Blogger John Gabree notes that you need a strong local paper to have a strong local political culture. Los Angeles has neither. The Times was making progress under Dean Baquet. But the best thing it could do for the city now is to simply disappear, instantaneously if possible, and open up space for decent alternatives to operate without the legacy cost of 900 tantrum-prone staffers of variable abilities. …

Well, there’s such a thing as “brand equity” at stake if the paper simply disappeared.  Sam Zell isn’t buying a printing press and a bunch of delivery trucks. He’s buying the newspaper’s reputation for….

Okay, now I see what Kaus means.

(But can the blogosphere stand having 900 new blogs about the good old days of Los Angeles journalism all at once?  Better let the folks at WordPress know about this.)

Curiously, I haven’t seen much on the mainstream PR blogs about this episode. 

It is evident to pretty much every blogger who writes about the news media that Martinez created a massive conflict of interest by engaging Brian Grazer to edit his section of the Times when he knew his girlfriend was a PR rep to Grazer and his company.  He apparently wants to go down in flames saying there was no actual conflict, that his girlfriend actually had no influence on his decision, it was sheerly a coincidence that the first person he thought of to name as “guest editor” was his girlfriend’s client.  Mr. Martinez:  That’s why they call it “conflict of interest.” The words mean exactly what they say.   You don’t need proof of a quid pro quo to establish a conflict of interest.  You only need to demonstrate that, in this case, Martinez had two conflicting roles in the affair:  Editing the LA Times opinion pages, and being the boyfriend of Glazer’s PR rep.  

If there is any doubt that Martinez’ position is absurd, substitute “money” for sex in this equation.  If Andres Martinez was receiving regular payments from Kelly Mullens or her firm, even for a legitimate purpose, he wouldn’t have had the luxury of quitting.  He’d have been fired, instantly.

But what about Ms. Mullens and her company?  Are the ethical standards in the PR business now so low that her company’s role isn’t worth noting in all this?  Again, substitute money for sex.  If a PR agency was paying an editor, and the editor bestowed a favor upon a client, that would clearly be wrongful behavior by the PR agency, wouldn’t it?

Taking a step back, I’m willing to concede we don’t know what Martinez and Mullens discussed in their private time together.   For all anyone knows, the first time Martinez mentioned the Grazer’s name to Mullens as guest-editor, she might have said, “Glory be!  Did you know he’s been a client of mine? In fact, we’re trying to sign him up again.  Land sakes!”

But in the next breath, Mullens should have realized that her company’s role with Glazer was fatally compromised.  She should have called her boss and said, “We can’t represent Glazer in anything he does with the LA Times.” A law firm or an accounting firm would have reacted that way.  It’s unethical to be on either side of what could be construed as a corrupt bargain.  But I have yet to see any PR industry spokesperson or any of the high-profile PR-boosting bloggers say that, or even mention the episode.    

If I’m wrong, please leave a comment with the URL and I’ll be sure to give it prominent play.  

P.S.  I know about this. I don’t agree with all of it, but it’s very worthwhile reading, and his facts about the LA Times and an extremely serious, still-yet-to-be-disclosed conflict are on the money.  Strumpette’s comments section is always interesting, but I’ll be paying special attention this time.  (More news media folks should be reading Strumpette.)  

No, Really, I Don’t Know Anything about the Sopranos!

Should I feel guilty?  I’ve been getting a lot of traffic lately to a post I put up about a year ago about The Sopranos.  The point of the post was that there were a lot of spoilers on the Internet the weekend before the first episode of the new season, and avoiding them would take some willpower. 

The post has not a single spoiler in it.  And even if it did, it would be a year out of date.

Well, if you type Sopranos Spoilers into Google, guess whose entry shows up on the first search page?  The search page entire marketing departments and spin-off PR agencies are built around.  I am so optimized.  And I wasn’t even trying. Nobody paid me $50,000 to consult for them on how to do this.  It just happened.

This isn’t the first time.  My Elliot Mintz post from last year still gets lots of hits, and until someone basically copied my stuff into Wikipedia, I was the #1 result of any search for the Paris Hilton/John Lennon publicist.  (I’m still a healthy #3.)  But at least that post had information in it.  You go to my Mintz post, you learn something.  You can impress girls with it.  You can win bar bets.  You can feel in the know.

Not so with my Sopranos post.  It’s just a bunch of pointless drivel.  It was meant for my smaller core of regular readers who check in here occasionally for a glimpse into my mind.  A glimpse taken on a particularly sad and mediocre day, catching me obsessing about a damn TV show.  

A few days ago, I updated the post to underscore its total uselessness.  But they keep coming! So this is my last shot, my last chance to get my integrity back. 

Attention: If you’ve come to my blog for a clue as to how the Sopranos are going to end, you won’t find it here.  I don’t know.  Go here instead.  It has a bunch of credible sounding spoilers in it.  I wish I hadn’t gone there.  I really didn’t want to know what it purports to tell you. It’s probably not true anyway.  But since you’re obviously so determined…have at it.

Old Media Gets the Vapors (CORRECTED)*

(via howardowens.com)

In addition to the LA Observed suite, another great Web 2.0-from-the-ground-up site is Pegasus News, which delivers content mostly of interest to Dallas-Ft. Worth area users. On Monday, Pegasus’ Mike Owens Orren posted a story on his ill-fated partnership with the local Fox 4 News outlet — a relationship that started very promisingly, but was killed by someone he doesn’t name in Fox’s corporate headquarters for what can only be described as whimsical reasons.  

At first, Owens Orren writes, it seemed like a great match:

They had the reach; we had the depth. We had the search engine rankings; they had video people wanted to find. We had the indie cred; they had the network cred. They could promote us to a million people at a pop; we could promote them a million times a month in little increments.

The downfall began when Pegasus got Fox to agree the partnership was newsworthy and should be announced in a press release.   At first, an enthusiastic “yes.” But then, “no,” with a request for what seemed to be a slight change in the copy that would introduce the Fox 4 content. (The copy was boilerplate stuff; Fox’s requested edit was the kind of thing only PR people would notice.)  

Pegasus’ web developers needed a few days to make the change (not an unusual frustration in this world), which Owens Orren hadn’t understood to be an urgent matter anyway. However, two days after the request, in a scene that reads like a bad break-up:

Late Wednesday afternoon, my phone rang with Saunders and Mahaney (from Fox 4) on the other end. A vigorously unnamed FOX exec, who it was now admitted had been against the deal happening at all on the conference call about the press release had visited our site and seen that the requested text change had not yet gone into effect and unilaterally called off the whole deal. Yes, no one told us that the request was critical. No, there was no explaining that. No, there was no chance of reasoning, discussing or even learning who had cut the deal off at the nub. No, no part of the partnership could be salvaged. Everything Fox needed to come off our site and we wouldn’t be working together on hyperlocal news.

The best that could be offered was “maybe give it a time interval and try again.” How long? “I have no idea … a long time.”

Given the amount of precious time Pegasus invested in the tech side of this marriage, Owens Orren is understandably a little bitter.  His meta-conclusion rings true, however:

You can wait for corporate media to “get it.” You can think they have. But, in the end, corporations aren’t inherently smart, even if people inside of them are. And corporations aren’t inherently honorable, even if people inside them are. And those who can’t see past their nose and who don’t have regard for their partners will pull stunts like we just saw from Fox.

(snip)

This Little Company is at its best when it is flying the jolly roger. We work and play well with others, but apparently mainly those others that, like us, are on the outside. This episode thoroughly re-taught me that lesson, one that I won’t soon forget. That’s not to say that we can’t work with big corporations — we just can’t until we look the people who pull the pursestrings in the eye and they tell us that they, too, believe. And probably even then, we wouldn’t be safe unless they had a financial stake in our success.

One other thing is clear to me: We will, sooner rather than later, eat these larger media corporations for lunch, unless they learn how to behave in a world of distributed media. Granted, that’s the larger “we.” I can’t guarantee that Pegasus News will be The One, or one of the ones to pull it off. We’ve grown more quickly than you could have ever imagined with fewer resources than you waste in an afternoon. The “people formerly known as the audience” are mobile and transient and will abandon their old media habits without prejudice — perhaps worse, without even realizing they have done so. Blogs, Wikipedia, Digg, YouTube, RSS, Flickr: how many had you heard of a few years ago? These and others have disrupted the hell out of media in general, but have had less of an impact on local media. That’s changing, and fast.

The unnamed Fox executive who got the vapors about protecting the corporate image, brand, name or whatever from contamination by upstarts will probably have some explaining to do down the road.   

*(Note: In an earlier version of this post, I misidentified Mike Orren as Mike Owens, leaving the impression that I was quoting Howard Owens.  My apologies to both Owens and Orren)

Campaign Reform’s Perverse Effects

I was aware that my first political crush, Sen. Eugene McCarthy, was funded in his 1968 presidential campaign by a handful of liberal millionaires who wanted to dethrone Lyndon Johnson and his Vietnam folly.  I was not aware, until reading this George Will column, that it was McCarthy’s challenge that led us down the foolish road of campaign finance reform — a reform process with a great PR image but perverse effects. 

For 35 years, campaign finance limits have been sold as a way of “leveling the playing field.”  In fact, they provide the Establishment candidates of both parties an almost insurmountable advantage.  If Hillary Clinton ends up winning the 2008 Democratic nomination, it will be because of, not in spite of, campaign limits that artificially suppressed the potential for an insurgent, like Barack Obama or a centrist alternative, to challenge her. 

Will says:

Democrats have many interesting candidates, but governors often are the most plausible candidates to be the nation’s chief executive and only one remains in the Democratic race — New Mexico’s Bill Richardson. Three former governors — Virginia’s Mark Warner, Indiana’s Evan Bayh and Iowa’s Tom Vilsack — have left the field.

