Wednesday, August 31, 2011


It is unfortunate that every time someone mentions the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, it conjures treacherous, deadly images in each of us. The truth is that long before 9/11/2001 the Towers played a huge role in American culture. Where better to view that role than in American movies? In anticipation of the 10-year-anniversary of 9/11, Dan Meth, a cartoonist and director from New York put together a montage of most of the movies in which the Towers appeared. Here’s what Meth says about this effort: “From 1969 to 2001, the Twin Towers made countless cameos in Hollywood films. Sometimes featured prominently in the foreground, sometimes lurking in the distance. This montage celebrates the towers’ all-too-short film career with songs that capture the passing decades. Man, I miss them.”

So do we, Dan. But here you have given us a reason to celebrate all those years the Towers stood tallest in New York City. Thanks. [Best viewed full screen]

Twin Tower Cameos from Dan Meth on Vimeo.

Thursday, August 25, 2011


Consider this scenario: You stumble upon a situation on the street in which you see what appears to be someone being harassed by the police. The subject of the harassment is in compliance with the police officers’ orders, but he or she is still being physically and/or verbally tormented. You know there is not much you can do to intervene, but it occurs to you that you can use your own smart phone to videotape the scene, so you do. Are you within your legal rights to do so? Is there any difference between videotaping police business in public, and videotaping anything else in public?

The answer to those questions appears fuzzy at this time. Just ask Emily good, a 28-year-old Rochester, NY woman who was arrested earlier this summer for videotaping police conducting a traffic stop in front of her house. She used her video camera while standing in her own front yard. She was charged with a misdemeanor for “obstructing governmental administration.” In truth, she was not obstructing anything. Obstruct means to prevent or hinder. She did neither. The charges were later dismissed. Watch what happened:

If Good’s experience were an isolated incident, perhaps we could chalk it up to just one cop exerting power over one citizen in an inappropriate fashion. But it is not isolated. It seems to be happening rather routinely coast to coast. Last year, Hartford County, MD resident Anthony Graber operated his motorcycle on the interstate highway at a high speed. He was pulled over for speeding by a man who identified himself as a state police officer. The officer was not in uniform and was driving an unmarked car. He approached Graber inexplicably holding a gun in his right hand. Graber was wearing a helmet with a camera in it and caught the incident on tape. When he posted the tape online a few days later, he was arrested for a felony charge of violating the state’s wiretapping law. Graber was jailed for 26 hours, not for speeding, but for videotaping the officer. The charges were later dismissed. Here is a report from CBS affiliate WJZ:

If you still question how common these types of arrests are, go to YouTube and put in the search term, “Arrested for videotaping police.” You may be surprised. These incidents beg the question: Does the Constitution protect your right to use cameras or video equipment as you see fit? Many argue the First Amendment protects us in that regard. Does the law vary from state to state or is there federal blanket protection of your rights? In the Maryland incident, Graber was arrested for wiretapping. Wiretapping is by its very nature a clandestine procedure. One does not allow the subject of a wiretap to know he or she is being listened to. Graber’s helmet camera was visible. Nothing was being hidden from the officer. That may have contributed to the charges being dropped.

And what about all the possible variables? What if you are filming your kids in the park, and in the background your camera picks up a cop physically assaulting someone? If your intention was to simply video your kids, but you later take the tape to law enforcement to report the cop’s illegal behavior, are you guilty of something? And what about a law enforcement officer’s illegal activity directed at you? If a cop asks or insists that you do something that is clearly illegal, strictly for his or her own gain or pleasure, and you tape it without the cop’s knowledge, have you somehow violated the law?

And it is not just law enforcement that is pushing the limits of your freedoms. Consider the town hall meeting that was held in Cincinnati this week. Congressman Steve Chabot (R-OH) issued a directive that attendees could not videotape any of the proceedings. Two television stations, however, were allowed to tape the whole meeting. When questioned by attendees who wanted to videotape the town hall, Chabot’s spokesperson said cameras were not allowed to “protect the privacy of constituents.” Watch what happened when two attendees (who were not together) each objected to having their cameras confiscated by a police officer charged with enforcing Chabot’s directive:

This makes one wonder what else the Congressman could insist upon in his town hall meeting. It should be noted that what appeared to be an open forum between him and his constituents actually was quite staged. Instead of allowing a free-flowing conversation, Chabot insisted that all questions had to be submitted to him and his staff before the town hall, and he chose to answer just those that suited him. If I were attending the meeting and my phone was confiscated, what if someone in my family had been trying to reach me to inform me of an emergency? I would not get the message until after the meeting. Chabot’s actions, which made national headlines the next day, appear to smack of First Amendment violations and censorship.

