Tuesday, June 28, 2011


Headlines coast to coast screamed “Blagojevich Guilty” after a Chicago jury deliberated for nine days and found former Governor Rod Blagojevich guilty on 17 corruption counts. In Florida, the seemingly endless Casey Anthony child murder trial also made headlines after the defendant’s mother tried to explain away her computer searches for “chloroform,” with a straight face. But in New Orleans, all eyes were on the Federal courthouse as a jury was seated for the Danziger Bridge trial. What, no Nancy Grace, Joy Behar, Wolf Blitzer or even Dr. Drew Pinsky reports? Nothing. A quick search of the NY Times turns up nada. The Washington Post? Well, if by chance you clicked on “National” news at the top of the home page, and the once you got there, scrolled way down and clicked on “More National News,” and then once you got to that page, scrolled down to the 27th headline, you’d find an AP wire story about the Danziger Bridge story.

You get the idea. Danziger is not a term in the national consciousness. But here in New Orleans, the courthouse was packed on day one of the trial that has become so iconic to the Hurricane Katrina event, that people actually drive to the bridge just to see where it all happened. So, if you’re reading this from Salt Lake City, or Poughkeepsie, or Greensboro, maybe I should briefly recount for you what happened. At least as much as we know. What is known is that on Sept. 4, 2005, just days after the storm, two men were killed by gunfire on the bridge and four others were wounded. One of the dead was a 40-year-old disabled man who was shot in the back. To hear the accused cops (above, left) tell it, there was a distress call from the bridge area suggesting cops were fired upon. Nine other cops piled in a rented truck and rushed to the scene. What happened after that is unclear, except we know the two men were killed and four others wounded.

Now five police officers are on trial for civil rights violations, unjustified shootings and for covering up their activities. Five former cops have already entered guilty pleas to the cover up and will testify against their one-time colleagues. A detective goes on trial later in the summer. Anybody who lives in New Orleans knows something very bad happened on the bridge that day, and just about everybody believes the cops are guilty – except other cops, who never believe their brethren are guilty. Federal prosecutors allege the attacks on the bridge were unprovoked. In fact, this case may have simply faded away had the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI not become involved in the investigation. But they did. It’s a complex series of events that led to this trial. Listen to two Times-Picayune crime reporters explain the order of what happened:

New Orleans is often aptly referred to as “The city that care forgot.” So true. The story just isn’t as “sexy” as say a Rodney King police abuse case out of L.A. back in 1991. It doesn’t have the staying power of the 1997 NYC case of citizen Abner Louima, who was sexually brutalized with a plunger handle by two cops. This is New Orleans. We made it on the media map in 2005 because of the largest natural disaster in the history of the United States. But attention spans are short and news has very little longevity in our new tech world culture. So Katrina is over. Way over. And stories like the Danziger Bridge case don’t really get much CNN/MSNBC/Huffington Post/CBS/NBC/ABC/FOX attention. Almost none, you might say.

It’s tough to compete with Blagojevich, who’s still rocking those 1970’s junior high school bangs. And Casey Anthony, the innocent-looking white girl who may have killed her baby and then gone out partying? Well, that’s ratings gold for networks like HLN. They’ve even got Dr. Drew Pinsky covering it – he’s an addiction specialist and nobody in this case is claiming addiction problems. Go figure. In his new book about Katrina, former Mayor Ray Nagin (above, right) is all hot and bothered about police corruption during and after the storm. But oddly enough, while he was mayor, the words “Danziger Bridge” scarcely crossed his lips. Although the cops in question are both black and white, the victims were all black. Where is Jesse Jackson? Where is Al Sharpton? Where’s the NAACP? Where is the Southern Christian Leadership Conference? The ACLU?

