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I Know It When I See It, Journalist-Social Critic Robert Jensen Finds Patriarchy and White Supremacy in Porn


 

Robert Jensen is one of those writers who challenges preconceived ideas we all have about things we think we already have figured out.  Among the many subjects he trains his keen intellect on are race, politics, misogny, and white supremacy and things really get interesting when he analyzes America’s and the world’s penchant for porn through the prism of those constructs.  I interviewed him a couple years ago on these matters in advance of a talk he gave in Omaha, and the following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is the result.

 

Robert Jensen

 

I Know It When I See It, Journalist-Political Actvisit-Social Critic Robert Jensen Finds Patriarchy and White Supremacy in Porn

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Journalist-political activist-social critic Robert Jensen is the prickly conscience for a narcissistic Addict Nation that lusts after ever more. More resources. More power. More money. More toys. More sex. The tenured University of Texas at Austin associate professor organizes, agitates, reports, gives talks, writes. Oh, does he write.

He’s the prolific author of books-articles challenging the status quo of privileged white males, of which he’s one. He believes white patriarchal systems of power and predatory capitalism do injury to minorities through racist, sexist, often violent attitudes and actions. His critiques point out the injustice of a white male domination matrix that dehumanizes black men and objectifies-subordinates women.

We’re talking serious oppression here.

As an academic trained in critical thinking and radical feminism, his work rings with polemical fervor but refrains from wild rant or didactic manifesto. Agree or not, it’s hard not to admire his precise, well-reasoned arguments that persuasively connect the dots of an elite ruling class and its assumed supremacy.

He’s presenting the keynote address at a Sept. 22 Center for Human Diversity workshop in Omaha. His topic, “The Pornographic Mirror: Facing the Ugly Realities of Patriarchy and White Supremacy,” is one he often takes up in print and at the podium. His analysis, he said, is based on years studying the porn industry, whose misogynistic, racist products express “men’s contempt and hatred of women.”

Porn, he said, routinely depicts such stereotypes as “the hot-blooded Latina, the demure Asian geisha girl, the animalistic black woman and the hypersexualized black male.” Racially-charged code words — ebony, ivory, nubian, booty, jungle, ghetto, mama, chica, spicy, exotic — market these materials.

He said most interracial porn features black men having sex with white women, which he considers odd given that historically the majority culture’s posited black males as threats to the purity of white women. Why then would an “overwhelmingly white” audience want to view these portrayals?

Jensen suggests what’s at work is an “intensification” of “the core dynamic of male domination and female subordination.” Thus, he said, “by ‘forcing’ white women to have sex with black men, the ultimate sort of demonized man in this culture, it’s intensifying the misogyny and racism” behind it all. “That’s why I talk about these two things together, and why pornography is an important cultural phenomenon to study. It tells us something about the world we live in that is very important.”

The mainstreaming of porn as legitimate pop culture is a trend he finds disturbing. The industry, not counting the corollary sex trade, is estimated at $10 billion annually, comparable to other major entertainment industries such as television, film and sports. Jensen said his own students’ acceptance of porn as “just part of the cultural landscape” reflects a generational shift. Porn’s gone from taboo, scandalous, underground to casual lifestyle choice easily accessed via print, video, TV and the Web, where adult fare’s limitless and its content increasingly extreme.

Strip joints, adult book stores, chat lines, hook-up clubs, escort services, porn sites and X-rated channels abound. Sex tourism is a booming business in Third World Nations, where white men exploit women of color. Homemade porn is on the rise. Porn star Jenna Jameson owns cultural capital. Reality TV, cable programs, movies and advertising are, in his estimation, increasingly pornographic. Although careful not to link porn use to behavior, Jensen sees dangers. Sex addiction is a widely recognized disorder whose various forms have porn as a component.

Recreational choice or addictive fix, end point or gateway to overt, criminal acting- out, Jensen makes the case it’s all fodder for an already dysfunctional society.

“This is helping shape a culture which is increasingly cruel and degrading to women, which we should be concerned about,” he said. “If we’re honest with ourselves, even those who want to defend the pornography industry or who use pornography, I think we have to acknowledge the patterns we’re seeing are cause for concern. I can’t imagine how anyone could come to any other conclusion.”

He said it’s an open question how much more pornographers can push the limits before the culture says a collective, “Enough.” Any outcry’s not likely to come as a see-the-light epiphany, he said, but rather in the course of a long-term public education and public policy campaign. Anti-obscenity legal restraints, he said, are difficult now due to vague, weak state and federal laws, The exception is child porn, where strict laws are easily enforced, he said.

He opposes censorship, insisting, “I’m a strong advocate of the First Amendment and Free Speech,” adding current laws could be enforced with sufficient mandate.

“Much of the material were talking about clearly could be prosecuted yet it isn’t,” he said, “which I think reflects that level of cultural acceptance.”

He suggests enough male stakeholders consume, condone or profit from porn/illicit sex that this old boys network gives winking approval behind faux condemnation.

Jensen supports strict local ordinances and aggressive civil actions against adult porn similar to what feminists proposed in the ‘80s. He feels with modifications this approach, which failed legal challenges then, could prove a useful vehicle.

As Jensen notes, concurrent with this-anything-goes era of on-demand porn and sex-for-hire are the repressive strains of Puritanical America that discourage sex ed and open discussion of sex issues. He’d argue that silence on these subjects in a patriarchal, misogynistic society contributes to America’s high incidence of rape, sexual assault, prostitution, STDs, HIV/AIDS and teen pregnancy.

Overturning these trends, he said, begins with public critiques and forums. The Center for Diversity workshop at the Omaha Home for Boys is just such a forum. The 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. event features a wide-range of presenters on how to “Stay Alive” under the pervasive assault of sexism, racism, economic destabilization, domestic violence and pornography. The workshop’s recommended for health care professionals, therapists and social workers.

Check out Jensen’s work on the web site http://uts.cc.utexas.edu/-rjensen/index.html.

LEOADAMBIGA.WORDPRESS.COM Seeking Sponsors and Collaborators: I Write About People, Their Passions and Their Magnificent Obsessions

October 18, 2011 1 comment

LEOADAMBIGA.WORDPRESS.COM Seeking Sponsors and Collaborators: I Write About People, Their Passions and Their Magnificent Obsessions

As a steadily growing blog with now 400-plus unique visitors a day, leoadambiga.wordpress.com is seeking sponsorship.  If you are a media company or angel investor or arts-culture-journalism patron and you see value in supporting a dynamic and popular blog site that tells the stories of people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions, then contact blog author and host, Leo Adam Biga at leo32158@cox.net or 402-445-4666.

The site is also a ready-made platform for convergence journalism opportunities that add audio and visual streaming elements to posts. Addiitionally, the site is a platform for potential story series, books, documentaries, and other projects. Multi-media project proposals are welcome. Please note that Leo Adam Biga is also open to working with collaborators, including writers, artists, photographers, and filmmakers, on select monetized projects. If you have a project in mind, contact Biga at the above email or phone number.

Registration Now Open for Your Journey in Freelance Writing Seminars with Leo Adam Biga: Oct. 30, Nov. 13 & Dec. 11

September 18, 2011 Leave a comment

Registration Now Open for

Your Journey in Freelance Writing Seminars

with Leo Adam Biga

Oct. 30, Nov. 13 & Dec. 11

Follow your passion and write stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions

When:

Sunday, October 30

Sunday, November 13

Sunday, December 11

6-8 pm

Each seminar is unique, though some core material is covered during every workshop

 

Where: 

Brandeis building downtown, 210 South 16th Street in the warm, luxurious setting of the Community Room

Use 16th Street Concierge entrance between Douglas and Farnam (Concierge will direct you to the elevator to access the 2nd flr Community Room)

NOTE: Ample street parking available or for $5 use the Brandeis parking garage (Douglas between 16th and 17th (car pool and share the cost)

 

Host Christine Lind will provide free beverages and goodies during the seminar

Join us for this informative, relaxed evening

 

The seminar is by-registration only:

If you register for one seminar, the cost is: $40

If you register for two seminars together, the cost is: $70

If you register for three seminars together, the cost is $100

NOTE: The registration fee is payable by check only (make it out to Leo Adam Biga)

Mail your check to:  Leo A. Biga, 10629 Cuming St., Omaha, NE 68114

Your check must be received before the seminar for you to attend and be sure to indicate which seminar(s) you’re registering/paying for

NEW:

Register at leoadmbiga.eventbrite.com/

 

If you know of or are affiliated with a school, church, library or other nonprofit that would like to host a future seminar, please note that special group rates are available. It’s a perfect fit for any group that enjoys reading, writing, books. Call 402-445-4666 or email leo32158@cox.net for details.

