Letters to the editor

White House protest letter draws readers' derision Plus: Do music videos give blacks a bad rap? McCain's anti-Confederate flag talk doesn't fly.

By Salon Staff
Published April 24, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

White House blasts Salon

Housman's letter of complaint reads like a hasty attempt to cover his and his colleagues' asses after an embarrassing -- and enlightening -- exposi of some of his office's especially manipulative and shady tactics.

The popularity of the story itself proves the point. If the public and the media were so well-informed about this deplorable government program, as Housman argues, why did it break across front pages all over the country? If everyone already knew it was happening, why should it be news? Housman should take notes: We have a right to know, while watching television, what kind of paid agenda is at work. We have a right to know when the government is paying to assault us with subtle ideological messages. Housman, and the networks, have an obligation to tell us.

-- Ameer Youssef

The first clue that Robert Housman's complaint to Salon about Daniel Forbes is all bluster is his selection of a straw man, "secrecy."
In truth, although there were congressional hearings and considerable press coverage attending passage of the original legislation, Congress was not advised -- then or later -- that the ONDCP would be accepting influence over content as payment in kind for the conventional advertising still due them from media outlets under the terms of the original purchases. Although one can infer that the ONDCP would have preferred to keep Congress (and the public) in the dark, Salon's readers were not told "secrecy" was a major issue. Indeed, the word "secret" was used only once, in the headline for the first article; it was not in Forbes' text.

What Forbes and most other commentators were concerned about is the blurring, or actual erasure, of the sharp line which should separate paid advertising from creative content. Concern over how that practice -- by a government agency, no less -- compromises the First Amendment was the question discussed with varying degrees of intensity by nearly every commentator in the wake of both articles.

One reads Housman's wordy protest looking in vain for any mention of the First Amendment; it's as if the folks at the ONDCP has never heard of it -- a curious ignorance displayed by their scheme in the first place -- and apparently still uncorrected.

-- Tom O'Connell

Hooray for Salon for printing the letter from Housman criticizing reporter Daniel Forbes' article concerning government financial incentives given to television and print media sources who will publish articles and cant sit-coms to support government policies concerning drugs and drug use. And an even bigger hooray to Forbes for answering that letter in such a prompt and devastating manner, making the White House flack appear to be just what he is, a propagandist, who will leave truth twisting in the wind for policy's sake.

There can be no more obvious sign of the complete failure of the drug interdiction policy and the criminalization of drugs than the fact that anyone imprisoned on a drug charge is likely to have a greater array of drugs made available to him in jail than on the street. A ham-handed attempt to insert behavior modifying messages in popular media by government operatives would be laughable in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta -- who is writing the government's plots?

--Charles Whittington

Please register my support for Daniel Forbes. For the White House to nit-pick minor details of Forbes' articles confirms that Washington believes it is perfectly right to advertise its message without disclosing the fact that it is, in fact, paid advertising.

-- Leonard E. Aron

I just read Robert Housman's letter to Salon about David Forbes article, and Forbes' response. While I believe there are honest differences in their points of view, I can't help but feel Salon does owe Housman an apology and retraction. Forbes' slant is clearly to portray the ONDCP policies as sneaky, shady and devious by referencing aspects of the policies that some people are unaware of.

Concocting impure motives where there are none is just the sort of reporting we don't need. Even if Forbes' article were the gospel truth, the story is silly and inconsequential. I like Salon a lot. It isn't worthy of you to defend such poor reporting.

-- George Brown

Stop whining about the media!

I loved Crouch's article and I agree with him 100 percent. As a black woman I am horrified by the images I see in black music videos -- videos that are made and produced by black people. If white people produced those images all hell would break loose. I'm sick of black people whining and blaming white people for everything negative about us. "Ask not for whom the bell tolls ... "

-- Linda Collins

I agree with Crouch, blacks are portrayed in many different lights these days more than ever. I also agree with him on the issue of negative images in the hip hop world.