Vilsack said the demise of his candidacy was determined by ” money and only money.” Well, yes, but there were reasons, political and ideological, why he could not find buyers for what he was selling. Nevertheless, his statement triggered the usual laments about the determinative role of money in politics. This year we are told to be horrified by the fact that by November 2008 the presidential contest will have cost $1 billion. Which means that the two-year process will cost half as much as Americans spend every year on Easter candy.

Candidates do have to spend too much time raising money. But that is because the government, by banning large campaign contributions, has transformed a huge American surplus — money — into an artificial scarcity. The government began to do this for anti-competitive purposes.

The modern drive for campaign finance “reforms” is usually said to have been initiated by Democrats in response to Watergate. Democrats did start it, but before Watergate, in response to their traumas of 1968.

That year, Sen. Gene McCarthy’s anti-Vietnam insurgency disturbed the Democratic Party’s equilibrium by mounting a serious challenge to the renomination of President Lyndon Johnson. McCarthy was able to do that only because a few wealthy people gave him large contributions. Democrats also were alarmed by former Alabama governor George Wallace’s success in 1968, and they mistakenly assumed that Wallace, too, was mostly funded by a few very large contributions.

According to John Samples of the Cato Institute (in his book ” The Fallacy of Campaign Finance Reform”), congressional Democrats began the process that culminated in criminalizing large contributions — the kind that can give long-shot candidates, such as Vilsack, a chance to become competitive. Yes, the initial aim of campaign “reforms” was less the proclaimed purpose of combating corruption or “the appearance” thereof than it was to impede the entry of inconvenient candidates into presidential campaigns. In that sense, campaign reform is a government program that has actually worked, unfortunately.

Hillary, Bill and David*

David Geffen’s reported remarks that NY Sen. Hillary Clinton was “incredibly polarizing,” calling her husband, former President Bill Clinton, “a reckless guy,” and speaking of both Bill and Hillary, “Everybody in politics lies, but they do it with such ease, it’s troubling,” were obviously unexpected by the Clinton campaign and deeply resented by the candidate.

The campaign’s public reaction seemed disproportionate and out of control, as shown by campaign spokesman Howard Wolfson’s retort that

“Our expectation was that Sen. Obama, who was running a campaign premised on changing our politics, who has decried the politics of slash and burn, would denounce the comments, say that these comments don’t represent his thinking or his campaign. We were, frankly, surprised that he didn’t do that. It makes you wonder whether or not he agrees with them. It’s a little ironic that the candidate on one day would say, ‘I want to change America. I want to change politics. I want to lift us up. I want to stop the politics of slash and burn,’ while at the same time his leading supporter in California is attacking [President Clinton] and Sen. Clinton in very personal terms.”

The reference to Barack Obama comes because Geffen recently held a fundraiser for the Illinois senator and Clinton rival. But in normal-people-land, it would seem curious to lash out at a third party, Obama, for insults Geffen directed squarely at oneself and one’s spouse.

Geffen is not a surrogate for Obama; he just raised some money for him. It’s evidently frustrating for Sen. Clinton to have lost the support of such an influential donor, but her mouthpiece Wolfson would have it that Obama is now responsible for every utterance out of Geffen’s mouth.

Imagine how that would work if that were true. Obama would give Geffen a list of things not to say. Or maybe Geffen would call Obama’s campaign before speaking with a reporter, so he wouldn’t make a mistake. Yeah, right. David Geffen is nobody’s sock-puppet.

I suspect that of all the things Geffen said, the most offensive to Hillary Clinton was the word “they.” Meaning Hillary and Bill.  When you’ve got one of the Democratic party’s biggest supporters pointing out the problems “they” bring to the campaign, Hillary becomes unstuck.  She’s known to have a thunderous temper; and I’m sure it was her anger that launched Howard Wolfson on his fool’s errands in the media yesterday.

Bill Clinton is a “now you see him, now you don’t” presence in Hillary’s campaign. When she needs him, magically he appears. But then she snaps her fingers and he’s gone, along with his name. The banner across the top of her campaign website reads “Hillary for President,” and the links all refer to someone only named Hillary:  “Join Team Hillary,” and “Hillary on Iran,” and

In her first HillCast, a regular series of web broadcasts, Hillary talks about the Iraq Troop Protection and Reduction Act, her new plan to stop the president’s escalation and to start redeploying troops out of Iraq.

“Clinton” is in the URL and in the legally required notice, “Paid for by the Hillary Clinton for President Committee.”  If you can make it out, you can see Bill Clinton’s scribbly signature on the home page, affixed to a fundraising appeal.  When the campaign needs cash, “now you see him.”  But when the candidate is trying to establish her bonafides on the issues, “now you don’t.”

And yet.  Hillary Clinton is campaigning against Obama as a more experienced candidate, even though she has been elected official no longer than he has, because she’s counting her eight years in the White House as First Lady as a relevant credential. Who was she living with during those eight years? Someone who is actually much admired these days by certain kinds of Democrats who wonder what happened to a party that seems to have been taken over by strangely irreconcilable “netroots.” But obviously someone Hillary thinks has a lot of unwelcome baggage.

Strange that the most successful Democratic politician since the 1940s is such a pariah, and even stranger that he’s a pariah now, nearly a decade after Monica Lewinsky and the other scandals have faded into confused memory.  You have to wonder.  If Hillary Clinton built her campaign on themes taken from Bill’s 1992 and 1996 wins, wouldn’t that have some potential appeal?  We do have dynasties in American politics, and for the most part, they are reassuring to voters.  We wouldn’t have Teddy without Jack.  We wouldn’t have W without his daddy.  We wouldn’t be bothering with Hillary — an uninspiring leader, a boring speaker and a too-cautious policymaker — if it weren’t for Bill.  Bill, older and wiser, might be the perfect candidate for 2008 if the Constitution didn’t bar him from running.  Geffen’s remarks would have bounced right off him.

It is a family dynamic, not a political one, that’s being played out here.  There’s a lot of rage just below the surface, rage that has been controlled, tranquilized, compartmentalized and banished–mostly.  But we caught a glimpse of it today.

*UPDATE:  Arianna Huffington made some of these same points in an earlier post that I didn’t see til later.  My excuse is I had about a 20 hour day yesterday that began early in Boston and ended late in SoCal. 

John Edwards’ Blog Lesson*

If you know this blog, you know I tend to stay away from the stuff that other bloggers go on and on about.  The bigger the meme, the more room I give it to roll on through. But the story of John Edwards and the two bloggers he hired and then had to let resign (or whatever), is so mysterious, it’s been nagging at me, so I have to discuss it.

I don’t think Amanda Marcotte is a bigot.  On her site, Pandagon, she says she is “pro-sex, pro-feminist, pro-freedom,” which is like motherhood and apple pie, baseball, hot dogs and Chevrolet as far as I’m concerned.  She’s got a mean streak, no question, and she lets fly with harsh and graphic sarcasm particularly in response to organizations like the Catholic church that, in her view, repress women. 

She’s not the first feminist to feel rage like this against the Catholic church.  Remember Madonna, dancing in front of a burning cross?  Or Sinead O’Connor, ripping up a picture of the Pope?  I’m a guy, so I don’t feel this rage, but I’m hardly in a position to begrudge her the feelings she has. But anyway, it’s not like she’s obsessed with the topic.  She can be a charming and perceptive writer, and she’s energetic in her approach to blogging.

Melissa McEwan also seems like a bright young writer with a progressive bent, for whom the “anti-Catholic” charge was a bad rap.  However, she is also a fierce feminist who refers to herself as “Queen Cunt of Fuck Mountain,” and to the religious right as “Christofascists.” 

If you read a lot of blogs, especially on the progressive side, this kind of language is fairly typical.  It is not aimed solely at religious people; it’s aimed at conservatives, Republicans, DLC Democrats, Joe Lieberman Democrats, the media especially Fox News… It’s how they express themselves. 

If asked, I would tell all these progressive bloggers that words like “fucktard” and “Bushitler” are getting tired.  They aren’t persuasive, they’re alienating.  But it’s the language they seem to enjoy, and the Internet was made for this kind of thing.

Amanda was supposed to be the blogmaster for candidate Edwards, and Melissa was supposed to serve as a liaison to the extensive blogger network of progressives.  They had both settled in North Carolina to assume their new jobs.  But then Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League released a statement demanding they both be fired.  Edwards didn’t fire them, but he publicly disassociated himself from the things they’d said in their blogs, and, inevitably, both resigned within days.  

Marcotte and McEwan had done nothing new to warrant Edwards’ scolding statement, nor the termination of their political careers, between the time of their hiring and the time the controversy surfaced.  If the campaign had done minimal due diligence, they would have known the kind of electronic paper trail these bloggers had left behind.  They must have done this. So why did Edwards hire them? 

Presumably, the campaign knew that anytime a journalist or commentator is hired by a politician — never mind if they use a blog as their medium — their past words will be thrown in their face.  Pat Buchanan is the most famous columnist to serve stints on the White House communications staff, and there was no shortage of adversaries who tried to hang intemperate words he wrote as a journalist around the presidents he served.  Sidney Blumenthal had the same experience when he worked for Clinton.  (His response was to become even more outrageous as a political aide than he’d ever been as a writer.)

The most recent example before Marcotte and McEwan is White House Press Secretary Tony Snow. ThinkProgress, a progressive site, had a ton of fun finding critical things Snow had said about his new boss, President Bush — calling Bush “an embarassment” and “impotent.”  For some reason, Bush looked past this record and hired Snow anyway, and any controversy about it died quickly.  But Bush is a lame-duck president.  Edwards is a candidate, a dark horse, running for the nomination of a party where big-city Catholics are important.