In short, here is what this is really about: Technology is advancing much faster than our ability to accommodate it legally and ethically. Suddenly we are all videographers, and we are relying on centuries-old laws and traditions to deal with our use of our modern equipment. Even if Chabot’s directive against video is somehow legal, is it ethical? Is there a difference between what I see through my own eyes and what I see through the lens of my video camera? Not really, but Chabot’s self-centered approach was to prevent widespread distribution of his comments via the Internet. He would deny it, but that was obviously his intention. By controlling his environment he restricts the flow of information. And again, doesn’t that imply his denial of the First Amendment?

Law enforcement employees (and they are indeed employees) and elected officials are clearly abusing their positions in the cases described herein and in many others. Until recently, the courts were not terribly sympathetic to citizen complaints regarding videotaping arrests. That seems to be slowly changing. The case some consider a watershed moment in this issue is that of Mitchell Crooks, a Las Vegas videographer who was beat up by Officer Derek Colling. Watch:

Colling, who has also been involved in the killings of two private citizens in the past five years, was put on paid suspension after this incident. That was in the first week of April. In July, a Vegas police internal investigation sustained Crooks’ complaint against Colling, which means Crooks’ case can go forward. That’s progress. Still, since Colling was found in violation of department policies, why is he still employed? It is clear from the video and from the department’s own findings that Colling physically assaulted Crooks, and that he purposely tried to destroy Crooks’ camera. If I did that, wouldn’t I be locked up? And how will the Vegas police make a case that their officer’s job performance was in any way obstructed by Crooks and his camera?

Here’s a thought: All that energy that cops and politicians are extending to cause videographers like you and me to stop using our equipment? Why not use that energy to combat another technological advancement that truly is a threat to all of us? Why not start arresting people for texting while driving? Texting behind the wheel is going to cause a lot more death and destruction than anybody’s video camera ever could. Just a thought. Are you listening officers? And how about you Congressmen and women…if you want to save your jobs and some lives all at the same time, consider it.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


Under other circumstances, when Russell Armstrong was found hanging by an electrical cord in his room this week, it may not have been newsworthy to anyone other than his family and close friends. But Armstrong’s death made national news, largely because he is the husband of Taylor Armstrong (above, with Russell and their daughter), one of the featured players on the Bravo network’s “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” a (sort-of) reality program that builds on the franchise previously established in cities including Atlanta, Orange County, New York and New Jersey. These programs focus on the day-to-day lives of a group of upper middle-class women who are either friends or related. For some of us, the “Housewives” productions are mere guilty pleasures. For Armstrong, one might say it was a death sentence.

The husbands in these programs are usually relegated to sub plots or background stories. Armstrong’s place in the Beverly Hills edition was never quite clear. He agreed to be seen on camera, often in a most unflattering light. His rigid, rather lifeless persona served mostly to highlight the troubled marriage he shared with Taylor. To say he was an ancillary character in the show would be an overstatement of his role. So, Armstrong’s death would be just a quirky TV meets real life human interest story if it were not for the fact that he is just the latest in a growing list of reality TV casualties. Beset by his marital woes, accusations of physical spousal abuse and reported mounting financial difficulties, Russell checked out in a way that Bravo may build into this season’s show.

Armstrong’s death, while not predictable, is problematic in that it showcases how supposed entertainment media and real life are crashing into one another in a lethal fashion. It began with Jenny Jones – remember her? The vacuous television talk show host presented an hour in 1995 about “secret crushes.” The premise was that someone would come on the show to find out who had a secret crush on them. In this case, a young man named Johnathan Schmitz found out that his admirer was none other than another man, named Scott Amedure. It made for a mildly entertaining hour of embarrassment, blushing and awkwardness when the apparently heterosexual Schmitz had to react in front of a studio audience. To make a long, sordid story too short, later that night, a humiliated Schmitz murdered Amedure.