 

What is A Journey in Freelance Writing?

An informal two-hour seminar that discusses:

• How to prepare yourself to be a writer

• What’s involved in finding your writer’s voice

• Where do story ideas come from?

• How to pitch and market your work

• What are editors looking for?

• How to develop and maintain a client base

• Yes, you can supplement your income and even make a living as a freelancer

As an award-winning journalist I will offer my decades-long experience as a guide for establishing a writing career or taking your career to the next level. The conversational, interactive seminar offers plenty of Q & A time.

Ideal for aspiring or emerging writers of:  articles • press releases • newsletters • blogs • web content • scripts • books

Book the seminar for your club, organization, school, library or church. Schedule it for your next writing/literary group meeting, festival or conference.  

Group rates available.

 

Thanks for your interest and I hope to see you there,

Leo Adam Biga

 

Related articles

A Journey in Freelance Writing


For Omaha metro residents, the promotion below is a heads-up regarding a presentation I am making about freelance writing.  It’s free and hopefully not boring.  The presentation is open to anyone.  It’s part of the ongoing North Omaha Summer Arts Festival.  The fest’s website address is at the bottom of this post.  Check it out.

 

 

North Omaha Summer Arts 2011 presents:

A Journey in Freelance Writing

Veteran journalist and author Leo Adam Biga uses his own 27-year career to talk about what life as a freelance writer can look like.

 

Wednesday,  August 10, 6-8pm

Call 402.455.7015 Mon thru Fri, 9am – 4pm for registration

This class is free of charge

 

Topics to be covered include:

•real life experience

•learning your craft

•on the job education/training

•finding a niche

•writing about your interests

•just doing it

•daring to risk different fields & styles of writing

•building a client base

•managing multiple projects

•is there any money in this?

As a contributing writer to newspapers and magazines, he’s had thousands of articles published on a vast array of subjects, many of them arts, culture, sports, and history related. Other clients include for-profit corporations, nonprofit institutions, individuals, and families.

 

At Church Of the Resurrection

3004 Belvedere Boulevard

Omaha, Neb.

http://www.northomahasummerarts.com

Sun Reflection, Revisiting the Omaha Sun’s Pulitzer Prize-Winning Expose of Boys Town

April 28, 2011 6 comments

I remember when the Omaha Sun Newspapers’ investigative report of Boys Town’s finances came out in 1972 my very Catholic mother and my similarly persuaded maternal aunts took it as a low down, dirty attack against “our Boys Town.”  The Father Flanagan established youth care center has always been synonymous with the Catholic Church or at least seen as a Catholic institution, which in fact it has been for its entire life, always with a Catholic priest at its head and traditionally with the local archdiocese and archbishop as its ultimate authority. The story‘s major revelation was that Boys Town still portrayed itself as a poor, humble, perpetually in debt, and on the verge of closing home for boys when in fact it had accumulated a vast fortune through a systematic fundraising apparatus that kept right on churning out teary letters asking for donations — by the tens of million a year –and  taking in millions of dollars above and beyond what it cost to operate the place. Boys Town did not share this bounty with anyone and didn’t want anyone to know about it.  There’s no doubt the story spurred changes at Boys Town, just as there’s no doubt Boys Town is a very different organization today than it was then — now boasting multiple locations around the country and doing business in a very transparent manner.  As for the weekly Sun, which was owned by Warren Buffett at the time, it went out of business a little more than a decade after winning the Pulitzer Prize for the Boys Town investigative report.  The following piece I wrote for The Reader (www.thereader.com) takes a look at that report and, in effect, the story behind the story.

NOTE: Also on this blog see my profile of Stan Lipsey titled “Buffett’s Newspaper Man.”   Lipsey is back in Omaha for the 2011 Berkshire Hathaway shareholders confab and for an exhibition of his photography at KANEKO. He’s also participating in a panel discussion at KANEKO about a life of creativity in business.  For more on KANEKO, see my story titled “Open Minds.”

Of course, Warren Buffett and Berkshire are much in the news these days because of the scandal involving David Sokol, the once heir apparent to Buffett as head of Berkshire.

 

 

 Photo of Omaha Sun newsroom provided by Randy Brown


 

 

Sun Reflection, Revisiting the Omaha Sun’s Pulitzer Prize-Winning Expose of Boys Town

©by Leo Adam Biga

As seen in the The Reader (www.thereader.com)

When readers picked up their March 30, 1972 issue of the weekly Sun Newspaper, they could hardly believe their eyes.

The small but enterprising paper with multiple neighborhood editions had called out a venerable Omaha institution, Boys Town, in crusading journalistic fashion terms. No crime was alleged, but rather the violation of a public trust.

A front page headline asked accusingly, “Whatever happened to Father Flanagan’s dream?” That was followed by the stark declaration, “Boys Town: 700 boys with $209 million.” Thus the Sun set the incredulous tone and exploited the shocking results of a special eight-page report inside provocatively titled, “Boys Town, America’s wealthiest city?”

The subhead, “Give an account of thy stewardship,” was a Biblical admonition for a quasi-Catholic organization that cried poverty in syrupy mass donation appeals each Christmas, while hoarding a fortune no one was supposed to know about or, if they did, question.

 

 

 

 

Some movers and shakers were prominent characters in the story and in the story behind the story. Sun owner Warren Buffett pointed to the records that revealed Boys Town’s “hidden” assets. Publisher Stan Lipsey supported the investigation. Managing editor Paul Williams masterminded and ran it.

The power behind Boys Town lay with Monsignor Nicholas Wegner and Omaha Archbishop Daniel Sheehan. Aged civic-social leaders comprised a rubber-stamp board.

The Sun’s ambitious owner and brash newspaper took to task an organization grown fat, smug and out of touch with the times and its constituencies. Wegner, who succeeded Boys Town’s iconic founder, was still steeped in Depression-era thinking. During much of Fr. Flanagan’s tenure the home did struggle, but after the 1938 MGM movie Boys Town, donations sharply increased, particularly after fundraising pioneer Ted Miller designed a massive, frighteningly effective direct mail campaign.

Pleas for money continued even as fortunes swelled. Making matters worse, Boys Town did little with its wealth after a 1948 building project. It shelved new initiatives and rejected best practices, effectively standing still, stuck in time.

The Sun implied Boys Town betrayed Flanagan’s mission by staying mired in outdated attitudes and methods. Buffett would later write, “We reported the extraordinary contrast between decreasing services and mounting wealth.”

The story won the Sun seven national awards, including a 1973 Pulitzer Prize for local investigative specialized reporting, the same year the Washington Post’s Watergate series took the Pulitzer for Public Service. The papers earlier swapped in the same categories at the national journalism society, Sigma Delta Chi, awards.

More importantly, the Sun’s probing coverage compelled an organization that after Flanagan’s death in 1948 behaved like an imperious empire, paralyzed in what Williams termed “institutional inertia,” to enact long overdue reforms.

Today’s Boys Town hardly resembles that fossilized institution. Its entire methodology of youth care has been transformed. Boys Town is now recognized as a national leader in parenting and child speech-hearing impairment research and treatment.

The Sun was the liberal, plucky alternative to the conservative, timid Omaha World-Herald. Under Williams, the paper previously won awards for covering Omaha environmental issues and Omaha Transit Company irregularities. Boys Town, however, was a bigger target. While the report did the Sun no harm financially, the paper lost its edge when Williams left a couple years later. In 1980, Buffett sold it to a Chicago publisher. After an anti-trust suit against the World-Herald, the Sun disbanded in 1983.