However, having worked as an advertising copywriter in several agencies and having been usually the only black woman at the table, I've had to ask many times why the black woman has to be heavyset or less glamorous than the white women in commercials. I remember a casting session for little girls. For the whites we chose very pretty little girls. A rather unattractive, goofy looking black girl came into the room and everyone, all the whites, flipped over her. I said if we're going for quirky, then let's recast the white girls. The room was silent, and we went for pretty instead for the black and white girls. But there was some apprehension.

What I still find curious is why weathermen tend to be black and on the heavy side -- and what's with all the black judges on shows? It's sort of like, "Here come da judge." Isn't it?

-- Yvonne Durant

The images of blacks in the news media and network TV is not even in the same league in terms of negativity compared to the way blacks are portrayed in rap videos. These videos do more damage to the image of African-Americans than anything the media has come up with to date. In them, blacks are portrayed as money-hungry, gold-laden thugs who refer to themselves as "niggers" and women as "bitches" or "hos." Glorification of guns and violence is also featured as well, which has done more harm to the community by kids who seek to imitate these clowns.

As a black man I am embarrassed and angry at the idea that these images are supposed to represent "blackness" and that what we see is supposed to represent black life in the real world. Bull. We as a people do more damage to our image with the production and proliferation of this garbage than anything currently being produced in the mainstream media and pop culture.

-- Clark Maxwell

I've been a keen observer of American media trends since my college days in Washington, a predominantly black city where blacks live normal lives and fill all kinds of jobs. Stanley Crouch's essay is dead-on. Black videos rarely reflect the realities of black life, instead they glorify shameless materialism and misogyny. And what do the girls do after the video shoot? Do they have jobs?

-- Ziad Al-Duaij


It would have been nice if Crouch had backed up his anecdotal essay with some actual data about the number and types of depictions of blacks in the media. Instead, we're left to believe things aren't that bad simply because he said so.

-- Collins Yearwood

John McCain to condemn Confederate flag


How convenient that the transparent John McCain has called for the removal of that overt symbol of racism now that it cannot cost him any votes in South Carolina. Now that he doesn't have to pander to the racists any politician needs when running in the South ("It's a symbol of heritage" Wink, wink), he now may pander to the other side ("I really should have said something about that back then.") This way, the racists get to think of him as one of them deep down, while a few soulless liberals get to think he's one of them. McCain in 2004!

-- Garry Wasko

As Jake Tapper points out, John McCain has apparently had a change of heart on the Confederate flag "issue." That's his privilege; the senator should do (and say) what he believes is right. I am puzzled and irritated, however, by Tapper's characterization of McCain's previous position -- and that of George W. Bush -- as a "namby-pamby cop-out." On the contrary, it seems to me that saying that the decision rests with the people of South Carolina is both straightforward and accurate.

Presidents of the United States do not control what flags state governments choose to fly. It is not a federal matter. I find the willingness of presidential candidates to acknowledge the limits of office they seek to be entirely healthy, and intellectually honest.

Were I a citizen of South Carolina, I would favor removing the flag from the capitol. Since I am not, however, I leave it those whose business it is.

-- Richard S. Smith

Little Rock, Ark.

Online pharmacies evading regulation


Only a career regulator would find it strange that consumers don't complain about overseas pharmacy Web sites with lower prices and no prescription requirements. Pardon me if I remain unconvinced that alleged safety issues are less the issue here than protecting the AMA's monopoly on doling out medication. Most people with chronic conditions cannot get more than 90-day prescriptions for their meds. Then they must spend time and money making additional pointless trips to their doctors for fresh scrips. If U.S. law allowed anyone who had ever been prescribed a drug to get refills at their discretion, the overseas Web drug business would dry up and blow away with no decrease in safety. The AMA, of course, would fight such a proposal tooth and nail.