Amedure's death is not an isolated incident. In 2000, Ralf Panitz was convicted of murdering his ex-wife, Nancy Campbell-Panitz after the two had a particularly ugly confrontation on “The Jerry Springer Show.” In 2003 MTV’s “The Real World” was rocked by a rape charge from one housemate made against another. In 2009, the UK version of “Big Brother” included a house resident named Sree Dasari, who slashed his wrists after being mocked and cast out of the Big Brother House. In two separate incidents, participants in Chef Gordon Ramsey’s “Kitchen Nightmares” committed suicide, each within a year after appearing on the show.

The list of reality TV tragedies goes on and continues to grow. The important social question is, how far is too far in commercial entertainment, and should someone be regulating the reality TV genre? And if the answer to the latter question is “yes,” who should be assigned that responsibility other than the production companies and networks whose primary goal is commercial gain? Further, why is it that the exploitation of personal interaction on these shows always seems to be based on humiliating someone? Dating shows (e.g. “The Bachelor,” etc.) create their drama by “eliminating” potential suitors. Physical competition shows (e.g. “Survivor”) rely on exploitation of individual physical and mental weakness. Cohabitation shows (e.g. “Big Brother,” “The Real World”) draw viewers in by highlighting character and personality flaws, such as addictions, sexuality issues and cultural naivete. Contestants or participants in many of these shows are clearly selected based on their inabilities, rather than their strengths.

Does commercial television have an ethical responsibility to not do this? You could make an argument either way, but when people are dying because of media’s misuse of the free enterprise system, then it would seem only logical that ethics should kick in. Remember way back in the 1990s when Oprah Winfrey decided to turn her back on the Jenny Jones/Geraldo Rivera/Jerry Springer trash talk show genre and focus on entertainment and personal growth programming? It worked – she made a LOT of money and kept her audience for a quarter century. She proved one can do good and do well all at the same time.

Could a stronger ethical construct on the part of Bravo have saved Russell Armstrong? Perhaps. In an interview with PEOPLE Magazine just weeks before his death, Armstrong said, "It got really overwhelming. When you get a TV show involved and all the pressure, it just takes it to a whole new level. … We were pushed to extremes.” After learning of her son's suicide, Armstrong's mother, John Ann Hotchikiss told HLN's Jane Velez Mitchell, “Before the new season even started, before he took his life, he said, ‘Mom, they’re just going to crucify me this season.' He said, ‘I don’t know what to do. I’ll never survive it.’”

Does any of this make Bravo culpable in Armstrong’s death? Legally, probably not. Back in 1999 a jury awarded Scott Amedure’s family $25 million, after they sued the Jenny Jones show for negligence. But the verdict was later overturned on appeal. But ethically? Bravo would be hard pressed to argue the network did not play a role. When people leading private lives are suddenly thrust into the public spotlight in the most unflattering way possible by manipulative media organizations that know exactly what they’re doing – well, you be the judge.

If the reality TV trend is now socially out of control, it may be that same free enterprise system that neutralizes it. For years the word has been that producing a reality show is so much less expensive than producing a regular television scripted drama. In some cases it was reported that reality TV shows were produced for as little as $300,000 an episode, while a nighttime drama can cost upwards of $2 -3 million. That’s changing. Now that reality stars are becoming celebrities in their own right, they are demanding higher and higher salaries. Think “The Situation” on “Jersey Shore, now reportedly earning $100,000 per episode. As their asking prices skyrocket, the industry may realize reality TV shows and their stars are not worth the bad publicity generated by, say, one Russell Armstrong suicide. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


Former Vice-President and global warming communicator Al Gore addressed the Aspen Institute last week. He talked about many issues, but when he got to those who dispute the existence of global warming, he let loose. Clearly frustrated by what he sees as pure ignorance, Gore’s real concern is that while people are debating the reality of global warming, more and more damage is happening to the earth. Gore is one of the most activistic former VPs in the country’s modern history, but advocating for the environment can be tough, particularly when the arguments for and against are always along partisan lines. Listen to what 35 years of an uphill battle will do to a guy – even a former Vice-President of the U.S. You can fast forward to 22:46 to hear for yourself, or listen to the entire highlights of Gore's speech: Al Gore highlights by aspenjournalism

Sunday, August 7, 2011


Here’s a disturbing image: On Saturday, the governor of the second largest state in America stood on a stage with a group of ministers at an event sponsored by the American Family Association. If you are not familiar with this group, just know it is a Miss.-based organization that claims the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion only applies to Christians. The AFA is currently sponsoring a boycott of Home Depot, a company it has deemed too gay friendly. The group also opposes abortion and routinely releases rhetoric that makes it a borderline hate group. It is with this group that Texas Governor Rick Perry stood in solidarity at an event called “The Response” on Saturday.