Lots of Catholics will vote for a pro-choice candidate.  They’ll vote for Democrats, knowing that among their elites are many who disdain their faith.  But they’ll have a hard time swallowing a candidate who embraces people who seem to have no reverance for their beliefs whatsoever.  To quote Donohue:

“Writing on the Pandagon blogsite, December 26, 2006, Amanda Marcotte wrote that ‘the Catholic church is not about to let something like compassion for girls get in the way of using the state as an instrument to force women to bear more tithing Catholics.’ On October 9, 2006, she said that ‘the Pope’s gotta tell women who give birth to stillborns that their babies are cast into Satan’s maw.’ On the same day she wrote that ‘it’s going to be bad PR for the church, so you can sort of see why the Pope is dragging ass.’ And on June 14, 2006, she offered the following Q&A: ‘What if Mary had taken Plan B after the Lord filled her with his hot, white, sticky Holy Spirit,’ to which she replied, ‘You’d have to justify your misogyny with another ancient mythology.’ 

This kind of colorful talk — which goes way beyond commenting on the church’s anti-choice stance – is something no mainstream campaign could tolerate.  Edwards’ people should have found it, and it should have stopped them in their tracks.  Forget the Catholic League.  Edwards’ political rivals would have hauled this stuff out.  It’s often forgotten that the first candidate to attack Michael Dukakis for releasing rapist-murderer Willie Horton on a weekend prison furlough was not George H.W. Bush, but Al Gore.  Gore didn’t put the racial twist on the story that Bush did; but he looked for the weak spot, found it, used it, and then left it for the Republicans to pick up in due course.

You think Hilary Clinton would do any different?  But say she didn’t.  Say the Marcotte/McEwan writings had gone unexposed until the November campaign — perhaps against GOP nominee and (pro-choice) Catholic Rudy Guiliani.  You think Guiliani’s campaign would have been able to resist grandstanding to the faithful about these ‘blasphemous’ campaign aides?

The rules of politics haven’t changed just because of the Internet.  If anything, they’ve been reinforced and accelerated.  Hard-core, wild-west, shit-stirring bloggers have no more place on a political campaign than slash-and-burn op-ed columnists did; and it was unprofessional of the Edwards campaign to think otherwise. 

I don’t feel bad for Marcotte and McEwan.  In the short run, their lives are disrupted, but this controversy could end up making their careers in the field where they are best qualified — as writers. 

But I keep thinking about Edwards, who made his zillions as a plaintiff’s lawyer suing doctors and hospitals.  Litigators like him know the “gotcha” game better than anyone on the planet.  One stray word that strengthens their case, and they will hammer the defendent with it until they’ve reduced them to bloody pulp.  How could people working in his name not have seen what was inevitably coming?

*UPDATE:  Happened to run across a post by Dan Gerstein in The Politico.  Gerstein, was communications director for Sen. Lieberman’s general election campaign win over netroots’ crush Ned Lamont.  He assails the liberal blogosphere for its unquestioning defense of Marcotte and McEwan:

But the reality is, as I experienced over and over again in the Lamont-Lieberman race, this is the liberal blogosphere’s standard-less operating procedure. They have decided that the best way to fight the “right-wing smear machine” that they so despise is to create an even more venomous, boundary-less, and destructive counterpart and fight ire with more ire.

It also goes to show just how deeply most liberal bloggers believe that Republicans and conservative are morally illegitimate, and as such, any criticism or argument made by the other side is on its face corrupt and dismissible. If it is said by Catholic League President Bill Donohue, who has a history of controversial statements himself, it automatically becomes invalid, no matter the inherent integrity of the underlying proposition.

What these liberal bloggers fail to appreciate is that this petty, polarizing approach is not how you ultimately win in politics – especially in an era when most average voters outside the ideological extremes are fed up with the shrill, reflexive partisanship that dominates Washington, and when the fastest growing party in America is no party.

The blogger bomb-throwing may be good for inflaming the activist base, and, as they demonstrated in the 2006 Lieberman-Lamont Senate primary race in Connecticut, for occasionally blowing up the opposition. It’s not bad for bullying your friends, either, as the liberal blogosphere did last week in pressuring Edwards to not fire the two bloggers who penned the offensive anti-religious posts.

But the typical blog mix of insults and incitements is just not an effective strategy for persuading people outside of your circle of belief – be they moderate Democrats, moderate Republicans, or the swelling number of independents – to join your cause. In fact, it’s far more likely to alienate than propagate them. 

*ANOTHER UPDATE:  Thinking about this issue, I remembered another unlikely combination between a politician and an out-of-control writer:  Jimmy Carter and Hunter S. Thompson.  But Thompson was never more than an “unofficial advisor” to the future president.  This post is a Thompson bio that includes the story of his visits to Plains, Ga.

What’s So Funny ‘Bout Lightbulbs and Global Warming…?*

A year ago, I called attention to a British environmental activist’s campaign to ban the incandescent light bulb.  “Ban the Bulb” had a simplicity and elegance to it that appealed to this exiled PR man’s sense of how to communicate the imperatives of global warming. 

I’m not into finger-wagging on climate change, or attaching blame.  I’m into solutions, the less bothersome the better.  Getting people to switch to a source of lighting that uses dramatically less energy and thus is much cheaper over its lifespan makes more sense to me than 1,000 Al Gore “Inconvenient Truth” spinoffs or Arianna Huffington autograph sessions.

Just as I expected, a U.S. political leader has embraced the idea, and wouldn’t you know it, it’s a Californian, Assemblyman Lloyd Levine.  From the press release on his website:

“Incandescent light bulbs were first developed almost 125 years ago, and since that time they have undergone no major modifications,” Assemblymember Levine said. “Meanwhile, they remain incredibly inefficient, converting only about five percent of the energy they receive into light. It’s time to take a step forward – energy-efficient bulbs are easy to use, require less electricity to do the same job, cut greenhouse gas emissions, and save consumers money.”

According to the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), a nonprofit organization that focuses on energy policy, replacing a 75-watt incandescent light bulb with a 20-watt compact fluorescent would result in the same amount of light but would save 1,300 pounds of carbon dioxide and save customers $55 over the life of the bulb (while the life of one 75-watt incandescent bulb is roughly 750 hours, the life of a compact fluorescent is a whopping 10,000 hours). Meanwhile, incandescent bulbs use 750 kWh over 10,000 hours, while compact fluorescents use only 180 kWh.

Well, I hope Assemblyman Levine didn’t count on getting a lot of support for this idea based on my advocacy.  This idea is getting the California nuts and flakes treatment from some quarters.  Ann Althouse:

This is a California idea. If I lived there and faced this ban, I’d buy my lightbulbs in another state. It’s just too horrible to live in such an ugly glare. People who have no aesthetic sense don’t understand how a limit like this affects people. I’d be happy to make up for it by turning off more lights or using dimmers.

Why don’t you ban air conditioning?

Glenn Reynolds:

I’m quite interested in compact fluorescents — I’ve installed quite a few in my house, and I’ve been experimenting to see which ones suck (most of them) and which ones are okay. But banning incandescents? That’s just silly.

Now a ban on private jets? Much less intrusive, and there’s lots of reason to think that this sort of thing has gotten out of hand. Flying commercial — you can even fly First Class if you want — is a small sacrifice for our business and political and entertainment leaders to pay in order to fight the scourge of global warming. Plus, who knows, if the “jet set” starts flying commercial again, maybe commercial flying will get better . . . .

Certainly, Reynolds has a point about private jets — I’ve made the same point.  And, I get it that some compact-fluorescents are ugly, or flicker like office flourescents, and for some people can trigger migraines.  But let’s chill out here. Levine’s talking about 2012. If, as Reynolds says, there are some that are “okay,” why is it so hard to imagine further developments in the next five years to give consumers more good choices? It simply beggars common sense that the only alternative to a 125-year-old wasteful technology is an “ugly glare.”

Besides, the likelihood of Levine’s proposal becoming law anytime soon is nonexistent.  It’s a publicity stunt — the good kind of publicity stunt, one that educates people and stimulates a more informed debate.  Maybe it will sell more energy-saving bulbs.  Maybe it will cause people to turn off lights when they aren’t using them.  Maybe we’ll figure out a tax incentive to accomplish the same thing.  The debate has to start somewhere.  

Right now, I hate all the rhetoric about global warming. It’s so apocalyptic, on both sides.  Let’s get down to the nitty gritty.  Assume there is at least a good chance there is man-made climate change.  Assume there is an opportunity to mitigate it through a reduction in pollution from greenhouse gases.  Look for the most cost-effective, least economically damaging ways to attain those reductions. Push the technology, fund the research.  Make things happen. 

Maybe the seas will rise.  Or maybe future scientists will conclude the panic was silly.  We can’t know the future.  But we can make changes.  Levine’s proposal is a practical contribution, and I’d like to see more of them.  

*Update:  Just noticed that Glenn Reynolds has a new post up about compact flourescents. As he finds more bulbs that give off a satisfactory glow, his tone shifts.  Given his huge readership and his reputation as a small-l libertarian, he’s doing a lot of good.  Obviously, a guy like him will never endorse a bill that mandates a change in the market — he calls regulatory intervention the “hair-shirt approach.”  But Glenn’s talking as if Levine’s bill has a prayer.  It doesn’t. 

Reynolds and Levine, together, are educating people based on their respective positions in the intellectual firmament.  I’m sure Levine’s proposal got a lot of liberals and environmentalists to say, oops, why haven’t I made the switch?  If they’re interested in a non-tree-hugging consumer’s evaluation, they can turn to Reynolds.  Blogecology at its finest.

Irony, Defined: PepsiCo in India

indra-nooyi-of-pepsico.jpgIndra Nooyi is an inspirational figure in India, having risen to the position of PepsiCo CEO, and becoming (according to Fortune) the most powerful woman CEO in the world. She is a fascinating person in her own right, and a great symbol of globalism.  

So you would think a visit to Dehli for Nooyi would be a tour of triumph.  Not according to the International Herald Tribune:

Unfortunately, the timing of her return could not have been worse. She walked straight into a dispute about the evils of junk food, arriving just as India’s health minister, Anbumani Ramadoss, announced that he planned to ban colas and greasy snacks in schools because they were ruining the health of the nation’s children.