Where is the public outrage? I believe it is stuck back in 2005. “Katrina fatigue” is not just an expression. In New Orleans we can barely look back. Around the rest of the country, Katrina is a historical term now. In some ways we in New Orleans still see the storm in present tense, although certainly it fades as time moves on. But really, if you are in New Mexico, or Connecticut, or Maine or Montana, do you care about Katrina now? No. To you, the Danziger Bridge could just as easily be a place in a fiction novel as it could a real blood-soaked crossing in Louisiana. I do not anticipate a high profile for the trial outside of Louisiana, but at the same time, I know that if the accused cops walk free, the racial implications for the whole country could be dire. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


It is always astounding to me how a cultural icon’s most important works are overshadowed by fluff. Exhibit A: Hugh Hefner. Hefner, 85, has been a part of the American consciousness since the mid-20th century, when he quit his job at Esquire Magazine, scraped up a few hundred bucks from anybody who would help him, and quietly plotted the debut of “Stag Party,” a new world men’s magazine. Stag Party ran into licensing problems since there was already a magazine called “Stag,” and ended up being renamed “Playboy.” The very first issue featured a totally nude Marilyn Monroe (see cover below, left). The rest, as they say...

If you don’t dig too deep, all you find in Hefner is the above-mentioned fluff. Top heavy young girls, extravagant living, seemingly non-stop parties and lots of debauchery. That is why last week’s sudden exit of his would be 25-year-old bride made headlines worldwide. The China Economic Net proclaimed Hefner “dumped at the altar.” In the UK, the Independent declared, “Bad Luck, Hef – the Bunny’s Hopped it.” The New Zealand Herald ran a picture of the couple with the simple headline, “Cancelled.” Whatever Hefner does or does not do is big news in all corners of the earth, even a doomed marriage.

Who cares, right? Right. There is, however, so much more to care about when it comes to Hugh Hefner. What many people may not know is that Hefner has been what I would call a human rights and civil rights activist as long as he has been a publisher. His good works and good words have often been lost to his socially questionable lifestyle. That’s too bad, because those good works and words have changed the world.

Did you know (or remember) he used to have a TV show called “Playboy's Penthouse?” It ran for three years from 1959 – 1961. The camera would get a tight shot of elevator buttons lighting up one by one until it reached the penthouse apartment. Then the doors would open and viewers would see a party going on, people dancing, laughing, drinking, smoking. But here’s the rub: Some of the people were black, at a time when it was virtually unheard of for a TV show to feature anybody black, unless they were Amos and Andy. Bigger still was the fact that the show featured black performers, doing their thing with white performers. Unheard of. Sounds pretty tame now, but be aware that some of those black performers and party guests would probably not have even been allowed into buildings like the one portrayed in “Playboy Penthouse” in 1959. A white female folk singer performing with two black guys? Outrageous for its time.

Hefner’s “girlie” magazine and cool TV show (that could be considered the world’s first reality show) were really his vehicle to advance his agenda. The agenda had everything to do with freedom of speech and basic American liberty. Listen as he welcomes controversial comedian Lenny Bruce to “Playboy’s Penthouse.” Looks like fun, smooth and easy, but the conversation takes decidedly issues-oriented turns to censorship, racial integration and more:

This is one of only six network TV appearances Bruce ever made. American media was afraid of the Bruce’s often acerbic and envelope-pushing humor. So afraid was America of Bruce’s stretching the limits of the First Amendment that he was arrested multiple times, banned from many performance venues and even barred from certain U.S. cities. But Hefner, recognizing the underlying theme of freedom of expression, never wavered in his support of Bruce’s career. You don’t necessarily have to approve of Bruce’s material, nor of Hefner’s, for that matter, but the indisputable fact is that Hefner advanced the cause of freedom in America.

