To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.
--- George Orwell

Sunday, June 29, 2014

On Gay Pride Weekend, How A Forgotten Case Of Homosexual Blackmail Changed the Course of Gay Civil Rights

From Slate, a link to my exhaustively reported 2012 account of America's largest case of gay extortion, illustrated with some great Midnight Cowboy-style photographs. Hollywood sees a noirish period thriller much like L.A. Confidential, depicting a hinge moment in the history of gay civil rights analogous to the turning point in the struggle for racial equality that was dramatized so powerfully in Mississippi Burning.   

The case, known in law enforcement circles as "The Chickens and the Bulls,"dates from the late 1950’s and early 1960’s and involved a nationwide ring of blackmailers who posed as corrupt vive squad detectives and targeted closeted pillars-of-the-establishment: admirals, generals, congressmen, society doctors, Ivy League professors and high-profile film and television entertainers.  The ring operated for ten years in New York, Chicago, Washington and LA. As ruthless as it was brazen, the ring made millions and brought misery to scores of victims and their families before being broken up in a joint investigation by the FBI and the Special Rackets Squad of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office which was led at the time by the legendary Frank Hogan—aka “Mr Integrity.”

The press conference that Hogan held in early March, 1966 to announce the ring’s breakup inspired this front page headline in the New York Times the next day, the wording of which is rather shocking by today's more diversity-sensitive standards:

The case is significant because it represents the first time that the American law enforcement apparatus cranked up on behalf of gay men who were routinely victimized by extortion schemes like the one described in “The Chickens and the Bulls.” Most of the victims in this scheme, as in other schemes like it, would have been married, or if not married, certainly not "out." In those unenlightened days those who did not pay up and were exposed could reliably count on losing their families, as well as their jobs, businesses or careers. Some victims were beaten to death by thugs whose intimidation tactics went too far. At least one victim, a US Navy admiral who'd been a decorated WWII hero, committed suicide. 
Aside from its historical importance, the story was compelling---and attractive to the movies--- for many reasons, among them the fascinating character “arc” of the one of the ringleaders---a Jimmy Cagney-like tough from Manhattan’s lower west side named Edward “Mother” Murphy.” After tormenting gay men as an extortionist, Murphy, who was himself gay and was said to be at the Stonewall Inn the night of the infamous uprising in 1969, transformed himself into one of the gay community’s most ardent champions. In fact, his work on behalf of early AIDS victims led to him being named the posthumous Grand Marshal of the Gay Pride Parade in 1984, the gay community apparently unconcerned by, or ignorant of, Murphy's rather risque criminal past. 

Below is a picture that gay activist and archivist Randy Wicker took of Murphy, “The Original Stonewaller,” riding with some of his entourage during a previous year's parade. Wicker told me he mounted a one-man campaign to derail Murphy's posthumous grand marshall-ship, but the gay community's memory was short and its ranks were swelling fast. "It was like that Stephen Sondheim song," Wicker told me. "Another hundred people just got off of the train." 

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Historian And CNN Commentator Michael Oren Defends Israel Against Kerry 'Apartheid' Slam By Channelling Warsaw Ghetto Nazis

John Kerry’s off the record warning in late April that Israel could be on the road to becoming an “apartheid” state if it didn’t embrace a two state solution with the Palestinians prompted an outcry from Israeli officials and pro Israel groups here, whose indignant objections were filled with Zionist sanctimony, moral preening and portentous reminders of Jewish historical victimization. CNN on-air commentator Michael Oren, who renounced his American citizenship to become Israel’s ambassador to Washington in 2009 after a career as a historian, Likud party minister and spokesman for the IDF, took the cake, affirming the old adage that the best defense is a good offense.  Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Oren said that the word “apartheid" was “synonymous with undiluted racism” and was “second only in hatefulness to Nazism.” He then went on to say that the word was being wielded as a weapon in a “campaign to isolate, delegitimize and sanction Israel into extinction.”

We Jews remember how each attempt to obliterate us, whether in the Inquisition or during the Holocaust, was preceded by a campaign to delegitimize us. People who practice apartheid are easily considered illegitimate.