In a powerful speech days before Nooyi’s arrival, Ramadoss warned that the wealthy middle classes were facing a “galloping” rise in obesity, heart disease and diabetes. He promised to introduce compulsory yoga in schools along with classes on healthy eating.

Moving beyond the allegations of insecticide contamination, which have shaken sales of both Coke and Pepsi in India for the past five months, he added firmly that “with or without pesticides” colas were “harmful for health and should not be consumed.”

It was a rude welcome for the visiting celebrity. Nooyi fought back bravely, stressing that PepsiCo wanted to work with the Indian government to combat “the prevailing sedentary lifestyle,” which she identified as the root cause of obesity-related illnesses. She announced that her company’s “Fun for You” products (colas and snacks) would be balanced by its “Good for You” line (waters and energy drinks). But the expected exuberance of this trip was dampened by the controversy.

The deeper and more tragic irony is that just as India faces an obesity crisis, it continues to struggle to feed its children. According to Ramadoss, 50-60 percent of Indian children are malnourished. 

Certainly, the American stereotype of India has shifted quickly from that of desperate poverty to one of outsourced efficiency and business success.  But with success comes the cycle of workaholism, two-income families, the increased reliance on food you can grab off a convenience store shelf or get through a drive-thru window, and all the health problems that come with living that way.  

Ramadoss made it clear that his strategy for tackling India’s new weight problem would be to target precisely the products Nooyi was in Delhi to sell. He conceded that there might be “legal hindrances” with introducing a blanket ban on colas and chips in schools, and he proposed introducing a system of fines and penalties instead.

Health experts welcomed Ramadoss’s decision to highlight the growing problem of obesity in India.

Ambrish Mithal, senior doctor at an obesity center run by Apollo, a private hospital in Delhi, said that by conservative estimates at least 30 percent of women and 20 percent of men in urban areas were already clinically obese, although some experts put the real figure at closer to two-thirds of women.

“Malnutrition continues to be the bane of India, but the people who matter in this country are affected by the opposite problem,” he said. “The worst sufferers are the people working in the multinationals in urban India; they make up the new work force driving the nation’s economy, working to put India on the world map. A vital component of our manpower will become sick if steps are not taken to address this.”

A world of meaning in the doctor’s use of the phrase “the people who matter in this country.”  Certainly, Nooyi’s company has picked up his not-subtle message about whose problems count the most.  PepsiCo will be investing $500 million in India over the next five years, “part of which will go to building a new research center outside Delhi, where scientists will work on concocting low- calorie and low-caffeine drinks,” according to the IHT.

On Fox, O.J. Simpson, and Mike Piazza

I gather that if you spend enough time in the highly rarified strata where the biggest media executives dwell, you just lose all your wits. 

It’s a voluntary form of sensory deprivation; to have enough money and enough people demanding your time that you decide you must completely detach yourself from ordinary people.  A form of character mutation must take place, per the theories of Charles Darwin. Certain powers of intuition grow weaker, starved for energy by the parts of your brain that must expand to encompass the business dealings of a global media empire entrusted with billions of investor dollars. 

To be an “A-list” publisher, editor, literary agent or broadcasting executive today bears no resemblance to how such people lived their lives in the past; when they drove their own cars, took taxis, rode subways, frequented local pubs and sat with everybody else at pro football games.  The income and experience gap between the executive and the audience was much narrower decades ago than it is now.  

All of this must explain the O.J. Simpson debacle.  Judith Regan and Rupert Murdoch, and the anonymous but nearly as powerful suits who directly report to them, must just be unable to look normal people in the eye and understand what they are seeing there.  I can’t think of anyone I know who wouldn’t have immediately recognized the stupidity of giving Simpson a massive public platform, and paying him a fortune to spin gruesome fantasies, masked confessions and bullshit rationalizations about the crimed he committed but absurdly denies:  Decapitating his ex-wife and an acquaintance.  How could they not have expected the victims’ survivors to object publically?  How could they have convinced themselves that this mercenary exercise would provide the victims with “closure?”

In this morning’s New York Times coverage of Murdoch’s decision to drop the show and the book, a familiar name popped up, one I hadn’t heard in awhile:  Peter A. Chernin, president and COO of the Fox Entertainment Group, which was responsible for the now-scuttled TV broadcast. 

Los Angeles Dodger fans recall Chernin all too well — for an almost equally clueless move.  From the archives of DodgerBlues:

May 15, 1998… a day that will live in infamy. After rejecting the Dodgers’ $84 million contract offer, (Mike) Piazza was traded to the Marlins along with Todd Zeile for Gary Sheffield, Charles Johnson, Bobby Bonilla, and Tourettes-inflicted Jim Eisenreich. While Sheffield has certainly paid dividends for the Dodgers, putting up solid numbers for three straight years, the Piazza trade marked the beginning of the end of Dodger tradition. It was Fox’s first major move, and it showed how much they knew about baseball: nothing. The move was engineered by two TV guys, Peter Chernin and Chase Carey. Fred Claire, as lousy as he was, would never have made such a move–trading a certain Hall of Famer in his prime, the cornerstone of the organization, a guy loved by fans. It still makes us sick to think about it.

Well, I guess Chernin’s not that great of a “TV guy,” either.

By the way, in case you were wondering what happens when a big TV spectacular is cancelled, and a mega-big book is withdrawn, here’s a primer from the same NY Times’ article:

In an interview last week, Judith Regan, the publisher, said ReganBooks, an imprint of HarperCollins, had signed a contract with “a manager who represents a third party” who owned the rights to Mr. Simpson’s account.

Because the News Corporation and ReganBooks decided on their own to cancel the book and the television special, that money is likely to still have to be paid.

A spokesman said Ms. Regan declined to comment yesterday on the book’s withdrawal.

Erin Crum, a spokeswoman for HarperCollins, said some books had already been shipped to stores. Those books will be recalled and destroyed, Ms. Crum said.

Last Friday, Borders announced that it would donate the net proceeds from sales of Mr. Simpson’s book to a nonprofit organization for victims of domestic violence.

Ann Binkley, a spokeswoman for Borders, said she received a call from HarperCollins yesterday afternoon notifying her that the book would be recalled. No explanation was offered for the decision.

“I think everybody knows why,” Ms. Binkley said.

The rights to the book could still be sold to another publisher, said the News Corporation executive involved in the negotiations.

There is precedent for a recalled book to be sold to another publisher and then to the public. In 1990, Vintage Books, a division of Random House, bought the rights to “American Psycho,” a novel by Bret Easton Ellis, after the original publisher, Simon & Schuster, withdrew from publishing it because of the novel’s graphically violent content.

As for the television interview, it could also be offered to other outlets, although at least two other networks, ABC and NBC, have reported that they turned it down before it was accepted by Fox. Ms. Regan, who conducted the on-camera interview with Mr. Simpson and is presumed to own the rights to it, could still seek a sale to either a cable channel or even a pay-per-view company.

The fact that the interview already exists on tape, executives at Fox and News Corporation said, means it is likely to turn up somewhere, perhaps on the Internet.

See, nobody ever pays for blunders like this.  By the time you’ve reached the level where you have the power to f— up to this degree, it’s too late — you can’t go back to where the normal people live.   You’d die, and your colleagues know it.  In the real world, the Piazza error would have cost Chernin his job.   But at his level, you’re kept around — and history can repeat. 

If you’re looking for a Christmas present for anyone at Fox involved with this fiasco, well, I don’t think they could ever have enough of these:

Okay. I Believe John Kerry Meant it as a Joke. So Why Didn’t He Apologize? *(updated)

kerry-plays-soccer.jpgI don’t get John Kerry — and even though I voted for the guy, I never really did get him. My theory on Kerry, which always riled my mother to no end, was that he was burdened by the appearance of being a highly intelligent man, when in fact he is just average. If he looked like, say, me, for example, he would have gone into a line of work more commensurate with his abilities. That world-bearing gravitas…isn’t that the kind of wise leader we need for our troubled times? So his face seems to say.

His face lies. With the best chance of beating an incumbent president since 1968 (I think Clinton bucked the odds in ’92 by beating Bush, aided heavily by the presence of Ross Perot on the ballot), Kerry managed to blow the 2004 presidential election. I don’t think it was a sudden outbreak of love for W. I think a lot of fence-sitters at the end were turned off by Kerry, and stuck with the devil they knew. He just didn’t seem very smart, after all.

So last night in Pasadena, Kerry made his famous comment to the students at the City College, saying, We’re here to talk about education, but I want to say something before, you know education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework, and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq.”

Unbelievable. Even if this was how he really felt — and the sentiment did seem to fit what we know about this pompous preppy — it seemed impossible that he would actually say it.

So — it was a gaffe, right? He meant to make a joke about the “dumb” Bush getting us stuck in Iraq, and it came out wrong. To stop the bleeding, here’s the PR 101: Apologize. Right away. Say he realizes what he said might have been taken as an insult by our servicemen and women in Iraq. He didn’t mean to suggest they all got there because they screwed up in school. Mea culpa.

But no. Here‘s what he actually said today about the mess he made:

Let me make it crystal clear, as crystal clear as I know how. I apologize to no one for my criticism of the president and of his broken policy. If anyone owes our troops in the fields an apology, it is the president and his failed team and a Republican majority in the Congress that has been willing to stamp — rubberstamp policies that have done injury to our troops and to their families.

My statement yesterday — and the White House knows this full well — was a botched joke about the president and the president’s people, not about the troops. The White House’s attempt to distort my true statement is a remarkable testament to their abject failure in making America safe. It’s a stunning statement about their willingness to reduce anything America, the raw politics. It’s their willingness to distort, their willingness to mislead Americans, their willingness to exploit the troops as they have so many times at backdrops, at so many speeches in which they have not told the American people the truth.