Nearly 40 years since the story shook Boys Town’s foundation, The Readerspoke to key players who worked on the project.

Doug Smith, the youngest, least experienced member of the reporting team Williams assembled, says the irascible editor was the driving force behind “Project B.”

“Paul wanted that big recognition, he wanted that big prize … and he really went after it.

“I think he knew this was going to be the biggest story of his career, or not. I thought, maybe we all thought — he’s obsessed with this thing. When we got the announcement we won the Pulitzer one of the guys said, ‘Ahab has his whale.’ Paul was a great leader on this project. He did bring it home.”

“The story was really there for the taking by somebody with energy and enterprise, and that’s what Paul Williams had,” says Randy Brown, hired as associate managing editor just as the Sun launched the investigation. “He was the brains.”

As the team dug into the reality behind the carefully cultivated Boys Town facade, it became clear the wary institution was paranoid for a reason.

“I felt the story was really justified,” says Smith.

He and his colleagues knew the heart-tugging letters Boys Town sent out suggesting the boys would go hungry without donations were pure hokum.

“I’d say an unethical appeal considering they were sitting on a lot of money,” he says.

Team member Wes Iversen, the Sun business editor, was dismayed Boys Town made it appear “as though the wolf were at the door when they had a big pile of money they were doing nothing with.”

In the end, Boys Town was its own worst enemy.

“It was a case of they had lost their way, their mission,” says Smith. “It was the story of an American institution that had gone off track.”

When Smith asked Boys Town post office officials how much mail went through to try and gauge the scope of fundraising efforts, a reluctant staffer was quoted saying: “The reason they won’t let me give out the amount of postal receipts is because people will get everything misconstrued.”

It turned out up to 50 million appeal letters went out per year. The volume suggested a cash cow system returning huge revenues.

Boys Town officials repeatedly made ill-advised statements that came back to haunt them. In classic investigative fashion Smith and photographer Len Cook burst in on its secret direct mail apparatus, housed in a downtown building, to find 125 women typing the appeal letters and a flustered fundraising director trying to hush it up.

The Sun quoted the director as saying, “Please don’t mention this in your article. It’s so easy for the public to get the wrong idea. People will think we’re rich.”

Smith recalls Boys Town as remarkably unsavvy then in handling press inquiries. “At that time they were not equipped to handle this kind of assault by journalists,” he says.

Ironically, Flanagan had been a genius at promotion. He invited Hollywood to make two feature films on Boys Town. He cooperated with newsreels, he did national radio broadcasts, he toured the home’s band and football team nationwide, he made speaking appearances across the country and he welcomed celebrities to the campus.

By the early ’‘70s the cautious Wegner isolated Boys Town, making it an island cut-off from the world.

Bulldog reporter Mick Rood interviewed Wegner and caught him in several untruths, including the assertion Boys Town was in debt. Even when confronted by the facts, Wegner and, in a separate interview, Sheehan indicated the fundraising would continue unabated. Business as usual. The arrogant dismissal of serious questions, such as when would enough money be enough, made everything Boys Town said suspect.

“When you as a reporter or newspaper discover that,” says Rood, “that makes you want to dig. It makes you forget for a little while that the poor monsignor was in very poor health, it makes you forget that some people wouldn’t like the story because people don’t need to be deceived like that. That’s the motivation right there.”

 

 

Form 990

 

 

For that interview, Rood was armed with sensitive, though public record documents that delineated the true picture of Boys Town’s finances. Buffett had informed the Sun team of a federal tax statement, Form 990, that nonprofits were required to file. He had to file one for his own foundation and it dawned on him Boys Town did, too. It took much wrangling and waiting to pry a copy from the Internal Revenue Service. When all 100 pages arrived the scope of the holdings stunned the team. Boys Town stocks, bonds, properties, though undervalued, gave it a net worth exceeding Omaha’s largest bank, and an endowment surpassing all but a few universities nationwide.

“I didn’t know quite what to think of it because the numbers were enormous,” says Brown. “It was jaw dropping.”

Iversen says it was “a money machine.”

Until those documents were secured, the team had only been able to speculate about Boy’s Town’s riches. With the hard numbers in hand, all was exposed.

“This was the whole kit and caboodle,” says Rood.

The surviving team members readily credit Buffett with giving them the golden egg that pushed the project over the top.

“Without that it would have been a good story, but not a Pulitzer story,” says Lipsey.

 

Stan Lipsey

 

 

 

Buffet also helped the Sun analyze the Boys Town treasure chest.

“I worked with Warren compiling the numbers, making sure they added up, getting all the details straight, ready for publication,” says Brown. “And he insisted on double checking everything. We knew we were taking on an institution that’s beloved in the community and he didn’t want any mistakes — not 25 cents in the wrong column.”

Rood says Williams was methodical planning assignments and supervising their execution: “He made very thorough outlines … very detailed things, so we were all well aware of what we were supposed to be doing. It was also a way to make you accountable. I mean, if it was written down there you better have done it. There was no excuse. You had to have made that call you said you were going to make.

“We worked separately most all of the time. We had periodic meetings to compare notes. It was a very disciplined operation — one you wouldn’t expect from such a small paper. He was the best editor I ever worked for, ever will work for, and a good friend.”

Brown says, “everything was reread and reedited,” adding, “It was a grind.”

Iversen recalls months of slogging away, interspersed by occasional euphoria.

“A lot of it is just hard, heavy-duty grunt work,” he says. “At that time we had no easy way to check things. It’s just a lot of legwork, a lot of looking things up in books in libraries and county offices and you name it, running around checking various places and trying to piece things together. At times it could seem like drudgery, at other times when we would get a major insight everybody would say, Ah-ha, now we see where this is headed and we’ve made a breakthrough here.

“It was really heady times.”

Some intrigue did attend the story. Though the stakes were much different from the Post’s Watergate coverage, the Sun had its own Deep Throat in Claude Organ, a reform-minded Boys Town board member. Buffett met with Dr. Organ about the project and the surgeon-educator steered the Sun in the right direction.

“Everything was closely held,” says Rood. “We were more than sworn to secrecy.”

 

 

Warren Buffett

 

 

During the investigation’s last few weeks Williams took the precaution of the team working out of his home’s basement rec room for fear of losing the story to the Herald. Rood says a defensive Boys Town came to suspect the story was more than the routine historical piece the Sun painted it as. When the report broke, no one at Boys Town was prepared for its all-encompassing depth. The expose laid Boys Town bare.

Much more could have been published, team members say.

The Sun did many follow-ups over the next year and beyond as Boys Town changed its administration and board, opened the campus to consultants, replaced its warehousing of youth with a home-family model and developed new facilities and programs.

In 1974 a desperate Boys Town, still reeling from the fallout from the story, which went national and spawned new stories, hired Omaha PR man Bill Ramsey to help repair its tarnished image. It took time, but things turned around by the late 1970s-early 1980s.

Current Boys Town spokesperson Kara Neuverth says the institution did act on the reported misalignment of net worth and youth services:

“We listened to that feedback regarding some fund raising practices. What I can tell you about this organization today is that we are transparent and we pride ourselves on our experience. For an organization to remain at the forefront it must adjust its practices to stakeholder input, changing times, and new knowledge — just as we did 40 years ago. That is the lesson learned.”

The Sun investigative team scattered to the far winds. The shared Pulitzer opened doors for Rood, Iversen, Brown and Smith. Paul Williams left to teach at Ohio State. He also co-founded IRE, Investigative Reporters and Editors, and wrote a book before his untimely death. Publisher Stan Lipsey went on to head the Buffalo News for Buffett.

The story solidified Buffet’s long-held interest in newspapers — he soon acquired a major share of the Washington Post — and confirmed for him their vital role in a free society. In a letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders he wrote the Sun’s achievement “vividly illustrated that size need not be equated with significance in publishing.”

The Changing Face of Boys Town and its Finances

The following sidebar appears in the print edition of The Reader but not in the Web edition:

©by Leo Adam Biga

In 1972 you had to be a member of the Boys Town inner circle to see its balance sheet. Or, as in the case of the Sun Newspapers, you had to know about a new and therefore obscure tax form filing that required nonprofits to report their financials. Even then, it took the Sun time and expense to obtain the public records, documents and figures Boys Town dearly wanted to suppress.