The rally at which Perry spoke is one of the most high profile examples of what is becoming known as the “Teavangelical” movement. The inevitable collision of the religious right and neo-conservative politics is now a full-fledged movement. That it excludes so many segments of the population does not seem to bother potential presidential candidates like Rick Perry and candidate Michele Bachmann, and that should hotly bother the rest of us on so many levels. Chief among them is the American tradition separating church and state, a principle that dates back to the beginning of our nation. Here, for example is what President Thomas Jefferson said in 1808: “Moreover, state support of the church tends to make the clergy unresponsive to the people and leads to corruption within religion. Erecting the "wall of separation between church and state," therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society.”

Conversely, Rick Perry (left) has now aligned himself with a group that is unashamed of its commitment to white, ultra-conservative Christians, and to its belief that God alone should be guiding the political process. Nobody mentions free will. Nobody mentions civil rights. Nobody ever utters the word “democracy.” It has become clear that in Rick Perry’s world, if you are gay, Muslim, black, Jewish, a believer in freedom of choice or an atheist, you don’t really have a place in modern America.

In an increasingly crowded list of Republican presidential candidates, Perry is not alone in his assertion that the solution to our nation’s woes is a return to God. On the same day Perry stood alongside the AFA, former Minnesota Governor and current presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty said this to a gathering in Iowa: “…we need to be a nation that turns toward God, not away from God.” Pawlenty also paraphrased the Old Testament: “If my people, who are called by name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I’ll hear from heaven, forgive their sins and heal their land.” Pawlenty even has a website called, where the lead video is only about his Christian faith. In it, he says, “My faith is very important to me; it influences everything I do.” Watch:

Pawlenty and others who are blurring the line between religion and politics often refer to the founding fathers and emphasize their stated faith in God. No one disputes that they were men of faith. In fact, many of us respect that. But the founding fathers never made a move to emphasize one faith or one belief as that which should guide the American government. In 1823, James Madison wrote, “The settled opinion here is, that religion is essentially distinct from civil Government, and exempt from its cognizance; that a connection between them is injurious to both.” The point is that just as Mrs. Pawlenty harkens to the founding fathers to support her narrow belief system, others can point to the founding fathers to support opposing views. Let’s instead rely on our collective intelligence and our ability to make strong decisions based on our intellect. Wouldn’t that put us all on more even ground? Wouldn’t that really reaffirm our belief in the democracy?

Saturday was a big day in conservative circles. In addition to Perry’s questionable decision to stand firm with the AFA, and Pawlenty’s teavangelistic rant in Iowa, Michele Bachman (right) found herself endorsed by 100 pastors and Christian leaders. Of course, each of them was careful to note that they were personally endorsing the tea party queen bee, and not endorsing her on behalf of their church. That’s because they don’t want to lose their tax-exempt status, which hangs in the balance whenever their church dives too deeply into the political arena. Since 1954, the IRS has prohibited churches from endorsing political candidates.

So what drives this burgeoning religiosity across the nation? Is it some sort of spiritual awakening? And if it is, what sort of spirituality would accommodate such exclusivity? Or is it possible the increasingly assertive religious right is due to the prolonged economic distress in the U.S.? Perry and others are making statements that seem to imply our economic and political future are in the hands of God. I, for one am not ready to concede that much of my free will, are you? When voting day comes, I’ll most respect the candidate who presents the clearest platform for progress – economic, social and political –and who respects everyone’s right to worship or not worship. I’m Jewish. In the Teavangelical’s version of America, there really isn’t a space for me, and my only reaction to that is that I’m not having it.

I don’t think Americans in majority are having it either. History shows we Americans rarely vote en masse for extremism of any kind. The teavangelical view of America is a closed set. The movement is discriminatory. That’s not who we are. If you want to know what I have faith in, it is the collective reasonableness of the American people not to allow us to be beamed back to the 1950s.