Other Writing

“Once upon a time, skepticism was a fundamental journalistic value.”

“Media on Prisons: Censorship and Stereotypes,” chapter in Invisible Punishment (New Press, 2002)

pys_011_250x346.jpg Prisons are surrounded by high walls — walls of concrete and razor wire, of course, but also walls of secrecy and stereotype. The public is protected from whatever physical danger might be presented by prisoners, but it is also “protected,” less legitimately, from the knowledge of what goes on behind those walls. The secretiveness that has come to characterize many of our country’s prison systems hampers the public’s ability to help shape government policy, to correct abuses, to understand crime, to evaluate prison programs and practices and generally to reassess our costly and ineffectual system of criminal justice sanctions.

“Crimes of Silence,” chapter in Censored 1997: The News That Didn’t Make the News, edited by Peter Phillips and Project Censored

The people who work in the news media generally reflect the concerns and interests of the population they come from. Many news stories come from tips; those tips come from the friends, associates, and contacts of the people who work in our newsrooms. They are largely white, middle-class or upper-middle class, often uneasily protective of their position on the social ladder, and many censored-1997-lower-res.jpgof them are simply unable to imagine ways of looking at things that are not of their own class or ethnic experience. Yet, increasingly, prison is becoming a matter of race and class. …

And presiding over the entire process are news corporations that are increasingly the subsidiaries of entertainment conglomerates.

Entertainment values are inherently non-journalistic. In entertainment, what we read or hear or see becomes important for the feelings with which it leaves us and not for its accuracy or importance. And nothing satisfies more readily than the easily understandable, the simple emotional reaction based on familiarity. In other words, stereotyping–that convenient shorthand by which we falsify experience–substitutes for news judgment. Crime reporting is overwhelmingly stereotype-based. It is our new mythology, and we journalists become unwitting mythologists, telling the stories that people choose to guide their lives by rather than the stories of more representative miscreants.

Reaching for the Dream: Profiles in Affirmative Action (published by a consortium of civil rights organizations, 1998)

In 1970, Fred Lau was measured at 5-foot-7 and 1/4 inches tall. Exactly. To get into the San Francisco Police Department, you had to be 5-foot-8.

The 21-year-old San Francisco State University student had dreamed of becoming a cop while growing up in Chinatown and reaching-for-the-dream.jpghad already passed the tough written exam, yet he was rejected outright. Like most other Chinese Americans of his generation, he didn’t measure up.

The competitive young man with a compact and powerful body took to hanging by his legs at the gym, strapped into stirrups and weighted down with a 50-pound barbell, hoping against hope to stretch himself into the police department. He reasoned that even after a night’s sleep, some people are a half to three-quarters of an inch taller, so maybe, just maybe …

Three Strikes: The Unintended Victims (Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, 1994 – project director and co-author)

Baudelia Silva leans forward, crying, gesturing, pleading, the words tumbling out one on top of the other, some in English, some in Spanish. She is trying to get someone to understand what she has told so many officials over the years: Her son, Duane, has “a head sickness … loco … he is mentally wrong.” Inthree-strikes.jpg prison, she says, “what will happen, how are they going to control it … ?” She does not believe he will come out of prison alive. She wants to explain personally to the judge. She is sure that if she can make the judge understand, the judge would not sentence her son to prison for 25 years to life.

But because Duane — by all accounts a nonviolent, even passive young man–has just been convicted of his “third strike,” and because Tulare County prosecutors have been insisting on imposing the “three strikes” penalty, the judge may have little choice.

The “head sickness” is not just Mrs. Silva’s diagnosis. In the more measured and less compelling words of a psychological evaluation performed a year and a half ago, Duane Silva’s test results on a Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale showed “a Full Scale IQ of 71, placing present intellectual functioning within the low borderline range.” The report seconded an earlier diagnosis of “Schizoaffective Disorder, Bipolar; with an Axis II diagnosis of Mild Mental Retardation (IQ 70).” …

Duane Silva’s criminal “career,” all of it nonviolent, betrays the same random senselessness as other inexplicable incidents in his life. …



“How to Fix Our Broken Prisons” (San Jose Mercury News Perspective, 2006)

The first step to any larger-scale reform will be the recognition that, in fighting crime, prisons are a sign of failure, not success. Decades ago, they became the state’s default solution for ingrained social problems. The IOUs have now come due.

“‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ Baits Bush–and Springs the Trap” (Pacific News Service, 2004)

We’ve all grown accustomed to manipulation by carefully posed photos, orchestrated “messages of the day” and focus-grouped slogans for which candidates pay consultants exorbitant fees. They’re the essence of contemporary American politics, but no one would maintain that they are exercises in reasoned debate. Rather, they’re attempts to stake out territory as one’s own, with little or no regard for policy content. …

The key to those “messages of the day” is to grab the initiative; to make sure that the contest is fought in your home stadium. …

A White House that stage-manages every single photo op to the tiniest detail (and a press corps that compliantly retails those images) is now forced to contend with unscripted, real-world images — sometimes as goofy as the official photos are saccharine.

“Gay Marriage–God’s Rules and Caesar’s” (Pacific News Service, 2004)


The president is entitled to believe whatever he wishes in his heart, but we have no more right as citizens of this pluralistic democracy to write “except gays” into the U.S. Constitution than we do “except colored folks.”

“Rescuing Private Lynch—And Rescuing American Journalism” (Quill, 2003)

Once upon a time, skepticism was a fundamental journalistic value, and the role of the press was to provide an independent check on the powers a wary people invested in their government. The relics of that historic role are enshrined still in the U.S. Constitution. But a compliant press corps, intent on competing for exclusive, dramatic details of the same hot-selling story that every other news organization is chasing, depends on the government’s image-makers for raw material and is unlikely to serve as a real check on government’s sophisticated and beguiling powers of deception. …

Anonymity has become a convenient and damage-free way for government officials to put their own spin on the affairs of state, bypassing traditional journalistic credibility tests. It’s impossible for others to cross-examine the views of an anonymous source, so it is all the more important that journalists use such sources only after meticulous exploration of the source’s reasons for requesting anonymity, their motivations for revealing the information and the provenance of the information itself. Readers, viewers and listeners are entitled to know why unattributed information is worthy of credibility, and they are also owed as many clues as possible to the origin of the information they are consuming. The information should also be so critically important to the public that reporters are justified in overlooking sources’ reluctance to associate it with their names.

“Media and American Society–What We Weren’t Told About Iraq” (San Francisco Chronicle, 2003)

Given the press’s single-minded focus on the mechanics of the military, is it any wonder that the American people would be unable to comprehend how, after the war was won on the battlefield, it may well have been lost in the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people, not to mention the rest of the Muslim world?

We Americans may suffer the consequences of this ambiguous and confusing outcome for many years. Let us hope that journalists can save us from similar grief in the future by learning how to cover war in terms that extend beyond the breathless dynamics of the battlefield.

“Your Neighbor Is Watching” (San Francisco Chronicle, 2002)

No one can know yet how the new national network of citizen-snoops will work. … But based on past experience, I think I can guess the color, religion and nationality of most of the people whose activities our fellow citizens will find “suspicious” or “unusual.”

Survival tips for August: Be nice to the meter reader, the mail carrier and the bus conductor. Beware of associating with people who look different or corresponding with organizations with foreign names. And, above all, don’t look suspicious.

“Earthlink, Do You Read Me?” (Salon.com, 2001)

“How Stupid Can an E-mail Program Be?” (Salon.com, 2000)

Words become offensive by the nature of the attention that is paid to them. When a corporation tacks a chili onto this or that word in an e-mail message or builds a software barrier around a word on a Web site, it invites writers and readers to consider the word one-dimensionally, with only the meaning and intent that the corporation has interpreted as offensive. It’s Qualcomm Inc., not I, that is pointing leeringly at those words in my e-mail. Qualcomm’s single-minded focus invests those words with the prurience that it then claims to find objectionable. Now, that is offensive.

“Impugning, a Crime Against the State” (San Jose Mercury News Perspective, 1997)

“You are being placed in Ad/Seg pending investigation of a conspiracy to mastermind a sabotage effort to discredit a joint venture project at this institution. Allegations have arisen to effect several inmates in Fac. 1 and possibly some employee’s. Hence, you are deemed a threat to the safety and security to the institution and are ordered to Ad/Seg.”

With those chilling and portentous words, a prisoner at Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego was dispatched to what we colloquially call “the hole” to await his fate. What was the sabotage that this prisoner is suspected of masterminding, with such grave consequences to prison safety and security? It is described in another paper the same inmate was handed by prison officials:

“Inmate Fleming was placed in Ad Seg after it was discovered that he attempted to impugn the credibility of [a prison industry program] by contacting the news media. . . .”

Translated from Prisonspeak to English, the sabotage this prisoner was suspected of masterminding was criticizing a prison program to the news media — felonious impugning, as it were.