Today, due in part to the Sun’s disclosures of Boys Town’s worth, the law requires nonprofits to be much more transparent about their assets.  The same information the Sun had to go to some lengths to get 40 years ago, anyone with access to a computer can easily and freely obtain today with a few keystrokes or mouse clicks.

In 2009, Boys Town, which now has a national reach, reported $1 billion in assets, $810 million in the Father Flanagan’s Fund for Needy Children (the institution’s endowment) and $122 million in liabilities for a net worth of $903 million. Five to six percent of the endowment supports annual operations.

Boys Town reports nearly 90 percent of every dollar received is spent on child care.

Charity Navigator awarded it a four-star rating for sound fiscal management. Boys Town’s accountability has earned it recognition as a Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance accredited charity. These are all signs of how the organization does business very differently now compared to when the Sun rattled its cage.

A Shameless Plug: Lit Coach Erin Reel Highlights this Site, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, aka Leo Adam Biga’s Blog, Among Her Picks for Blogs That Work

March 31, 2011 3 comments

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A Shameless Plug: Lit Coach Erin Reel Highlights this Site, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, aka Leo Adam Biga’s Blog, Among Her Picks for Blogs That Work

©by Erin Reel from her blog site, The Lit Coach’s Guide to the Writer’s Life (http://thelitcoach.blogspot.com/)

The best blogs serve a purpose greater than sharing miscellaneous tid bits about the blogger’s day – they educate, inform, inspire, humor, enlighten – they share a unique perspective.

Today’s Blog That Works spotlight shines on Leo Adam Biga, Omaha‘s most prolific award-winning cultural journalist. Biga’s eclectic body of work spans from Omaha filmmaker Alexander Payne (SidewaysAbout Schmidt) tofashion and film making to Warren Buffett and just about everything in between. Rather than collect his published pieces in files, unexposed to new readers, Biga collected his published work and archived them on his blog. Why? To gain new readers and showcase his body of work to prospective clients.

Here’s what Biga had to say:

“My blog is primarily intended as a showcase of my cultural journalism. I want the visitor to the site to experience it the way they would a gallery featuring my work. This exhibition or sampling quickly reveals my brand — “I write stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions” — as well as the scope of my work within that brand, which is quite broad and eclectic. The home page features 10 of my stories, each in their entirety, and those front page stories, which change every few days or weeks, consistently reflect the wide range of interests, subjects, and themes found on the blog. The blog is set up so that whether the visitor is on the home page or clicks on to any page featuring an individual story the entire inventory or index of stories on the blog is always accessible, organized by tags, categories, et cetera. Visitors can also search the site by using key words.

The blog is not monetized. So why do I repurpose my work in this way? Well, every writer likes to have his or her work read, therefore on one level I do it in order to find a new, perhaps larger audience for the stories. The blog is an excellent way for me to have an expanded Web presence. In addition to it, I have a LinkedIn site, a Google site, and a Facebook site, among others, most of them linked to each other. I also use the blog as a portfolio I refer contacts and prospective clients to.” 

And Leo tells me showcasing his body of work blog style has allowed those interested in hiring Biga for new writing gigs has allowed them to get a good feel for his writing. He’s received more offers to write than if he hadn’t set up the blog as his massive online writing brochure.

Leo goes on to say, “The real satisfaction I suppose comes in having a public gallery of my work, even if it only is a small sampling of it, that I can refer or direct people to or that people can discover all on their own. In fact, it appears as if the vast majority of visitors to my site end up there by virtue of Web searches they do and their finding links to my blog as part of the search results that come up. Because I have so many stories out there on so many different topics my blog shows up as part of an endless variety of searches. It’s also kind of fun to have people I wrote about, in some cases years ago, find stories I did about them and contact me, reliving old times or bringing me up to date with what they’re doing today. “

Check out Leo’s blog. There really is something for every reader.

A Magazine and a Mission Founded on a Spirit of Giving: Metro Magazine Publisher Andy Hoig Celebrates Philanthropy

March 6, 2011 2 comments

Omaha Downtown

Image by herzogbr via Flickr

As a contributing writer to newspapers and magazines for going on 25 years I’ve had about every kind of assignment imaginable.  However, there’s always room for a new first.  The following story is just such a case. Metro Magazine publisher Andy Hoig asked me to write a story about her publication, which is celebrating 20 years in print.  I’ve been a regular contributor to the mag for a couple years and I appreciated her thinking of me for a project that meant a lot to her.  As a freelancer I don’t usually get to know very well the publishers and editors and staffers at the various pubs I contribute to because I essentially work out of my home and the vast majority of my contact  with these clients is by email and phone.  It’s the same with Metro, though in working on this assignment I do feel I got to know Andy and her team a bit better.  Of course, there’s something to be said too for keeping a professional distance in these matters. In preparing the story below I felt like a distant third cousin writing a family history I was only dimly aware of before, and that is I think how it should be.  I now feel more invested in that family, an apt word for Metro because it was actually started by Andy’s father, veteran newspaperman Bob Hoig.  I first met Andy while working for her father’s Midlands Business Journal and for what was originally called the Omaha Metro Update, later known as the Metro Monthly.  And so, you see, I’ve always been a part of the family, though there was a 20-year interruption in our relationship while I went off to pursue other freelance options and Andy grew the publication in wonderful new directions.  We’re together again and I value the reunion.

A Magazine and a Mission Founded on a Spirit of Giving: Metro Magazine Publisher Andy Hoig Celebrates Philanthropy

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in the January/February issue of Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com)

2011 finds the intrepid creatives behind metroMagazine releasing a collective sigh of relief after the tumultuous events of last year.

What was to have been a celebratory milestone marking the magazine’s 20th anniversary became a time to regroup and express gratitude. A January 7, 2010 middle-of-the-night fire destroyed the offices of ALH Publications along with three neighboring businesses in the Boardwalk mall. No one was hurt.

Ironically, a magazine whose niche is chronicling the charitable scene suddenly found itself in need. With the community rallying behind it, Metro continued publishing without interruption. After 10 months in temporary digs Metro has a new home and a rededication to fulfill its mission to “inform, educate and inspire.”

The night of the fire was one of the coldest on record. Publisher Andy Hoig and creative vice president Rob Kilmer arrived to survey the smoldering devastation as firefighters pumped water. Hoig saw everything she had built up being lost.

“I was crying,” said Hoig. “It wasn’t really crying for me. Fire is such a powerful thing and when you’re watching it burn your stuff there’s an emotional connection.

“I just remember laughing and saying, ‘You know, this would be a really respectful way to end this if I wanted to. I’ve been doing this for 20 years, maybe this is a sign.’ Well, within 24 hours I knew this was not one of the reasons this happened, because people just started coming out of the woodwork.”

The outpouring of support began while the fire still raged and news reports  leaked out.

“It wasn’t an hour after the fire started I started getting text messages,” said Hoig. “I got phone calls and emails. People genuinely wanted to help.”

Detailing how the giving community addresses myriad needs is what Hoig does for a living. Being on the other end things of took some getting used to.

“It was something I didn’t really know how to handle at first,” she said. “I’m used to being the one who says, How can we help? Now I was on the flip side of having people reach out to me. I actually learned that by receiving gracefully is a gift you actually give people. By not receiving we’re denying the person who’s giving to us.”

The expressions of concern gave her a new perspective on the value of her work.

“You know, you do what you do and you do it every day, and you get so far into it you don’t see outside of it. I often times wondered, Does anybody really even care about this?”

A tangible demonstration of how much metroMagazine matters came at a Feb. 22 Omaha Community Playhouse event that raised funds to assist Metro.

“Some friends of the magazine put on this event,” Hoig said, “and all these people showed up because they actually cared about what the publication’s doing. I remember mentioning that I thought about discontinuing it and people were like, ‘No, you cant do that,’ and I was like, OK, so we have been doing something here.

“It’s funny how it takes a catastrophe to affirm what you’re doing has made a difference. Out of this whole situation that was the biggest gift I could have ever received.”