In 1973, when the movie Carnal Knowledge was deemed obscene by several state Supreme Courts, Hefner was interviewed in his own magazine on the 20th anniversary of Playboy. His fervent dedication to free speech was never more clearly evident: “What it amounts to is that the Nixon Court, which is supposed to be loaded with what he calls “strict constructionists” of the Constitution, has ruled that the First Amendment’s absolute protection of free speech and press doesn’t really mean what it says, that certain kinds of speech and writing aren’t necessarily free at all—speech and writing that has to do with sex. The Court has decreed that the ruling elite of every local community has the power to determine what everyone else in town may read or see.”

Anyone who doubts Hefner’s dedication to the absolute nature of freedom of expression should read “The Playboy Philosophy,” a 25-part Hefner-penned series that appeared in the magazine from 1962 – 1966. In it, Hefner clearly explained his beliefs about social and moral issues, right on the cusp of the American sexual revolution that took off in the late 1960s. Having just returned from London where he opened a Playboy Club, Hefner had witnessed the European sexual revolution firsthand, and saw it as much as an issue of human freedom as he did a sexual/cultural shift. The philosophy extended itself to issues like freedom of (and from) religion, as well as the critical importance of the separation of church and state.

In the 1960s Hefner befriended Jesse Jackson (below, left) and Dr. Martin Luther King. In fact, MLK was interviewed for the magazine by none other than Alex Haley (who later wrote “Roots”), who happened to be the writer who did the first interview the magazine ever featured. Hefner was passionate about civil rights and racial equality and integration. It has been a theme of his life, throughout his life. That’s where the fluff can really get in the way of the substance. The substance of Hugh Hefner is all about fairness, freedom and individual rights. It may be couched in lush photos of bare breasts and salacious cartoons, but if you really take time to study the history of his publication, it’s about you and me and what we deserve in a country that was built on a foundation of personal liberty. One could say that Hefner also advanced a culture that was steeped in puritanical repression to the next level of honest sexual expression. What’s not to like about that?

And so that brings us full circle back to one Crystal Harris, the 25-year-old would-be bride whose cold feet sparked headlines from sea to shining sea. Here’s the truth: Crystal Harris doesn’t matter. She may matter to her mom and dad or somebody, but she does not matter in the larger scheme of things. What matters about Hefner is his undying, lifelong commitment to your human and civil rights. He has long been someone I admired, if only for his unwavering efforts to open minds and hearts. I mean you have to love a guy whose left brain says, “Playboy was founded on the notion that nice girls like sex too,” while the other side says, “I urge one and all to live this life as if there is no reward in the afterlife, and do it in a moral way that makes it better for you and for those around you and leaves this world a little better place than when you found it."

Thursday, June 16, 2011


How interesting that suddenly, Tracy Morgan, a sort of second-string comedian, is all over the headlines. Oh no, it’s not because of his middling performance as alter-ego Tracy Jordan on the NBC sitcom “30 Rock.” It’s all about his throwback standup comedy act, which hit a wall in Nashville recently after he reportedly “joked” that he would “pull out a knife and stab that little nigger” if he found out his son was gay. It turns out an audience member was so taken aback by Morgan’s inane rant that he posted a piece about the Morgan show on Facebook. As is our cultural way here in 2011, the piece went viral, got picked up by national media and a firestorm ensued, causing Morgan to come forward to say how much he loves everybody. Right. Then comes news that Morgan is going to do some kind of something with GLAAD to show how much he really, really loves everybody. Right.

The upshot of all of this is a national discussion that is flooding the blogosphere, the airwaves and even good old print journalism about the extent of comedic license available to standup comedians. How much is too much? Is too much an oxymoron when you talk of standup routines? Is this a first amendment issue or rather a common decency issue? If you talk about your own son as a “little nigger,” is it hate speech or is it your divine right as a parent? When Morgan rants about stabbing his own son, is it funny or is it a desperate reach for a laugh when his audience has paid $86 a seat to laughs? And in a culture that decides to delete an Anthony Weiner from the public stage, why is it that a man who insults the gay population and the black population in one fell swoop is still front and center on one of the most highly-praised television shows on the air?