I’m not going to stand for it. What our troops deserve is a winning strategy, and what they deserve is leadership that is up to the sacrifice that they’re making. Sadly, this is the best that this administration can do in a month when we have lost 100 young men and women who have given their lives for a failed policy. Over half the names on the Vietnam wall were put there after our leaders knew that our policy was wrong, and it was wrong that leaders were quiet then, and I’m not going to be quiet now. This is a textbook Republican campaign strategy: try to change the topic, try to make someone else the issue, try to make something else said the issue, not the policy, not their responsibility.

Well, everybody knows it’s not working this time, and I’m not going to stand around and let it work.

If anyone thinks that a veteran, someone like me, who’s been fighting my entire career to provide for veterans, to fight for their benefits, to help honor what their service is — if anybody thinks that a veteran would somehow criticize more than 140,000 troops serving in Iraq, and not the president and his people who put them there, they’re crazy. It’s just wrong.

This is a classic GOP textbook Republican campaign tactic. I’m sick and tired of a bunch of despicable Republicans who will not debate real policy, who won’t take responsibility for their own mistakes, standing up and trying to make other people the butt of those mistakes.

I’m sick and tired of a whole bunch of Republican attacks, the most of which come from people who never wore the uniform and never had the courage to stand up and go to war themselves.

Enough is enough. We’re not going to stand for this.

This policy is broken, and this president and his administration didn’t do their homework. They didn’t study what would happen in Iraq. They didn’t study and listen to the people who were the experts and would have told them. And they know that’s what I was talking about yesterday. I’m not going to be lectured by a White House or by the likes of Rush Limbaugh, who’s taking a day off from mimicking and attacking Michael J. Fox, who’s now going to try to attack me and lie about me and distort me. No way. It disgusts me that a bunch of these Republican hacks, who have never worn the uniform of our country, are willing to lie about those who did. It’s over.

This administration has given us a Katrina foreign policy: mistake upon mistake upon mistake, unwilling to give our troops the armor that they need, unwilling to have enough troops in place, unwilling to give them the humvees that they deserve to protect them, unwilling to have a coalition that is adequate to be able to defend our interests.

Our own intelligence agency has told us they’re creating more terrorists, not less; they’re making us less safe, not more. I think Americans are sick and tired of this game.

These Republicans are afraid to stand up and debate a real veteran on this topic, and they’re afraid to debate — you know, they want to debate straw men because they’re afraid to debate real men.

Well, we’re going to have a real debate in this country about this policy. The bottom line is, these Republicans want to distort this policy. And this time it won’t work, because we are going to stay in their face with the truth. And no Democrat is going to be bullied by these people, by these kinds of attacks that have no place in American politics. It’s time to set our policy correct.

They have a stand still and lose policy in Iraq, and they have a cut and run policy in Afghanistan. And the fact is our troops, who have served heroically, who deserve better, deserve leadership that is up to their sacrifice, period.

Q Senator, John McCain said that you owe an apology to many thousands of Americans serving in Iraq who answered their country’s call because they are patriots. Should those people who didn’t get your joke, who may have misinterpreted you as saying the undereducated are cannon fodder — what do you say to them?

KERRY: Never said that. And John McCain knows I’ve never said that, and John McCain knows I wouldn’t say that. And John McCain ought to ask for an apology from Donald Rumsfeld for making the mistakes he’s made. John McCain ought to ask for an apology from this administration for not sending in enough troops. He ought to ask for an apology for putting our troops on the line with a policy that doesn’t have an adequate coalition, that doesn’t have adequate diplomacy, where we don’t have a strategy to win.

And what we need is to debate the real issues, not these phony, sideline issues that are part of the politics. Americans are tired — sick and tired of this kind of politics. They know my true feelings. They know I fought to provide additional money for veterans. They know I fought to provide money for combat — for veterans. They know I fought to put money for VA. They know I’ve honored those veterans. They know that this is the finest military — and I’ve said it a hundred thousand times — that we’ve ever had. They know precisely what I was saying, and they’re trying to turn this, because they have a bankrupt policy and they can’t defend it to the nation and they can’t defend it to the world, and I’m not going to stand for this anymore, period. That’s the apology that people ought to get.

Q Do you need to go to joke school?

KERRY: Sure. Q It sounds like you regret saying those remarks. And what were you trying to say?

KERRY: Very simple, that they — that those who didn’t study it properly, those who made the decisions, they got us into Iraq, very simple. And the fact is they know that. The administration knows that. And they’re simply trying to distort this. They’re trying to play a game, and again, I’m not going to stand for it. This is the kind of thing that makes Americans sick. People know.

And there ought to be some level of honor and trust in this process. You know, I have fought a lifetime on behalf of veterans, and we have the finest young men and women serving us in the United States military that we’ve ever had. And I’m proud of that. But this administration has let them down, and that was clearly in a remark directed at this administration. They understand it, they want to distort it. It’s a classic Republican playbook. They want to change the topic. We’re not going to let them change the topic. The topic is their failed policy in Iraq. The topic is that they don’t have a strategy; they don’t have a way to be able to win.

You got Dick Cheney saying everything’s just terrific in Iraq only a week ago. John McCain ought to ask for an apology from Dick Cheney for misleading America. He ought to ask for an apology from the president for lying about the nuclear program in Africa. He ought to ask for an apology for once again a week ago referring to al Qaeda as being the central problem in Iraq when al Qaeda is not the central problem.

Enough is enough! I’m not going to stand for these people trying to shift the topic and make it politics. America deserves a real discussion about real policy, and that’s what this election is going to be about next Tuesday.

Q Senator –

KERRY: One more question, and then, I got to run.

Q (Off mike) –

KERRY: Let me tell you something, I’m not going to give them one ounce of daylight to spread one of their lies and to play this game ever, ever again. That is a lesson I learned deep and hard, and I’ll tell you, I will stand up anywhere across this country and take these guys on. This is dishonoring not just the troops themselves by pointing the finger at the troops, it’s abusing the troops. They’re using the troops. They’re trying to make the troops into the target here. I didn’t do that, and they know that. And for them to suggest that somebody who served their country as I did and has a record like I have in the United States Congress of standing up and fighting for the troops would ever, every insult the troops is an insult in and of itself. And they owe us an apology for even daring to use the White House to stand up and make this an issue again. Shame on them. Shame on them. And may the American people take that shame to the polls with them next Tuesday.

Thank you, all.

Wow. Just terrible. He thinks it’s 2004, and the Swift Boat guys are after him again. Only this time, he’s going to man up, and confront those bastards. Isn’t that what he’s thinking? Sure seems like it. Except the hard-nose, not-backin’-down rhetoric is all wrong for the event that prompted it. Everyone knows he hates Bush, disagrees with the Republicans — nothing new there. But it’s the soldiers in Iraq who needed to hear from him, not political reporters! Bush wasn’t offended — the troops and their families were (presumably).

Now he’s guaranteed a fire-storm. Democratic candidates will get drawn into it, their GOP opponents “demanding” they renounce the party’s 2004 standard-bearer. Commercials are being cut now. The Democrats don’t get it, the Democrats disrespect the troops, the Vietnam syndrome lives. Blah blah blah. Count on it.

I was thinking this weekend that the Democrats had finally gotten it together, and were about to win this mid-term election with a margin to spare in the House, and perhaps squeak by in the Senate, developments I welcomed as exceedingly healthy for both the nation and the party. But now, this colossal narcissist John Kerry, who shouldn’t even be out in public… Well, we’ll see how it turns out.

My stomach’s in knots. We did not need this.

*Update, 11/1/06:  As expected, Kerry has retracted his pledge to “apologize to no one.”  He has apologized to anyone who “misinterpreted” his remarks:

WASHINGTON (CNN) — Sen. John Kerry apologized Wednesday for a “poorly stated joke,” which the Massachusetts senator says was aimed at the president but was widely perceived as a slam on U.S. troops.

“I sincerely regret that my words were misinterpreted to wrongly imply anything negative about those in uniform, and I personally apologize to any service member, family member, or American who was offended,” he said in a written statement.

“As a combat veteran, I want to make it clear to anyone in uniform and to their loved ones: My poorly stated joke at a rally was not about, and [was] never intended to refer to any troop,” he said.

Not to be a grammar Bushitler, but:

Coming from such a highly educated man, I’m surprised this statement’s double-negative got through.  If Kerry’s words were “misinterpreted to wrongly imply” something, doesn’t that mean the opposite of “interpreted to wrongly imply,” and also the opposite of “misinterpreted to imply?”  If you misintepret something to wrongly imply something else, the two negatives cancel each other out, so you’re left with a statement correctly “interpreted to imply….” Which is what we were saying all along — he insulted the troops.

Maybe Kerry didn’t study hard enough.

Responsibility for Child Abuse

I’m fascinated by the twist that the case of former Rep. Mark Foley has taken toward trying to locate the source of his predatory behavior at the precise moment in his childhood when a Catholic priest apparently fondled him. The Nancy Grace types scorn this as “the abuse excuse,” an attempt by wrongdoers like Foley to shift the blame and avoid responsibility. That’s how Foley’s statements initially hit my ears, too.

But then it turned out Foley wasn’t lying. The priest in question, Father Mercieca, publicly said, “Once maybe I touched him” during their naked times together in a jacuzzi.

Fr Mercieca said he had befriended the boy after he arrived in Florida from Brazil.

The priest said he didn’t understand why Mr Foley had decided to come forward after almost 40 years.

“`Why does he want to destroy me in my old age?” Fr Mercieca told the newspaper.

“I would say that if I offended him, I am sorry. But remember the good times we had together and how we enjoyed each other’s company, and let bygones be bygones,” he told WPTV.

Ugh.

And now, less than 24 hours later, the Catholic Archdiocese of Miami has issued a public apology to Foley.

THE Catholic Church today apologised for the “inexcusable” behaviour of a priest who allegedly fondled Mark Foley when the now disgraced ex-Republican politician was an altar boy.

“An apology is due to Mr. Foley for the hurt he has experienced,” the Archdiocese of Miami said after the State Attorney’s office in Palm Beach, Florida identified the priest who allegedly abused the former politician four decades ago.