Veteran Omaha charitable professional Ellen Wright was there. She said the event was a show of appreciation.

“When you pick up the Metro you know you’re going to be reading about the nonprofits in the community and the community leadership,” she said. “It’s become THE source, THE number one place you go. It’s an opportunity for nonprofits to talk about what they do. It gives people a chance to read about agencies and their missions. It lets people see how rich the community is with volunteer and charitable opportunities to give your time and treasure to. It fills an important niche. It’s something we didn’t have before.”

Hoig said, “The vision has always been to inspire people to make a difference, whether you look at something and say, ‘I want to be a part of that,’ or, ‘That looks like fun,’ or reading stories about people who are doing inspirational things.

“I look at the magazine as having this ripple effect. I want people to have an emotional experience reading it and when they’re done to kind of sit back and self reflect. It’s really about who’s getting involved, how are people getting involved, and how can you get involved.”

Hal and Mary Daub are big fans. The couple consider Metro a lifeline to happenings.

“My wife and I like the current events nature of it,” said Hal. “It keeps us up to speed on what’s going on. It gives us a great deal of pride every time we finish reading it about how much is going on in our community we want to be sure to catch up to. It always portrays Omaha in such a positive way — the volunteers, the organizations. We love the volunteerism of this town. The magazine captures all that.”

Wright said the way the philanthropic community responded to Metro’s setback was an expression of how much it would be missed if gone.

“I think the fire shook us that this precious little jewel could have been lost, but Andy wasn’t going to let that happen. People recognized how she’s extended herself to so many and how she’s filled a huge gap for us and how we are so incredibly fortunate to have this vehicle.”

Methodist Hospital Foundation president and CEO Cynthia Peacock said Metro “is a champion of collaborative community betterment. They are to be applauded for their continued commitment.”

As Wright sees it, Metro reflects Omaha’s famous generosity.

“People in Omaha care so greatly. I feel philanthropy makes this city, makes this state function. Business and philanthropy are intertwined, and Andy’s been able to mirror that. Her motivation is sincere. She wants not only to do good but she sees the importance of these agencies.”

Although there’s always been a philanthropic focus, it took Hoig some time before she felt invested in the giving culture herself.

“Eventually over the years it became a passion,” she said. “I myself personally started getting involved. The business got more involved.”

What many don’t know is that Metro was launched by her father, Midlands Business Journal publisher Bob Hoig. Originally a tabloid-format newspaper, it began as the Metro Update in 1990 and became the Metro Monthly. Andy got her start as a Metro photographer and later learned layout and other production skills.

By the mid-‘90s the paper struggled enough that Bob was about to shut it down. That’s when he got his first glimmer of his daughter’s ambition and grit.

“She asked if I would consider letting her take it over. My answer was, ‘Sure, I’ll sell it to you for a dollar.’ But I required she sign a small piece of paper I drew up on the spot agreeing to refund subscribers any money coming to them if the Metro later folded. She was to take over full legal ownership.”

What happened next both surprised and pleased him.

“Andy had practically no business experience at the time and I doubted she could make a go of the Metro. I hadn’t counted on her determination and her putting in whatever time and energy it would take to succeed as an entrepreneur.”

He added, “Andy gave new life and direction” to the enterprise by focusing on “charities and causes she believes in” and by transforming the newsprint tabloid into a glossy magazine.

As she matured as a publisher, Andy branded Metro as not just a magazine but a resource. She launched the Big Event Book, a comprehensive annual directory of nonprofits, and the Big Event, an awards recognition gala for area charities. More innovations followed: The Spirit of Omaha website; the weekly INSIDER e-newsletter; and the FACES – Omaha’s Model Search.

The Journeys series features in-depth profiles of inspired doers and givers.

“There has been growth. It’s been a trial and error evolution,” she said. “Part of it is reaching out to different demographics. We have an incredible YP (young professionals) community here that looks to get involved and that has been contributing to our growth.”

The event book and web site offer links and referrals to guide people’s giving and volunteering.

“We should not underestimate Metro’s potential as a connector — making a difference in the lives of nonprofits, donors and beneficiaries of the generous, caring community we call home,” said Methodist Foundation’s Cynthia Peacock.

Community volunteer Cheryl Wild said Metro’s coverage of fundraisers, particularly small grassroots ones, draws crucial interest and support: “I attribute so much of my success with events to the great coverage.”

The full-color magazine’s look and feel get ever more sophisticated.

“I think Andy’s really intuitive and I dare say a little bit cosmopolitan,” said Data Media Solutions CEO and president Jeff Wilke. “She gets the fact that if she’s not changing she’s probably going to be left behind and she’s always looking for the next opportunity to make sure she’s evolving with her clients.”

Hoig also surrounds herself with dedicated staffers and interns and a stable of top freelance writers and photographers.

“One of the things I’ve discovered about myself, especially this past year, is that I love creating and visioning,” she said. “Then I’ve got great people that take that vision and make it a reality. Starting the creation process is what I absolutely love to do and I look forward to the day when that’s what I do all day long, and that day will come. I want to get Metro to a place where it is rock solid and running on its own so I can go make a global impact someplace.”

On the fire’s one-year anniversary the Metro team uncorked a bottle of champagne that survived the blaze, raising glasses to a trying but growth-filled period and toasting the start of the mag’s next 20 years. Having experienced first-hand the Spirit of Omaha, the Metro family is poised to take things to a whole new level.

An Old Partnership Takes a New Turn: UNO-Kabul University Renew Ties with Journalism Program

January 24, 2011 1 comment

Female students at Kabul University.

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The article below is the latest of several I have written over the last decade or so about the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.  This story concerns a UNO-Kabul University journalism collaborative or partnership being overseen by the center, which received a $1.3 million grant to fund the endeavor.  The center is a nearly 40 year-old institution dedicated , just as it name states, to Afghanistan studies and as such it is a unique operation and certainly one you would not expect to find in the Midwest.  Its director, Thomas Gouttierre, has been a profile subject of mine (you’ll find my piece on hin on this blog).  He and his assistant Raheem Yaseer and their UNO colleague John Shroder are among America’s foremost experts on Afghanistan.  The center has been involved in all manner of training and support there and its expertise is often tapped by U.S. government sources.  Much of the center’s efforts have been directed at helping train Afghan nationals in order to rebuild that nation’s infrastructure.  My new article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) lays out the recently formed journalism partnership program involving faculty exchanges and Afghan journalism educators and students coming here to shadow their American counterparts as well as working journalists.  I hope to be one of those journalists they meet with and follow around.  Look for more of my work covering this unfolding story in the months ahead.

An Old Partnership Takes a New Turn: UNO-Kabul University Renew Ties with Journalism Program

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

UNO communication professor Chris Allen recently returned from a two-week needs assessment trip to Afghanistan. His journey was part of a federally-funded journalism faculty-student development program between the University of Nebraska at Omaha and Kabul University.

As Afghanistan attempts normalization in this post-Taliban era, the nation’s indigenous media uneasily co-exist with Islamic law and government ambivalence. Yet, flush with freedom and peace for the first time in decades. Allen says “a surprisingly vigorous and developing media system” exists there.

Consider two vastly different television shows: the incendiary Niqab has masked women detail abuse they’ve suffered; the popular Afghan Star is an American Idol riff.

Training the next generation of Afghan journalists requires access to resources and modern practices. That’s why UNO and Kabul University are connecting aspiring and working journalists in academic, professional and cultural exchanges. Funded by a $1.3 million grant from the U.S. State Department‘s Fulbright program, this three-year partnership renews old ties between the two institutions and is the latest example of UNO’s decades-long work with Afghanistan.

UNO’s School of Communication and its Center for Afghanistan Studies are collaborating on the program. Allen was accompanied by CAS director and dean of International Studies and Programs Tom Gouttierre and CAS assistant director Raheem Yaseer.

The university’s relationship with the nation goes back to 1972, when two campus geography professors began research collaboratives. A donated collection of Afghanistan materials has grown to 12,000-plus items. In 1975 a linkage with Kabul University began.

To date, the center’s received some $60 million in grants and contracts for technical assistance programs, training and educational exchanges. Hundreds of Afghans have come to UNO for training to help rebuild their nation’s infrastructure. Hundreds of Americans come here to train as liaisons in reconstruction efforts.