Whew! That’s a lot of questions, right? But doesn’t something like this merit a lot of questions? Didn’t we learn anything from the Michael Richards debacle back in 2006 at the Laugh Factory in Hollywood? That was the night Richards (below) got mad at some black hecklers in the audience and threw a temper tantrum in which he used the word “nigger” six times. Here’s how stuff like this works in our culture today: Richards, despite his very public apologies and mea culpa appearances on shows like Letterman, has had exactly four professional entertainment jobs since 2006, according to the Internet Movie Database (IMDB). Nobody is denying Richards his first amendment rights. But the American public has made it clear they can’t find much to laugh about when he speaks anymore. Once you do what Richards did, maybe you have to turn in your funny card and do exactly what he did next – retire from show business and take an extended trip to Cambodia. Really.

The issue here is not comedy. It is not Tracy Morgan. It is not how many people are offended. The issue here is respect. Comedians are divided on how to react to Morgan’s behavior. Some, like Louis C.K., came forward to say that Morgan was just “fucking around” and didn’t mean what he said. Said Louis, "Tracey Morgan said something wrong, evil, cruel, ignorant and hilarious. He was on a comedy stage, not at a pulpit.” Implicit in his remarks is the thought that since Morgan was on a comedy stage, respect for his fellow human beings is not required. Others, like Chris Rock (above, right), who initially defended Morgan’s right to say whatever he wants to say on stage, later came back with, “Wow, I get that shit wasn’t called for and I don’t support it at all.” And then there was Joan Rivers: “He’s lost his gay fan.” And, “I’ll tell you, the biggest crime of all is that Tracy Morgan isn’t funny. You know what he should be apologizing for? For charging $86 to see him.”

Indeed. But what no one seems to be addressing is the assumption among comedians that no matter what they say, who they hurt, how grotesque the images they put forth, they get a pass because it’s “comedy.” Here’s the thing: Comedy is cultural commentary. That’s really all it is. Comedians basically do the same thing that Rush Limbaugh, Chris Matthews, Rachel Maddow, Keith Olberman, Glen Beck and all the other talking cableheads do. They offer their take on the current state of our culture. As I see it, Morgan’s take on the current state of our culture is that gay people are somehow “less than,” and that probably they should be eliminated. And as I see it, Morgan somehow still believes there is a place in our national conversation for the word “nigger,” a stupid, throwback, throwaway word that we have been trying for decades to evolve out of the English language.

You know, besides the fact that Morgan appears to be somehow surviving this ridiculous tirade, with even his “30 Rock” boss, Tina Fey still somewhat reluctantly embracing him, (below, left) here’s what bugs me: The historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville (which used to be the home of the Grand Ole Opry), where Morgan had his comedic tantrum, seats 2400 people. Let’s do the math: 2400 x $86.00 = $206,400. After paying the venue, the promoters, the tour expenses and his agent, manager, etc., let’s say Morgan gets 40% of the gross. That means that for denigrating millions of Americans in the name of comedy, Morgan earned upwards of $80 grand that night. And it gets worse: For those Americans who vaguely knew who Morgan was prior to the Nashville performance, now every American who has been conscious the last week or so knows who he is. You know the old, “I don’t care what they say about me, as long as they spell my name right” routine? My biggest concern here is that now Morgan is a household word whose ignorant cultural trespasses may imprint him on the American psyche as a “bad boy comic” who just said some stupid stuff once in Nashville. All that, and here I was hoping he'd go be Michael Richards' roommate in Cambodia.