“Such behaviour is morally reprehensible, canonically criminal and inexcusable,” the Church said.

Meanwhile, Foley is being encouraged by activists to file a police report, even though the statute of limitations has probably run out.

This story illustrates what we all know about child abuse — that it is passed on, that the abused frequently become the abusers. We might be able to learn from Fr. Mercieca about the episode in his childhood that led him to mistreat a child this way. Beyond that, the path will surely get murky, but going forward, there will be a record, if any of Foley’s victims become abusers.

Another angle to examine: Fr. Mercieca claimed his abuse occured because he was “down…taking tranquilizers.” And Foley has blamed alcohol for his actions. Again, the popular response is, “there they go again, shifting responsibility.” But maybe we need to think a little deeper about this. How many child molesters are sober when they commit their crimes? A primary role for alcohol in society is to lower inhibitions — that’s why it is served at parties, to help overcome social awkwardness. But in the hands of the abused/abuser, it is often the fuel that takes their awful fantasies into the realm of reality.

Truly, I am not suggesting that an abuser should be viewed sympathetically if they claim they were drunk or on drugs when they committed their heinous acts. If anything, I am suggesting the reverse. Perhaps there needs to be an affirmative responsibility on the part of those who are suppressing these evil impulses to stay away from alcohol and drugs, and to seek help in doing so. “Know thyself” needs to become more than just good advice, but a legal and moral responsibility.

There also needs to be an affirmative responsibility on the part of the alcohol industry to warn their customers that their product lowers inhibitions and might lead to extremely regrettable behavior. They already warn about drinking and driving and drinking while pregnant or nursing; but drinking and abuse are at least as big a threat. What would be so terrible if the alcohol industry were forced to post signs and create ads warning that, for certain individuals, drinking leads to abusive, criminal behavior? If it makes one potential abuser think twice, it might be worth it.

It is particularly reprehensible that a doctor prescribed tranquilizers, as Fr. Mercieca has said, and the result was his woozy indulgence in child sexual abuse. Who was the doctor? What were the pills? Do they bear any responsibility for these acts on the part of Fr. Mercieca, and thus for Foley? If doctors are aware that drugs they are prescribing have the effect of lowering inhibitions or overcoming good judgement, then they need to develop a risk profile of their patients before letting them have a prescription. Doesn’t that make sense? Shouldn’t the doctors at least be required to ask questions like, “Were you sexually abused as a child? Do you harbor fantasies of having sex with a child?”

Believe me, in some ways I recoil from the implications of my own thoughts here. I am talking about a massive increase in exposure to legal liability for doctors, pharmaceutical manufacturers and those who make and sell alcohol. I am also adding a layer of prosecutable offenses to what is already illegal — child abuse — by suggesting that individuals must be held accountable for knowing their own risk factors, and structuring their lives to minimize those risks. The trial lawyers hardly need more slop to feed on.

But if we have the power to break this chain of abuse by aggressive social intervention of this nature, shouldn’t we at least explore the potential to end this tragedy? Because it is a tragedy that ultimately victimizes the most innocent. If we can protect them, shouldn’t we?

Some Watered-Down Santa Barbara News-Press News

I hadn’t heard any recent developments in connection with the blow-up at the Santa Barbara News-Press. It seems like the whole thing has evolved into a rather unsexy union vs. management dispute, and that Wendy McCaw’s rule over this particular roost has consolidated since the summer.

But I thought I’d check anyway and see if anyone had missed anything. I came across a story involving McCaw’s fiance, Arthur Von Weisenberger. (What a great name. If I was still a kid, and I was arguing with another kid who was acting like a know-it-all, I might say to him: “Who do you think you are, Arthur Von Weisenberger?”)

It turns out Von Weisenberger is in charge of Bottled Water Web, “The Definitive Bottled Water Site.” In addition to offering the latest in bottled water information, the site has 79 registered users who chat about bottled water. Just today, “anonymous” asked the following penetrating question:

Greetings! Does anyone know the size of a standard 5-gallon water bottle? (In inches, preferably.) Also, do you know the average weight for a plastic 5-gallon bottle? I believe the water itself should weigh about 40 pounds. Much thanks!

But perhaps that’s unfair. Perhaps I’m making this site sound trivial. In fact, Bottled Water Web is a newsmaker. Just last week, Jessica Mullen, staff writer for the UC Santa Barbara student newspaper, the Daily Nexus, filed this report:

Contrary to popular belief, a recent study proves that UCSB students are fueled by fluids other than Natty Ice.

Bottled water, but not tap water, is the preferred drink of a random sampling of over 100 UCSB students, according to a study conducted by Bottled Water Web President Arthur Von Wiesenberger. The next most popular drink choices on the survey were juice, flavored tea, diet soft drinks and milk respectively.

So Natty Ice doesn’t even show up. Boy, the “popular belief” sure was way off this time! By the way, the Urban Dictionary defines “Natty Ice” as “trailer trash beer.” If that’s true, then obviously the survey is questionable, because no UC Santa Barbara student would ever admit to any association with “trailer trash.”

Von Wiesenberger, the long-term fiance of Santa Barbara News-Press owner Wendy McCaw, said the trend reflects students’ increased exposure to bottled water from childhood onward.

“University students today are really the first generation to have grown up in America when bottled water became mainstream in the 1980s,” Von Wiesenberger said in a press release. “Their parents – the baby boomers – brought bottled water into the home as a primary beverage choice, so from an early age these 20-year-olds were accustomed to drinking bottled water as a part of the American lifestyle.”

Survey interviews began on campus this past May. Von Wiesenberger shared the findings at the International Bottled Water Associations 2006 Convention, held in Las Vegas two weeks ago.

Do you get the sense there might have been some built-in bias to this survey? It was taken by a bottled-water website operator for presentation at a bottled water trade meeting. We’ll have to get a look at the questions in this survey.

The data revealed that 42 percent of students drink water “all the time,” and 33 percent consume water more than half of the time. Of the students interviewed, the median age was 20, 68 percent were female, 26 percent were male and 6 percent did not specify a gender.

“All the time?” “More than half the time?” What was the universe of time being measured? Every waking minute? That’s a lot of water. It might have been more responsible for the reporter to point out at this juncture that you can get very sick from drinking too much water — a condition called hyponatremia. Ironically, hyponatremia symptoms “mirror those of dehydration.” You can die from too much water!

In addition to preferring bottled water, over 50 percent of the students surveyed claimed they rarely drink tap water and believe “bottled water is better than tap water,” citing the taste and convenience of bottled water.

First-year global studies major Bethany Abbott reaffirmed Von Wiesenberger’s belief that this generation’s drinking habits and consumer preferences seldom involve tap water.

Certainly, if you’re on the go, bottled water is a great convenience. But it is infinitely more expensive. Slurping at a water fountain on most college campuses is free of charge. A single-size bottle of water can set you back almost two bucks. These are kids who are going to graduate under a heavy load of student loan debt. It might have been responsible for the reporter to point out the serious fiscal consequences of bottled water. Plus, public water agencies frequently hold blind taste tests between bottled water and tap water, and tap water often wins.

“I only purchase bottled water,” Abbott said. “I do not spend money on anything else, be it soda or Jamba Juice. I only buy bottled water.”

According to Agnes Huff, president and CEO of Agnes Huff Communication Group, the study is important to companies that aim to sell students water.

A-ha! Agnes Huff. Where have we heard that name before? That’s right: She is the spokesperson for Wendy McCaw! Working for the McCaw family is turning out to be a lucrative little cottage industry for Ms. Huff’s PR business. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

“The results provide valuable marketing implications for a business attempting to target this important constituency,” Huff said.

How does a result “provide…implications?” You make implications. You imply. They are not provided, passively, like rain falling from the sky, from results. Oh, never mind.

Although the survey was conducted strictly at UCSB, Huff said she hopes to take the study to a variety of schools in order to widen Von Wiesenberger’s research.

“We want to compare results at different campuses to find out if results differ geographically,” Huff said.

Because different results geographically could provide additional valuable marketing implications, doncha know. Plus, what great PR. You go onto a college campus, you ask a bunch of kids if they like drinking water out of a bottle, you publish the results in a press release, and the college paper will run with it. If you somehow find a campus that prefers “Natty Ice,” then, no problem. Don’t write the press release, and no one will be the Weisenberger.

(P.S. If we really want to put the Bottled Water Web and Agnes Huff to the test, someone should ask them to respond to this.)

“Forget it Dick, It’s Chinatown”

That might have been a good final line to the ABC mini-series “The Path to 9/11.” Because John O’Neill didn’t survive, it would have had to be spoken to Richard Clarke.

Supposedly this two-part show was a right-wing smear attack on the Clinton Administration. Well, look. If you’re going to tell the story of how the government screwed up in protecting America from this attack, you’re going to feature characters who are part of the permanent government, such as the story’s hero, FBI Special Agent John P. O’Neill. As a rule, such people have contempt for politics, politicians and, above all, political appointees. (This is true at every level of government.  I saw it all the time at City Hall.  Elected officials and their appointees eventually figure out that there are two types of bureaucrats:  The smart, dedicated ones who think the political people are stupid, and the dumb, lazy ones who think the political people are stupid.)

It is part of the story to show there was tension between people like Clarke and O’Neill on one side, and presidential appointees like Madeleine Albright, Sandy Berger and, later, Condi Rice on the other. Especially in the case of O’Neill, a fierce, brilliant Irish bulldog who headed the FBI’s National Security Division.

Barbara Newman, a documentary producer for A&E, interviewed O’Neill in 1997. That interview was included in a 2002 PBS Frontline episode on O’Neill called “The Man Who Knew.” On the PBS website, Newman writes:

I had covered terrorism stemming from the Middle East since 1980, when I was a producer for ABC’s 20/20. John and I shared an interest in this area and a belief that the U.S. could suffer a tremendous blow from those who espoused a hatred of us and our society. Some found his zeal shrill and annoying. I found it reassuring.