The center maintains a Kabul field office and Team House, where Allen stayed. It also operates the UNO Education Press, which printed the new Afghan constitution and the ballots for the first democratic elections there in decades.

Even during the Soviet occupation and war, the Taliban reign of terror and the U.S.-led invasion to oust terrorists, Gouttierre says the center remained in contact with various education and government officials in Afghanistan or in exile in Pakistan.

He says a model for this new collaborative is the center’s 2002-2005 teacher education project, which brought Afghan women educators for an immersion experience as part of reopening the nation’s schools. Just as those visitors did, Afghan journalists will stay with Nebraska host families.

Plans call for a group of Afghan professors to arrive in late spring, with additional contingents of faculty and some students arriving later this year. More UNO School of Communication faculty are to visit Afghanistan in the coming months. Program visitors on each side will observe best practices and shadow their peers.

 

Chris Allen, second from left, with Kabul journalism faculty

 

 

Because UNO’s Chris Allen was in Kabul during finals week he didn’t observe classes, but he did speak with faculty.

“I really didn’t know anything about them and they really didn’t know anything about me and to sort of start off on an even footing was a really good thing,” he says. “I didn’t want to go in with preconceived notions that might prejudice the questions I would ask. I could ask really naive questions, and I did that, and I think that served as an ice breaker to say, I need to understand what you guys are doing and what your media are doing as much as you need to understand what we’re doing.

“It enabled me to go in and do a needs assessment from the ground up.”

Allen says the Afghans expressed a need for assistance on both teaching and practical levels. He says many expressed a desire to improve teaching techniques by moving away from lecture-oriented approaches to more hands-on student participation. He says Afghan educators are hampered by limited facilities and resources, such as teaching television without a studio or cameras or editing equipment. However, he says a new media center is in the works.

The most glaring need Allen saw was for more classroom computers. He says the basic reporting class has 10 computers serving 50 students.

“I’m not sure how they’re getting that done.”

He also marvels at how working media, faculty and students brave forbidding conditions, including security and transportation issues.

He’s told that journalism graduates readily find jobs in the Afghan media, which many call “a growth industry.”

Admittedly, he says, his lack of Persian language skills limited him but it didn’t prevent his noting some arcane story structure problems in print and broadcast reports. Despite shortcomings, he and Gouttierre say the media is a vital presence. Dozens of independent print publications have launched. Saad Mohseni, chairman of the largest independent media company there, MOBY Group, is Afghanistan’s first media mogul. The government-run media enterprise RTA is ubiquitous. Radio is the most pervasive medium, says Allen, because it’s accessible and doesn’t require high literacy.

Gouttierre says the UNO-KU project comes at a transformational time.

“Now we have this situation for UNO faculty and students to be engaged right up close with a country’s media that is trying to leap frog in a sense. It kind of reminds me of when I first went to Afghanistan in the early ‘60s as a Peace Corps volunteer and the country was just emerging as a constitutional, parliamentary democratic process. The press was becoming independent at that same time.”

He anticipates each side will learn much from the other, though he suspects Americans may have the most to gain.

“It’s surprising how far Afghans have taken themselves with few resources and how much we can learn from their creativity and initiative in very trying circumstances.  its shocking to see how much they’ve accomplished with so many obstacles.”

Bill Maher Gets Real

October 20, 2010 Leave a comment

Bill Maher at the PETA screening of I Am An An...

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If you are like me and you like your issues-oriented television with a bit of an edge to it, then we likely agree see eye-to-eye that Bill Maher is a healthy antidote to the talking head drivel that passes for analysis and to the rants that pass for discussion on much of TV these days.  Not that I agree with everything Maher or his guests say.  Far from it.  Not that I think his entertainment show is a substitute for substantive news and public affairs programs.  It isn’t.  It’s just that I like that he isn’t afraid to go after sacred cows and to challenge many of the conventions and systems that we are weaned to believe have our best interests at heart when reality should tell us different. That is a long way of saying I admire Maher and so when I heard he was coming to do his stand-up act here I went after getting an assignment to interview him in advance of his show.  It was a fairly brief phone conversation, but he was just as smart and engaging as I expected.  In fact, even though we were speaking by phone, it sort of felt like I was a panelist on his show and my questions were all the cues or prompts he needed to go off on one of his spirited riffs about this or that.  My story previews his October 24 appearance here and can be found in The Reader (www.thereader.com).  I will not be able to attend his live show, and now that I don’t have HBO anymore I miss out on his TV show, but when I do catch glimpses of him as a guest on Larry King Live and so forth I at least have a feel now for what it’s like to go one on one with him.  It’s actually pretty easy and fun because he’s a pro and he’s being real.

Bill Maher Gets Real

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Acerbic television host and political comic Bill Maher views the 60 to 70 stand-up gigs he does each year as opportunities to connect with the American gestalt. His October 24, 8 p.m. Omaha Music Hall show will be more fodder for his gauging the nation’s Zeitgeist.

“When I go out into America I can really get a feel for what this country is all about. I especially love going to places I’ve never been before, and I don’t think I’ve ever played Omaha,” he said by phone from his CBS Television City studio office in L.A..

“Then when I go back to Hollywood and do my show here I feel like, Yeah, I’m not just sitting in a place that’s not really America. I do the work, I go out there and I see America, and I enjoy it more than anything,”

His topical late night HBO show “Real Time with Bill Maher” is in its eighth season. It’s among the few programs that neither talks down to its audience nor apologizes for its signature unabashed sarcasm. Before this show he enjoyed a decade-long run with “Politically Incorrect,” which began on Comedy Central and ended on ABC. Executives at ABC cancelled it after Maher and a guest made controversial remarks in the wake of 9/11. Unlike the network wonks who freaked, he says HBO’s suits take his incendiary humor and viewer reaction to it in stride.

“They’re like a Jewish mother. They will let me know after the fact if I’ve caused them some consternation or pain. They’ll be like, Aw, don’t worry about us, we had to handle 50,000 emails yesterday, it’s OK, we’ll be alright. Yeah, that sometimes happens, but to their great credit they don’t ever stop me.”

Considering his barbed comments on sensitive subjects. just staying on the air may be the greatest accomplishment of this self-described Libertarian and apatheist who considers organized religion a neurological disorder.

“I’m proudest that I’ve somehow managed to remain on television for 18 years,” he says. “I mean, from the end of ‘Politically Incorrect’ to the start of this show there was only a six month break. You would think someone who espouses as many unpopular opinions as I do, I mean just religion alone, would have been shown the door a long time ago instead of getting a star on the (Hollywood) Walk of Fame.

“So it’s pretty amazing to me, but that shows something good about America. When I started on ‘Politically Incorrect’ in 1993 all the critics said this show is never going to last because you can’t have a host who tells an opinion. Hosts were all playing out of the old Johnny Carson or Bob Hope playbook, where you just never let the audience really know your politics  You didn’t know if Johnny Carson voted for Nixon or Humphrey. You still don’t know who Jay Leno or David Letterman votes for.”Maher, who regards America as a declining empire with a dumb body politic, has faith enough folks embrace his funny, smart, self-righteous brand of social criticism that he lets viewers know exactly where he and his guests stand.

“People, even if they don’t agree with you, as long as you entertain them and you’re honest about it and you’re not down-the-line doctrinaire, they respect that,” he says. “They can take it if they don’t agree with you.”

The edge “Real Time” maintains, he says, is the unfiltered, unapologetic way things get said.

“I think people feel like it’s more honest than anything else on TV. That we will give a very raw and different point of view. Admittedly, it’s my opinion and they may not agree with it, but I think they respect the fact it’s real.”

“Real Time” also fills an information niche, albeit a highly interpretive one.

Maher says, “Part of it is we’re a live, news wrap-up show on Friday night. I think the purpose we serve for a lot of people is they have busy lives, they don’t have a chance to be newshounds all week like we do. What I try to do is to make sure that anyone who hasn’t really gotten a chance to look at the paper that week will be caught up on most of the important things that happened if they watch the show. We will touch upon them in one way or the other, either in the monologue, in an interview, in the panel, in New Rules, or in the editorial at the end.”