So, in the end, does it all simply mean that in America, saying you will cut up your “little nigger” kid with a knife if he says he’s gay is worth $80,000 and an ongoing national television career. How did we get here?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


Some people ask me why I haven’t said or written much about the Anthony Weiner story. After all, in the past couple of years I have been all over the John Edwards debacle (which many liken to Weiner’s current situation), Spitzer, Clinton, et al. As anyone who reads my words knows, I’m not a fan of John Edwards. He’s the definition of political sleaze. The fact is, I don’t see Weiner’s downfall – and it is a downfall – in the same category as the other boys. The others, as well as John Ensign, Chris Lee (the NY Congresssman who resigned after shirtless Craigslist ads surfaced), Larry Craig, David Vitter, are somehow easily grouped together under the heading of “Washington sex scandals.” Weiner’s political and personal demise are somehow different – I won’t go so far as to use the word “pathetic,” but certainly pitiful.

So, why do I pity Anthony Weiner? To really get a grasp on what drove the guy to take pictures of himself nude and semi-nude, I think you need a mental picture of who he is – or was. Raised in Brooklyn as part of a Jewish family, Weiner’s early life reads conventional. Middle class, hockey player, good student, B.A. in poli-sci and a first job working for Congressman Chuck Schumer. It was probably during the stint with Schumer that Weiner, who reportedly had earlier aspirations to be a TV weatherman, found his activist voice. Based on his geography and environment, it is not surprising that voice became almost radically liberal. Over the years, Weiner ascended the political ranks steadily and some might say quickly. Now a Congressman, Weiner says mayor of New York is the only job that looks better to him than the one he currently holds. Up until this month, many believed he was a shoe-in for the job. He is often described in terms like brash, abrasive, aggressive, loud and demanding. And his constituents like the fact that he gets things done. Things that matter to them. By all outward appearances, Anthony Weiner was an up and comer, who at 46 probably had decades of political life left in him, and likely would have channeled some of his boundless energy and respectable work ethic into real progress for New York.

So many people do not understand the internal pressure that men in their 40s often feel. My take on the Weiner drama is that the pressure to produce and succeed got the best of him. And I do not in any way apologize for his Twitter idiocies, but I do get it. There is a window of opportunity in America for men to “make it.” In parallel, there is a window of opportunity for men to feel hot and attractive. The windows on both often begin slowly to close after the late 40s. Weiner is 46 years old. And then there is that old favorite, testosterone. So let’s do the math. Career aspirations/expectations + age + sexual drive = what? I would say in the case of a rather arrogant, ambitious public figure the equation can equal disaster. Personal disaster that rapidly becomes public.

I have watched many men fall to their own fatal flaw of self absorption. If the whole world continually tells you how exceptional you are and what a wunderkind you are, maybe you might start believing it. I had a smart grad school professor who once said, “People are often what you invite them to be.” Did New York invite Anthony Weiner to be full of Anthony Weiner? Was he powerless to fight the allure of self-absorption? I think so.

Here’s the sidebar to all of this: What Weiner did is the same thing that millions of men – and women – do every day. Did you think somehow that all of the visual technology we now have at our fingertips was not going to become part of the sexual landscape? We’re an increasingly visual culture that was already an off-the-map sexual culture. Smart phones and Twitter just gave us the necessary tools. If you are one of those people who read this and think, “I would never do that,” more power to you. But if you think a lot of people you know aren’t doing it, you may be deluding yourself. And if you think Anthony Weiner is the only legislator doing it, I beg to differ.

So, why then are we passing such puritanical judgment on the guy for being sexual and visual? It is because our traditional American moral code tells us what he did was bad. But for my part, I don’t think suggestive pictures sent to young women are going to kill his career. Lying will do that all by itself. Here is Weiner speaking to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on June 1:

And here he is on ABC’s Good Morning America:

Step one in Weiner’s political demise was arrogance and his belief that manipulating words would be all that was needed to cover his ass (think Bill Clinton - “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”). But his ultimate fall from the mountaintop had everything to do with his lies. America may have forgiven him his sexual trespasses, his self-absorption, his need to be seen by young women, his well-known brash behavior. America will not forgive the lies.
I believe we will see Anthony Weiner resign by the end of this week. Call it a hunch. Stay tuned.