As per conditions on the West Bank, which is not apartheid in the offing, but apartheid in the here and now at least in the "occupied territories,", as figures as varied as Jeffrey Goldberg and Desmond Tutu have acknowledged, Oren said that “the separation between Israeli settlers and Palestinian residents of the West Bank, separate Israeli and Palestinian roads, and separate schools, hospitals and legal systems” did not “remotely resemble apartheid.” In fact, Oren declared, “The vast majority of settlers and Palestinians choose to live apart because of cultural and historical differences, not segregation, though thousands of them do work side by side.” The Israeli separation barrier, which pens Palestinians into official restricted zones, limits freedom of movement and in many places along its course alienates landowning Palestinians from their private property, “is no more an apartheid wall than the fence between the United States and Mexico.”

After a career in the uppermost echelons of Israeli politics, Oren knows that Palestinians cannot choose to live near or apart from Jewish settlers, who insist on the legal right to residential exclusion. And as a former spokesman for the IDF, he also undoubtedly knows that West Bank Palestinians live under the rules and regulations of military occupation, now nearing its 50th year, constrained by a dense web of restrictions and penalties.

But what’s most fascinating ---and irritating ---about Oren’s contention that there is a choice involved in Palestinian “apartness,”from settler Jews is that he is actually echoing the same kind of ludicrous claims that Nazis made about Polish Jews “choosing” to live in the Warsaw Ghetto when they created it in 1939 several months after Hitler’s invasion. 

As described in archives maintained by Kenyon College, the San Francisco Chronicle carried a November 1939 report about the Ghetto’s creation, describing it as “Forbidden City completely cut off from the teeming life around it.” A high ranking German officer cited in the report explained that “Jews preferred to live in the ghetto rather than be dispersed all over the city,” a claim that was confirmed "by Jews who lived before last November in comfortable surroundings and had been free to circulate anywhere in the city [who] now live in a crowded room and can leave only on those rare occasions when they obtain special permission." For those who did not get the author’s sarcasm, an editor’s note was appended, explaining that “only the conquerors can speak freely to a reporter" and that therefore it was necessary “to read between the lines."

I generally think pro Palestinian analogies likening Israelis to Nazis are both overwrought and offensive, both to history and to Jews (even if, as Salon reported a couple of years ago, Jewish settlers do have a triumphalist penchant for painting Stars of David on Palestinian property in the same way that Nazis plastered swastikas on Jewish shops and homes.)

But it’s kind of hard to ignore the Nazi echoes in Oren’s protest about Kerry’s use of the “A” word, especially when Oren himself said that apartheid was a term “second only in hatefulness to Nazism” in its “undiluted racism.” As an on-air commentator for CNN, you would think Oren would feel some obligation to the truth of the conditions he is writing about in his the op-eds. And as a historian, you would expect him to be aware of the abjection of Nazi denial---and to avoid echoing it in making claims that are as transparent as they are insulting. 

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Nepotism Watch: At NBC News, Having Fancy Parents Brings In The Big Bucks But Corrupts The Journalism

The New Republic and Politico yesterday on media nepotism at the Peacock Network, in the form of Chelsea Clinton, who was paid $600K a year as a Special Correspondent before switching to a month-to- month contract. The TNR piece uses this as a vehicle to discuss gender inequity in the media, which became a hot topic in the wake of the New York Times' firing of Jill Abramson, despite Abramson having little proof that she was in fact, underpaid.

TNR sees Clinton's the exorbitant salary as a way of correcting gender imbalance in newsroom paychecks, glossing over the fact that she is 34 years old and had no professional  experience in journalism before she was hired by NBC News President Steve Capus in 2011.  I see the much more important problem of media nepotism, which along with ethnic insularity, as described in my recent post on David Gregory's plummeting ratings, is a major source of lame journalism and audience alientation. TNR says Twitter lit up with salty retorts. Glenn Greenwald's Meet The Press fantasy roundtable was my fave, with Greenwald imagining Chelsea Clinton being joined with other NBC News nepotistas.  