At the end of the day then, what is Maher — a comic, a humorist, a critic, a commentator, a pundit, or a talking head?

“Well, I guess we live in an age of hybrids, so there are times when I am any one of those things, but I always think of myself first as a comedian. That’s why I still go on the road, because that’s what I love, that’s what I know best, and that’s what I do best.”

For tickets to An Evening with Bill Maher, call 800-745-3000 or visit http://www.ticketmaster.com.

Exposed: Gail Levin and Steve Brodner Prick the Body Politic

September 20, 2010 Leave a comment

Political Caricature: 'Go Away, Little Man, an...

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This is one of several stories I’ve written about documentary filmmaker Gail Levin, and I’m quite sure it will not be the last. As the piece infers she has a facile quality that allows her to do many different kinds of film work, including the hybrid form she hit upon for her collaboration with political cartoonist Steve Brodner.  My piece for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared during the 2008 presidential campaign, which was the fodder for Levin and Brodner’s project called The Naked Campaign.  Their work attracted a fair amount of attention, though I don’t think it quite got the play Levin had hoped it would net.  The two were still collaborating until recently, this time for occasional bits they doidfor the PBS series Need to Know, which has the dubious distinction of replacing the irreplaceable Bill Moyers Journal.  I didn’t see all of the installments in Naked Campaign, but I saw most of them and I must say they were highly entertaining micro-documentaries/political cartoons/reports.  I did not see their work for Need to Know. I meant to catch it some night, but Levin and Brodner have since dissolved their creative partnership and their segment is no longer part of the show. The last time I spoke with Levin, she was crashing to complete a new American Masters doc – a profile of actor Jeff Bridges. The film premiered on PBS earlier this year and it was quite good.  The story I wrote about the project - “Long Live the Dude” -  can be found on this blog.  I had hoped to interview Bridges for the piece but that was never really in the cards. Gail gave me a good interview though.  I look forward to whatever her next project is.

Exposed:  Gail Levin and Steve Brodner Prick the Body Politic

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

A pair of New York artists, filmmaker Gail Levin and political illustrator and art journalist Steve Brodner, are making the 2008 presidential race both the subject and the laboratory of their The Naked Campaign.

Appearing on The New Yorker Web site since last December, Naked combines the work of Levin, an Omaha native and seven-time Emmy-award winning filmmaker, with the art of Brodner — an acclaimed satirist in pencil, pen, brush and word. Melding film with caricature is not new but consider that Naked then adds the animation of Asterisk studio, along with media images, sound bites and eclectic music tracks. It’s all fodder and counterpoint for Brodner’s brand of irony. The eclectic content is a moving canvas for both his visual art and his verbal commentary, whose pithy, breezy observations are at least as sharp as his barbed illustrations.

Levin believes she and Brodner are innovators with Naked, a cross-platformed, animated, op-ed, multi-media series whose “films” are now on newyorker.com, YouTube, xml and will soon appear as run-of-schedule interstitials on cable TV’s the Sundance Channel. Naked has international distribution via The New York Times Syndicate. Galleries and museums are showing the work. She’s also piecing together a feature documentary based on the series.

“I think we have created a new genre here with extraordinary breadth and range and something very unique in its take and its scope,” Levin said. “This is not only political content, it is equally about ways of seeing — how art informs opinion. In fact, I am calling this Op-Art.”

New enough at least that the project’s been a tough sell to traditional media, although some outlets that passed before, like PBS’s POV series, are interested again, she said, after “the phenomenal reception” to Naked on the Web.

The fluid nature of an unwieldy national campaign with in-flux headlines, stories and sidebars poses unlimited opportunities and problems for those covering it. A new Naked piece — there are 24 and counting now — is posted every couple weeks in an attempt to stay current and respond to developing narratives.

“Its fluidity is both its great strength and its great challenge,” Levin said. “It is very daunting to find our way through some of this and keep these little pieces both reflective and a bit prescient at the same time. One wants to be able not to feel dated, and yet this stuff is dated within milliseconds. Still, though, it is my goal to keep this stuff feeling crisp and right on, even if the events have already begun to shift. There really is a sort of thru line and it is important to see it, and that is not in the day to day — the Obama victory here, the McCain race there. Rather it is finding the guts — keeping the soul of it all in focus that I like.”

 

 

Gail Levin and Steve Brodner

 

Levin and Brodner intended going on the road to follow the slog through the primaries and caucuses, all the way through to the conventions. If Naked had taken that route, then Brodner and Levin would have practiced the kind of art journalism he’s done — from climbing Mt. Fuji to shadowing the Million Man March to covering eight presidential campaigns — that entails going out and coming back with stories.

Budgetary restrictions nixed that plan. So, other than attending a stray primary here and caucus (Iowa) there, and crashing a few photo ops (Obama at the Apollo Theatre), Naked’s creative team has largely monitored the campaign from afar.

No Boys on the Bus tour for this gang.

“We are definitely not on the bus, but that is great,” Levin said. “As fun as that can be it is also very insular. I think you get no distance and you can put no lens on the events. So I rather like this vantage point of ours.”

She said the individual films are stand-alone pieces informed by the entire “streaming” project. “Their present tenseness makes it a documentary which is a witness, not a pundit. We are kind of in a play-by-play mode. No conclusions, just moving decimal points.”

Naked’s not as subversive, say, as Robert Altman’s Tanner: ‘88, the quirky docudrama that inserted a fictional candidate into that election year’s actual ‘88 presidential scene. Clearly, Naked’s not drama. Neither is it straight documentary, nor even pseudo-doc in the way Michael Moore’s partisan films are.

As Levin herself said, “No, we are not exactly journalists and maybe not exactly documentarians either — though the documentary aspect of this will come.”

So, what roles do Levin-Brodner play? “Right now.” she said, “we are in a rather glorious position of our own — neither journalists, nor documentarians, but rather storytellers, animated documentary makers. Artists, I hope. Collagists. Improvisational yet deliberate. Something which is evolving as a whole new form outside the media apparatus but also commenting back on it.”

Brodner feels Naked qualifies as a kind of journalism.

“Anything you do that discusses current affairs can be called journalism,” he said. “George Will doesn’t have to leave his easy chair and he’s still considered a journalist just by sitting and puffing on his pipe and pontificating about things. So, this (Naked) all goes into the vast general description of journalism.”

Still, he said, Naked defies genre. “If you watch these films Gail makes for American Masters they’re about these people (James Dean, Marilyn Monroe) but not really about them, they’re about the art that they make. She really has this vision about the mechanics of art being a key into the lives of the artists or, in this case, the political life of the nation as we experience it. Or as it gets perceived under the surface of things. So this (Naked) is just kicking into her unique way of making film.”

For Brodner Naked’s just an extension of what he does in print, on blogs. “This is what I do, it’s what I always do, it’s no different,” he said.

His freelance work has graced the pages of The New Yorker, Esquire, Playboy, Sports Illustrated, The Village Voice, The Washington Post and many other publications. The Brooklyn native’s collected political work was published in the book Freedom Fries. Brodner’s no stranger to celluloid. He created an animated film, Davy Crockett. He also made a documentary short, September 2001, on the emotional aftermath of 9/11. He drew on camera for a Frontline documentary about the ‘96 presidential campaign. He and Levin met when she interviewed him for a piece she did on political cartooning, a lifelong interest of hers.

A winner of the Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism, his work is the subject of a new exhibition, Raw Nerve! The Political Art of Steve Brodner, at the Normal Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. Some of his Naked work is on display in a video installation there

For Naked he transforms candidates into metaphorical representations based on the various ways they project themselves. That’s why he plays with the notion of tall, lanky orator-from-Illinois Barack Obama as Abraham Lincoln. But is he really Lincoln-like, he ponders. Or, as he suggests, is Obama an Adlai (Stevenson) with highfalutin ideas that don’t register? Or a neurotic intellectual, ala Woody Allen?

 

 

 

 

Brodner’s visual renderings and verbal takes, whether on Obama and McCain or the race writ large, are witty, inventive, dead-on interpretations that examine the subtext and context of these figures, their views, the issues, the parties, et all.