“The ‘Managers’ in the Bedroom” (Alternet, April 25, 2000)

The Republican Party in the past decade has been an uneasy alliance of the two dominant and internally inconsistent strains of American political and social history. On the one side are the old states’ rightists, the free-marketeers and social laissez-faireans, the libertarians. Subspecies include right-to-arms and privacy absolutists, anti-tax zealots and, even further to the fringes, the “leave-me-alone, don’t-tread-on-me” rural utopians.

By all rational measures, women’s right to control their own bodies and gays’ right to privacy in their bedrooms ought to fit comfortably into that big tent of laissez-faire interests. But anti-choice abortion sentiment and anti-gay rhetoric are cornerstones of the Republican catechism because of the other strain of party ideologues: the theocrats. The Christian rightists’ primary political aim is the imposition of its moral absolutism – not to mention Christianity itself – on all levels of American government. They have made abortion, school prayer, sexual practices and centralized moral control – extending from electronic communications to classroom textbook choice – the foundation of their political agenda. …

So the president’s transgressions unwittingly exposed the contradictions at the core of the Republican alliance. The Grand Old Party may have found its nemesis not in the Democrats but in its own tortured soul.

“A Cello Bash in 92-Part Harmony” (San Francisco Chronicle Sunday Punch, 1989)

“A Nation’s Grief – On Live TV” (San Francisco Chronicle, 1986)

There is nothing more terrifying than a glimpse of the irrational, of chance occurrence, in a culture as ordered as this one. We try to leave nothing to chance. Everything is measured and calculated-and not only spaceflight. We measure education with standardized tests. We measure criminality with lie detectors. We predict political trends with exit polls. We can even evaluate certain mental aberrations with brain scanning devices. Rare is the event that can occur before we’ve predicted it and even designed the T-shirt. And we grow used to the habit of mind, the easy assurance, that our prognostications allow us.

Then, suddenly, we are subjected to an element of chance – happy or horrible-of such overwhelming dimensions that we lose our bearings, the little signposts that have seemed to protect us from such randomness. Bring on Dan Rather and the standup people with mikes. They restore our balance, that sense of predictability that permits us to function as individuals and as a society. This , at least, we’ve seen before. We can begin to re-establish order out of the terror and the emptiness and even the embarrassment we all felt for our huge emotions. We can take control again, put up new signposts.

But simply because the public media reaction is so familiar, the emotions resonate and the mind wanders … I cried yesterday for Christa Corrigan McAuliffe and Francis `Dick` Scobee and Michael Smith and Judith Resnik and Ronald McNair and Ellison Onizuka and Gregory Jarvis. But I also cried for John Kennedy and Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. And I cried for the randomness of life and for the things we can’t control.



“The Subpoena” (unpublished manuscript, 1999)

Nathan Barankin, [California Attorney General Bill] Lockyer’s spokesman, assured the Associated Press that the agreement to quash my subpoena “in no way limits our ability to defend the Department of Corrections” against Woodard’s suit.

“It was never the attorney general’s intent or the department’s intent to chill speech,” Barankin told the AP reporter, who then asked the spokesman how that statement “squared with Sussman’s deposition and subpoena.”

The attorney general’s spokesman replied, “I think there are a lot of things that occur during the course of litigation that defy explanation.”

“The Language of War and the Ethics of Journalism” (presentation at Stanford University symposium, 2003)

[O]ne might ask whether the press is partly responsible for the shifting associations of the word “war.” For instance, has the constant metaphorical use of the term – War on Poverty, War on Drugs – helped to de-terrorize the word and lower the threshold for initiating wars, including now pre-emptive attacks? Is there anything the press could or should have done to restore to the word “war” the shock and awe it once possessed? …

We must redefine the news media’s wartime obligations so that journalists can fulfill their ethical responsibilities and assure that a perpetual state of so-called war does not keep our citizens in a perpetual state of ignorance.

“Journalism in the Crosshairs” (essay on PEN America website)

Authoritarianism does not knock politely on the door of a democracy—it barges right in, breaking doors or windows as needed for entry. Though it often develops incrementally, there are clear early warnings that it’s on its way: demonization of whole classes of people with divisive rhetoric; a leader who governs by whim, resists collaboration, and undermines due process; fiery rhetoric that engages emotions and incites fear without substantive content; a credulous citizenry that feels aggrieved by social, economic, or racial realignments; and most of all, the neutering of the press.

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