Which turned out to be not that far fetched on Father’s Day this Sunday as MTP’s David  Gregory brought on Luke Russert, son of Gregory’s predecessor, the late Tim Russert, who had hosted MTP for 17 years before his untimely death in 2008. Luke Russert was now an NBC correspondent covering Congress, Gregory explained, and had just written a new preface to the 1998 bestseller Tim Russert had written about his own father, Big Russ and Me, to coincide with the tenth anniversary of its publication.  The fawning exchange, full of saccharine banalities and nostalgia, might have been something that Tim Russert himself would have found inappropriate. Just as Russert, a bootstraps kind of guy, might have found it inappropriate for NBC to have hired Luke to cover the 2008 elections shortly after Russert himself died, Luke having just graduated from Boston College with little to no experience in broadcast journalism other than what he may have picked up visiting Dad at work or absorbing it at home.

At a time when American news organizations are rightfully, if belatedly, examining the self-dealing of American elites, as seen in countless stories about the "One Percent," how these very same news organizations can justify favoritism for the kids of this self-dealing elite is a story in and of itself--- a story Russert might have very well examined himself. It's not just about inherited privilege at a time of increasing class stratification, shrinking opportunities and the corruption of the ideal of meritocracy. It's about wasting scant newsroom dollars to pay inexperienced media brats far more than they are worth for journalism that is often insular and out of touch. Two of America's most pressing problems are social distance and a lack of social trust, especially between the elite and the middle. Media nepotism, the product of the cult of celebrity and of "corporate branding," only makes it more difficult to bring those two problems into focus and do something about them.    



While the story of high end media nepotism may have reached the point of parody, it’s not entirely a new one. In 2003 I examined the phenomenon in VICE magazine and on National Review Online, explaining how (and please forgive me for quoting myself) 

the sons and daughters of media biggies — as well as the children of their “cafe society” friends — have achieved a small but critical mass in many news organizations.” Call them “media legacies”--- analogous to the “alumni legacies” which have figured recently into the debate over affirmative action and university admissions.

Judging from the television coverage of the height of the US fighting in Iraq, which is when I was writing, "You could have asked whether network executives in charge of on-air talent might be using Vanity Fair as a recruitment tool." 

On CNN there’s Andrea Koppel, daughter of Ted and Benno Schmidt, son of the former president of Yale. CNN also boasts anchorman Anderson Cooper, son of Gloria Vanderbilt — as well as Jeffrey Toobin, whose mother, Marlene Sanders, was one of the first women to make it at CBS News as a correspondent and whose father, Jerry Toobin, was at NBC for many years.

Over at ABC, there’s Chris Cuomo; NBC has John Seigenthaler, whose father John Sr. was for decades editor of the influential Nashville Tenessean. Even the populist Fox has its prince — Douglas Kennedy, son of RFK. And let’s not overlook the news division of MTV either, with the fair and fond Serena Altschul, daughter of the Social Register Altschuls, and who was also a regular guest on MSNBC’s Donahue until its plug was pulled.

For news executives, being nice to prominent sons and daughters can enhance one’s social life and status — always a plus in status-conscious Manhattan, where dinner-party invitations, private-school admissions, and co-op approvals all often depend on help from on high. Besides, how could an industry increasingly obsessed with celebrity not be swayed by the names of the well-born and tony?

But when it came to credibility in reporting and analysis of class issues in America, however, which have only grown more acute post recession, “the “legacy” trend did not augur well, “weakening an all-important journalistic understanding for the emotional, social, and economic bearings of average people in day-to-day life.”

Class has long been a press weakness, and represents one of its most significant blind spots — encouraging socio-economic obliviousness in some places and socio- economic sentimentality in others. For all the talk about media diversity, class is still given short shrift.

The faces and names associated with “media legacies” inevitably help reinforce the widely-held impression of a journalistic elite that is increasingly out of touch with its mainstream audience and readership. It also necessarily affects coverage and analysis of a broad array of social issues in which class is either the primary focus or the subtext.

Famed CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow said that when he had a really complicated story to report, he would think of his boyhood friends in the midwest, and simply tell the story as he would have told it to them. I’d be open to being told I’m wrong here, but somehow I suspect that those raised in the posh confines of the Dakota — and those who were their regular guests — would have trouble claiming Murrow’s lasting journalistic north star.