“This is Steve Brodner’s voice and it’s his voice very unedited,” Levis said. “I think he’s very eloquent and very smart. You don’t have to agree with him but he has great, brilliantly-conceived ideas. It’s amazing to watch his mind and hands work.”

Each topical piece is a few minutes in length and pictures Brodner doing his thing in a simple bare white studio, with a table and an easel set before him. He’s often shot over the shoulder, with his back to the camera, to capture him, almost in real-time, executing that episode’s sketches on greaseboard, paper, canvas. He caricatures over photographs in one and on an inflatable globe in another.

“What’s been most satisfying if not surprising is the range of our own method and the evolution and continuing refinement of our use of animation and commentary,” said Levin. “And we still haven’t begun to do a lot of what I hope to do.”

For example, she wants Brodner to paint on a glass plate and envisions him working on a blank museum wall before a live audience he interacts with like a street artist. “The continuing evolution is the thing,” she said.

As Brodner draws, inks or paints in Naked, he yaps about the topic in a running Bill Maheresque commentary, only smarter, with equal historical and pop culture references. “I love that you’re getting American civics-history filtered through this — without shoving it down your throat,” Levin said.

It seems less rehearsed agit-prop than off-the-cuff political banter. You know, the kind of give-and-take you engage in at the neighborhood coffeehouse or bar over the state of the nation or the character of McCain versus Obama.

“It’s the same thing, except I’m doing it with pictures,” Brodner said. “It’s just thinking about the campaign…being honest…being expressive about it. It’s just one voice expressing an opinion. I have no plan or expectation the art will accomplish anything other than just engage in one small part of the debate. We’re having a national conversation here.”

He said the remainder of the race is a referendum on who people trust is best suited to guide the country. Naked will be examining how the McCain-Palin, Obama-Biden tickets spin perception to their own advantage.

“That’s really the kind of dialogue we’re having here, over the next eight weeks especially,” he said. “People are going to be talking a lot about these topics and it’s wonderful. It’s so much better than the way it’s been where people have just not talked about politics, don’t pay attention, aren’t interested, aren’t listening, aren’t involved. We’re now involved.”

“I want to elevate this dialogue,” Levin said. “I want to contribute something to this dialogue.”

 

 

 

 

Brodner’s conversational style accentuates Naked’s in-the-moment sensibility, further heightened by the bleed-through ambient sounds Levin lets leak-in from the street outside. Sometimes you can hear her in the background, always off-camera, prompting him with a comment or question or responding to something he’s said.

In the throes of a sketch, the footage is slightly sped up, which combined with the artist POV, puts you right on top of his work in-the-making. The minimally-produced segments and hand-held camera techniques lend a sense of as-it’s-happening cinema verite intimacy, as if we’re peering in on the private Brodner at work.

He likes this artist-at-work aspect of Naked.

“I think that really brings people along — if they feel they’re watching something in the moment that it’s being created. That’s something most people don’t ever get to see. They just see the final product but they don’t see the person making it. I think everybody finds interesting how something gets made…the crafting of something by one’s hands.”

In the act of completing a portrait caricature all the puffery is stripped away to bare the candidate down to his or her essentials. Down to the naked truth.

“I think something big is revealed in watching the process,” Brodner said. “You see the creation and the act of creation together. It doesn’t bother you, in fact it excites you. I like things that show that the human being is there making this thing happen. At least slight little traces of humanity or maybe imperfection. Or just a sense that it’s art but it’s also a human product. It’s not this cut-off thing where you don’t see the brush strokes. Let’s see the brush strokes.”

There are also set-ups that have Brodner face the camera, obviously addressing the unseen Levin, and deliver op-eds, sans any art.

For “Straight Talk Eggs-Spress” Brodner inks Bush-McCain caricatures on eggs. The artist makes the case that no matter how much McCain tries distancing himself from Bush “he can’t separate his eggs” from George Ws’ on foreign policy. Brodner peels the eggs, places them in a bowl, then crumbles and mixes them to illustrate how the two “are sort of yoked together.” Brodner goes on to make an egg salad with ingredients symbolizing different political points. By the end, he’s left with a kind of Middle Eastern but thoroughly American concoction” that “you just keep spinning and beating into the ground.” The salad becomes an Obama spread that Brodner schmeers into a caricature that’s then animated to a sound bite of the senator intoning “we are hungry for change” over a crowd chanting “U.S.A.”.

Unlike Bill Maher, Brodner doesn’t settle so much for quips or punch-lines or argumentative rants, opting instead for interpretive riffs that take the measure of the candidates’ public faces in rich metaphorical bites.

In “Clash of the Titans” Brodner deals with the looming specters of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. The segment appeared before McCain emerged as the leading GOP candidate and prior to Clinton making nice with Obama. “We’re talking about big characters here,” Brodner says. “Larger than life figures. Reagan and Clinton are both that and it’s interesting in this campaign how both have kind of overshadowed the people who are actually running for office.”

Brodner morphs Clinton into King Kong, “a big, weighty, ponderous, powerful character” holding Hillary in one hand while stomping Obama underfoot. Clinton-Kong “comes on the scene and throws his weight around. He knows how dominant he is. Instead of being careful with it he seems almost happy to do damage,” opines Brodner. “It seems like a calculation that something was necessary to stop Obama and that good old-fashioned politics was the ticket. With Hillary in his grip he overshadows and overpowers the other Democratics…”

Clinton is “matched by Reagan, the big mythic character,” observes Brodner, who imagines the Great Communicator “as a dinosaur,” but one “Republicans can’t stop mentioning. And the weaker they seem to be the more they kind of just flap their arms and howl Reagan’s name out — as if an incantation. What we end up with is this mythic figure that has tremendous power over the Republican Party.”

 

 

 

 

After Hillary dropped 10 straight primaries, Brodner-Levin did “Lost at Sea,” which pictures the Clintons as the doomed couple from the movie Titanic, standing at the prow of the ship as it goes down, sunk by an iceberg in the guise of Obama. It’s the connections Brodner makes, first positing Hillary as John Paul Jones, then Admiral Nimitz, before her fateful Titanic encounter, that elevate his work.

Where Maher wears his liberal leanings on his sleeve, infusing his rails against the Right with self-congratulatory indignation, Brodner keeps his own personal political persuasions close to his vest, although he clearly loathes the Bush administration.

Still, he retains an even-handed approach in his bashing. Everyone and everything is fair game. As Naked’s producer-director, it’s ultimately Levin’s call that the series not be identified as either Left nor Right. It is, if anything, Centrist.

Brodner regards candidates “as characters in a novel or a movie or an opera. That’s the only way to think about them in my opinion because they’re not real people,” he said. “They’re characters they consciously create for us to consume, and that’s what the cartoonist draws — that character. We never see the real McCain or the real Obama. I learned this by covering campaigns and by watching these people on and off stage. The performer is the layered-over version, sort of the adopted persona. We’re really shocked and amazed when there’s an open mike and they say something completely uncharacteristic when the real person comes through.”

Beyond the posturing and masks, he said, “what’s most interesting is what they stand for. That’s what we need to be looking at.”

What makes he and Levin a good team? “This is such an equal partnership,” she said. “We listen to each other,” he said.

“I think part of it, too,” he added, “is we’re both in a real way very experienced commercial artists. We both have been able to support ourselves by finding ways to say what we want to say with our respective art while also pleasing some clients.”

Levin said the project’s lack of funding helps keep it independent and free of interference. She said as the series’ title puts it “this is the bare ass look at the campaign, plan and simple. Stripped down. We’re going to give you what we think here. We’re in nobody’s pocket. It’s not a spin. It’s not doctored.”

As the series’ opening tag line goes, “Uncle Sam says, watch your back.”

Only time will tell if her grand hopes for Naked Campaign, which she sees as the start of a whole new way of filmmaking, are realized.

“We think we are doing something quite extraordinary in terms of the sort of nexus of appointment viewing ala television and the expediency of the Internet. I am very determined that we will change the whole paradigm in terms of collaborations, production, platforming, multi-faceted filmmaking, et cetera.”

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