John could be utterly charming or totally devastating. He could wither with a look, suffering fools badly. He was openly contemptuous of people he didn’t think pushed the envelope or themselves. He thought so quickly he often finished my sentences. I knew when he disagreed with me by catching an amused flicker in his eyes.

John had old-fashioned values. He was patriotic. He was religious, never missing a Sunday mass. He told me that he was so poor growing up, he had done every job, including cleaning bathrooms. He went to the FBI at age 18 and became a tour guide. The Bureau was his life; they sent him to college at American University.

Behind the bluster, John was a gentle soul. He might not admit it, but I think he would rather light a candle than curse the darkness.

John and I were friends. We were able to communicate directly, without artifice. We trusted each other and knew each other’s limits. For years John had told me that Osama bin Laden was an enormous threat to the U.S. and that I should do a documentary about him. And for years I told him that Americans weren’t interested. We were both right.

Also in 2002, the New Yorker‘s Lawrence Wright wrote a posthumous profile of O’Neill, in which Clarke played a prominent role. The whole piece is worth reading — Wright has a new book out about 9/11 that I am anxious to get. This excerpt is telling:

Clarke immediately spotted in O’Neill an obsessiveness about the dangers of terrorism which mirrored his own. “John had the same problems with the bureaucracy that I had,” Clarke told me. “Prior to September 11th, a lot of people who were working full time on terrorism thought it was no more than a nuisance. They didn’t understand that Al Qaeda was enormously powerful and insidious and that it was not going to stop until it really hurt us. John and some other senior officials knew that. The impatience really grew in us as we dealt with the dolts who didn’t understand.”

That’s right: Dolts. It’s obvious both Clarke and O’Neill didn’t like much of anybody in Washington, regardless of party. Maybe they were being unfair, or maybe they were right. But it wasn’t partisan.

“The Path to 9/11″ was primarily the story of these two men and their frustration in trying to protect the nation from a threat they saw clearly and — so they thought — no one else did. “No one” is inclusive of Clinton and his appointees. It would have been untrue to the characters to have them make nice comments about the Administration, or to whitewash the contempt that numerous witnesses say they felt toward them.

The activists and Democratic Party leaders who have interpreted the dramatization of these two characters as a partisan attack don’t get it. Curiously, their furious response underscores O’Neill’s view of the political types as more interested in protecting their rear ends than protecting the country.

My 9/11/01

chase-park-plaza-postcard.jpg

I woke up five years ago this morning in a room at the Chase Park Plaza Hotel in St. Louis. A colleague was on the other line. I looked at the clock: It was about 9 a.m. I had only gone to bed an hour earlier. My plane arrived in St. Louis about 6:45. I was frustrated because I’d always been able to grab just enough sleep on a red-eye to do my next day’s job, but on this trip I couldn’t sleep at all.

“Hey, I need to sleep a little more.”

“You need to turn on the TV right now.”

What ran through my mind was — our client was buying a local business and today was supposed to be the announcement, and the seller had been squirrelly about how the announcement was going to be handled. He was a prominent local business owner. He wanted to be able to tell his employees before telling anyone else, but that was inconsistent with the announcement strategy that I had been sent to St. Louis to enforce. So I thought, oh crap, the seller is talking about the transaction on some local morning news show.

“Which channel?”

Any channel. Just watch and call me later.”

She hung up. I’m thinking: Wow, this guy is powerful. He’s got every TV station in St. Louis carrying his announcement. I didn’t think it was that big a deal.

So I click on the TV, just in time to watch one of the Twin Towers fall, crumbling into a giant cloud of dust. Or, it might have been a tape of something that had just happened. I wasn’t sure what was live and what was tape — I was still disoriented from lack of sleep. Buildings were falling and falling — tapes of both towers being played over and over.

I didn’t know until a few minutes later what had caused this. I hoped they had been able to evacuate the towers. I started trying to figure out how many people might have died — it was staggering. Maybe 40,000 people, I figured. By the end of the day, they were saying 10,000. It seems like a miracle that it was “only” about 3,000.

Before I really understood what was happening, I called my wife back in Southern California. We had only been married a few months, and she was home with my 10-year-old son. It wasn’t normally their habit to watch TV in the mornings, so I figured my son would go off to school and find out there. In those days, he was given to horrible nightmares, so that wasn’t how I wanted him to get the information. My wife and I decided she would tell him, they wouldn’t watch it on TV, and he would stay home from school.

cnnbreakingnews.jpgI left the TV on, but tried to get a little more sleep, so the information and speculation seemed to swirl around me, not making sense or hanging together, like a blob of mercury in a whirlpool. Eventually I moved into the living room, noticing for the first time that I had been put up in an extremely large and luxurious space — a suite with a big living room and a kitchen. That was also surreal. I was only supposed to be in St. Louis for eight hours. Who thought I needed all this?

I switched to the TV in there, and my colleague eventually joined me to watch the story unfold. By now, I’d said goodbye to Katie and Matt, and hello to CNN. I had a selfish interest in watching. They had grounded all the planes, and here I was, stuck in St. Louis. When would I be able to fly out again? So while the reporters reported and the pontificators pontificated, I was watching the little space at the bottom where words fly by, trying not to miss information from the FAA. Or Amtrak, which was also halted. There was a rumor of terrorists plotting to take over a train, right here in Missouri! My colleague had already checked on rental cars — there were none.

My wife and I were selling our home, and today was the day it was supposed to go on the market. At some point my wife and I spoke and agreed we would probably not be getting any lookie-loos that day. But then the phone rang. We had an offer. Sight unseen! At our price, which our Realtor had defined as “aggressive.” They wanted us to accept today. Today? While our country is in this turmoil? It was a Korean family. Our neighbors in this complex were mostly Korean, and we figured it was a family thing.

“Gosh, maybe we should have named a higher price,” I said.

I wasn’t very experienced in real estate, but it didn’t seem quite ethical that if you set a price and someone met it, you didn’t accept it. We agreed to accept. The day got yet more surreal, as my Realtor tried to fax the 50 pages of the sale agreement, each one of which I had to initial and fax back.

Eventually, I was in touch with my office in LA. After going through all the “how horribles” and “can you believe its” they wanted to talk business. One of our clients was Microsoft’s PC games, including Flight Simulator. Apparently, one of the many speculative comments that had been repeated on, I believe, NBC, was that the hijackers had trained on Flight Simulator. Questions were being raised about whether Flight Simulator — the most popular PC game by far — should still be sold since, after all, anyone who played Flight Simulator could now hijack a plane and fly it into a building! How should this be countered? Especially since a new version had been produced and was about to be shipped!

What you had was about 20 PR people — in-house, at my firm and at another firm, plus some lawyers — with nothing else to do and a sense of unease from which we all wanted to escape. So we all glommed onto this project, and started having conference calls and sending e-mail. I borrowed my colleague’s computer, since I didn’t think I would be away from home long enough to justify dragging mine along. The e-mail chains went on for 50 screens as this PR problem was considered from every conceivable angle, and as every decision-maker weighed in. The fact was, nobody could fly a real plane based on logging even an infinite number of hours on Flight Simulator. But the press didn’t want to hear that. Suddenly, a fun game that lots of geeks liked to play at their desks instead of doing real work was being redefined as a national security threat!

“Couldn’t you reprogram the game so it would be impossible to fly into buildings?” someone asked. Apparently, if you had a creepy sense of humor, you could deliberately crash your plane on Flight Simulator. Maybe that functionality should be, you know, uh, turned off. A fine idea, but it was too late for all the new Flight Simulator boxes being stacked up and ready to ship. Even though it was only September, the product had to be in stores soon for Christmas sales.

Somebody said: “I don’t think America will be celebrating Christmas this year.”

Somebody else said: “Are you kidding? By Christmas, no one will even remember this!”

Meanwhile, CNN was still playing in the living room. I turned the sound off and the closed-caption on, but closed caption reduced everything to nonsense, especially Muslim names like Osama Bin Laden. At one point, I swear, I think the closed-caption typist gave up and just started pounding out letters at random. They didn’t make any less sense than what was being typed deliberately.

There was a brief break in all the Flight Simulator action, so I decided to focus on the news. Normally, I don’t like watching the news in the immediate aftermath of a huge event like this, because in those first 24 hours, facts are few, speculation runs rampant and mostly it’s just the talking heads talking to each other. This, I now realized, was different. There was a rescue underway. The survivors, if any, needed to be found quickly. Some of the missing people were police officers and firefighters who had rushed into the towers with little consideration for their own safety, and apparently no awareness that the fires from the planes might cause the buildings to pancake on top of them.

Plus, people were sharing amateur on-the-scene video. The jumpers — my God. And the Manhattan canyons filling with debris as the towers fell, with onlookers rushing to get out of the way of the cement and steel avalanche. It was starting to sink in.

There was Benjamin Netanyahu on the screen, calmly being interviewed. He said something that has stuck with me ever since: “If they’d had nuclear weapons, they would have used them.”

His statement made a horrible kind of sense to me. So much hatred had to go into these attacks. Boundless, bloodthirsty hatred. Suicidal in the sense that, to this enemy, people didn’t matter, not even their own people; only history and God. It was, I began to realize, a war of revenge against western society, for a thousand years of crimes that could never be atoned for. There was no negotiation possible. The grievances went back a millennium, but were palpable today in the fury they stoked. We were seen as the same people who waged the wars of the Crusades and then went on to blaspheme the Muslim religion by allowing naked women to dance on cable TV. It was all one crime. I had to agree with the fabled Israeli reactionary. If Al Queda could have smuggled a nuclear weapon onto one of those jets, we would be seeing Manhattan or Washington DC in radioactive ruins now.

It was one of those long summer dusks we don’t have in Los Angeles, where the light lingers in the sky long after sunset, when I finally wandered out of the hotel, alone, in search of something to eat. The hotel was in a beautiful old neighborhood. I’d never been to St. Louis before, but it seemed like a real hidden treasure. (Later I was advised that the hotel was in the only good neighborhood in St. Louis. Oh well.) I found an independent record store in what seemed like a collegiate community. The music industry’s new releases were out front. Two interested me: Bob Dylan’s “Love and Theft,” and Nick Lowe’s “The Convincer.” Eventually they became two of my favorite CDs, but I thought the Dylan might be more suitable. Dylan had been prophetic in the past. He couldn’t have known the attack was coming, but it would be interesting to find out what he was tuned into in the months leading up to it. I then found a Chinese restaurant, ordered some to go, and brought my Dylan album back to the hotel.

lovetheft.jpgWell, if you know the album “Love and Theft,” you know it was Dylan’s return to comedy for the first time since the mid-60s. The music was at times hard rocking and blues-y, at other times more like vaudeville of the 1920s and parlour music of the 1890s. The lyrics were as brilliant and madly surreal as “Blonde on Blonde” or “Highway 61 Revisited,” but now from the vantage point of a 60-year-old man who’d seen a lot and was more dispassionate, empathetic and greatly amused; who accepted loneliness and heartbreak as part of humanity’s grand buffoonery, and his own. “Love and Theft” was not a prophetic album; instead it looked back. It was, as Robert Hilburn might say, “quintessentially American.” It didn’t reflect how I felt right at that moment, but in some way it reflected how I felt most of the time. Songs like “Summer Days” wouldn’t have outraged Bin Laden the same way, say, Madonna’s frank sexuality would. But its laughing spirit would have made him uncomfortable:

Wedding bells ringin’, the choir is beginning to sing
Yes, the wedding bells are ringing and the choir is beginning to sing
What looks good in the day, at night is another thing

She’s looking into my eyes, she’s holding my hand
She’s looking into my eyes, she’s holding my hand
She says, “You can’t repeat the past.” I say, “You can’t? What do you mean, you can’t? Of course you can.”

Where do you come from? Where do you go?
Sorry that’s nothin’ you would need to know
Well, my back has been to the wall for so long, it seems like it’s stuck
Why don’t you break my heart one more time just for good luck

I called my wife again and spoke to my son. Their nerves clearly were frazzled and even though they knew it wasn’t my fault, they were both irritated that I couldn’t be home, and couldn’t even tell them when I would be home. “Why can’t your company help you?” I explained that the CEO of my company was also stuck somewhere — Nebraska I think. He’d somehow gotten a car and was driving back to New York.

On TV, the World Trade Center site was glowing in the night sky. The fire had not gone out, plus I think by this time some kleig lights had been erected to help with the rescue. News was starting to filter in about cellphone calls by airline passengers and by people trapped inside the upper floors of the towers — giving reports and saying goodbye. I tried to imagine 10,000 souls all dying in these horrible conflagrations. It was sickening and sad, and paralyzed my heart.

Of course, at that moment, I hated the people who had committed this murderous act. But what was worse was realizing they hated me, and my people, so much more than I could ever hate them. That’s the true nature of asymmetrical warfare. We in America don’t sustain hatreds for very long. We lost hundreds of thousands of soldiers in World War Two, the worst cataclysm in U.S. history, and within a very few years had made our peace, basically, with the Germans and Japanese. Within 20 years, we were joking about the whole thing on shows like “McHale’s Navy” and “Hogan’s Heroes.” We would soon forget the rage about this attack that was not yet called “9/11,” and instead try to figure out what we had done wrong. Or so I predicted, somewhat fatalistically.

I know many people would say my prediction was totally wrong. We went to war almost immediately in Afghanistan, and soon in Iraq, and we have shown our most violent side in atrocities like Abu Graibh. We’ve declared war on what people from Christopher Hitchens to George W. Bush are now calling “Islamofascism.” But I think it’s too early to tell. Bush has a horrible time trying to define this war, and if anything the Democrats are worse. Our political system has failed to rise to the challenge, to say the least. This week’s absurd pissing match over the ABC docudrama served as a perfect illustration of how sadly inadequate our political class is to the task before us.

The Iraq war’s endless denouement has seemingly wearied our nation. It was absolutely a good thing to overthrow Hussein, but now what? All we’ve managed to do is unleash more of what we’re really supposedly fighting against. And many Americans think we should pull out, which means essentially letting the most ruthless of the Islamofascists to take over Iraq. The global Islamofascism war overflows with ironies like that. It is exhausting us already, and it has barely begun.

On the other hand, 9/11 hasn’t happened again on our turf. As tattered as our Homeland Security seems to be, it’s apparently working. Or we’ve been lucky. Or, more likely, we don’t understand the historical framework of our enemy. If it takes another 10 years to stage an apocalyptic attack like 9/11, to them, that’s a blink in the eye of history, barely any time at all from the vantage point of Allah.

Eventually, of course, my colleague and I made it home from St. Louis. It took until Saturday. We had to line up at 4 a.m. at the airport. Everyone was very quiet in that line. It reminded me of the last scene of “The Birds,” where the traumatized people leave as silently as they can, so as not to disturb the flocks of angry birds lining their route. Only we couldn’t see the angry birds. We weren’t even sure whether the angry birds were our ostensible enemy or our own people in hypersecurity mode. I was careful not to make any jokes that morning.

st-louis-arch.JPGIn the days between, I’d eaten a lot of room service until finally discovering a health food store where I could buy some organic soups. On what I thought would probably be my last day, I took trip to see the great St. Louis Arch, and to eat catfish in a restored gaslight district restaurant. I also jogged one evening around Chase Park, and swatted a lot of mosquitos. A friendly hotel employee took my colleague and I clothes-shopping, since neither of us had brought enough to wear for such a long stay. And I had several more conference calls about Flight Simulator. Microsoft ended up releasing the new version, but delayed it about 10 days. Why that was the best solution, I can no longer remember.

I was traveling with a Swiss Army knife that I knew I couldn’t get onto the plane. I asked the hotel desk staff if they could mail it to me, and I gave them all the information. The knife never made it home, but I did. My wife had already started packing to move us into our new place. It was a long time before I agreed to fly anywhere again.

If Elliot Mintz is the Cadillac, Here’s the Yugo

From E! Online:

It turns out Jessica Simpson and John Mayer‘s hot romance was only taking place in Wonderland.

And Rob Shuter will no longer be playing the role of Fairy Godmother.

Simpson’s manager dad, Joe Simpson, gave his daughter’s publicist the ax this week, reportedly because he’s quite perturbed about the way Shuter put the spin on his little girl’s burgeoning relationship with Mayer, with a People magazine cover story Aug. 31 touting Simpson’s declaration that she was in love eventually turning into an Us Weekly cover pronouncing the singer “Dumped!”

Which must have come as a surprise to Simpson, considering she went on The View this week and announced, “I am actually not dating John Mayer.” (Isn’t it hard enough getting dumped by the people you actually are going out with?)

A source close to the hullabaloo told Radar magazine that the overblown story was “100 percent Shuter. He broke all the rules of the game. He’s a pathological liar. I wonder how much Jessica even knew what he was up to.”

A call to Shuter was not immediately returned. Radar and TMZ.com were the first to report the split.

Meanwhile, the latest issue of Star points the finger at Joe Simpson and an Epic Records executive who allegedly cultivated the romance in the media to add to the buzz surrounding the release of Simpson’s latest album, A Public Affair, which ended up moving about 95,000 copies its first week out.

An Epic spokeswoman called the accusation “ludicrous.” Joe Simpson also denied having a hand in the hype.

I have exactly zero Jessica Simpson fans who read this site.  But I do think a few PR people do, and that’s who this item is posted for.  Do you worry about the reputation of your profession?  No?  Maybe this story will get you to re-think.

jsimpson.jpgWhat I see is this:  Jessica Simpson has a new CD.  They want people who favor this kind of music to know about it, to embrace it passionately, and to rush right out and buy it, so the album has a chance to hit #1.  They’ve obviously decided that Simpson’s romantic ups and downs are what captivate her potential fan base — young girls who still think life can be a fairy tale.   As the reviews make clear, this album is supposed to represent Simpson putting “her marriage far, far behind her…(and) out to have nothing but a good time.” 

So her publicist, perhaps with her father’s cooperation, concocts a story about a budding romance with a heartthrob pop star — one who has a bit more artistic credibility than her ex-husband, just to rub it in.  They hope girls will rush out and buy the album not because they love the music, but for clues to Simpson’s emotional state.  The false story is planted the same week the CD is released.

The scam worked — well, nearly.  The CD debuted at #5 on the Billboard charts (with the #1 slot going to Bob Dylan, which is another story).  But the ploy has blown up — in part because the two alleged lovebirds finally got around to denying statements being put in their mouths in 40-point type on hundreds of thousands of newsstands around the world.   People are pointing fingers and being accused of lying to the press. A prominent publicist gets fired. And the children are listening.

So, PR executives, answer me this:  What upcoming experience with the PR industry is going to make these teenage girls less cynical about it?  If they start out at age 13 associating PR with lies, what will come along later to disabuse them of this notion?  

This is not the first time publicist Rob Shuter is accused of lying, by the way. Readers of Gawker and other gossip sites know his name well from his work for Paris Hilton, placing an allegedly false story on Page Six of the N.Y. Post. (Whose idea it was is a matter of dispute between Shuter and Hilton.)  Hilton is no longer Shuter’s client; he was apparently replaced by Elliot Mintz.  

Mulling over this kind of PR practice, it does become clear why Elliot Mintz is so successful.  He’s credible. He’s succinct.  He’s prompt.  He’s focused on his task.  Mintz is not trying to market Paris Hilton.  His job is to protect her reputation, and limit the damage that her antics might cause her.  Mintz, I suspect, would have no part in a scheme to plant a false story.  It is ironic that someone with his hipster background is working with Paris Hilton, and that’s why I like writing about him.  But it should be said that today’s Mintz does his job honorably and professionally; a point driven home by observing the Simpson stunt’s embarassing crash and burn.