-- Dick Eagleson

Twilight of the Crypto-Geeks



I organized the
Workshop on Freedom and Privacy by Design,
a brand-new experiment for this year's CFP, and was alarmed at the poor
fact-checking and the depth of Ullman's misunderstanding of the
workshop, and of CFP, in her piece, "Twilight of the Crypto-Geeks."

Let's consider just the workshop for the moment. Ullman claimed that
I was a Ph.D. candidate at the MIT Media Lab (in fact, I received my Ph.D.
there a year ago); publicly attributed various actions to Ann
Cavoukian, the Ontario Privacy Commissioner (in fact, Cavoukian was
unexpectedly detained due to Bill C-6 and didn't arrive at CFP until
the next day); and undercounted the audience by a factor of two (as
demonstrated by standing-room-only turnout and by the number of
handouts distributed). I pointed out all three errors to Salon;
the first two have been corrected.

I mention these relatively trivial errors to demonstrate that she
didn't fact-check her work. The larger errors are much more serious,
in which she apparently completely misunderstands (a) the workshop she
talks about and (b) a lot of the rest of CFP. Alma Whitten said it
better than I could when she said:

I agree with the central thesis of your Salon article on CFP 2000;
certainly the struggle between the libertarian loner perspective and
that of the social organizer/activist was shockingly blatant at times.
However, I find it bizarre that you chose to hold up Lenny Foner's
workshop, in which I was one of the invited participants, as some sort
of elitist, isolationist, ultra-libertarian contrast to the passage of
Bill C-6. How utterly insulting to Lenny, who spent months putting
together that workshop, not out of some sort of geeky adolescent
desire to be the next Linus Torvalds, but as an attempt to spark
creative, activist technical development. It was Lenny, after all,
who chose David Phillips to talk to us about the history of activism
and the importance of forming broad coalitions -- perhaps you missed
that part? "Smoosh" was a strawman proposal, offered to get us
thinking about solutions to a problem, not some personal baby of
Lenny's, and the fact that we wound up recognizing that the problem
was actually several interrelated problems is to the workshop's
credit, not a reason for scorn -- it's what we were there for. I
won't even go into the fact that the DNS problem only represented
half the workshop, and that discussion of how to get businesses to
adopt more socially responsible privacy behavior wouldn't have fit
with your intended contrast so well.

Turning to the conference as a whole, her central thesis would be
much more powerful if it weren't for a few inconvenient observations:

  • This CFP made a deliberate attempt, as its motto said, to challenge
    the assumptions and avoid the polarizations of prior CFPs. Thus,
    it's no surprise that speakers like Neal Stephenson took the motto
    seriously and advanced positions that might not have been heard much
    at prior CFPs.

  • Phil Zimmermann, Tim Berners-Lee and Neal Stephenson have never been
    libertarians, unless you believe that being a strong proponent of
    civil liberties necessarily makes one a libertarian. Ullman assumes
    that a solitary author who writes some software must necessarily (a)
    be a libertarian and (b) would never consider the social context of
    his or her work. Neither of these are remotely true of Phil or Tim.

  • CFP's demographics were different this year, because CFP's location
    plays a surprisingly strong role in who attends. Canada is a rather
    civil society. Furthermore, CFP was on the East Coast, which has
    never compared to Silicon Valley as a libertarian stronghold.
    Finally, many of the staunchest technolibertarians who have
    previously attended are now too involved with startups to make
    an appearance.

  • Many people celebrate libraries and librarians. But this does not
    necessarily imply that they all support civic institutions in
    general, or that they believe that such institutions in general or
    libraries in particular must necessarily be funded via taxes.

In short, Ullman tries to turn a complex situation into a simple,
bipolar tug-of-war between clueless, geeky technolibertarians and
adult, socially-responsible pragmatists. But when one corrects the
serious misunderstandings that are the underpinnings of her examples,
one finds that the situation is far more nuanced, and her simple
thesis far less compelling, than she would have us believe.

-- Lenny Foner

Salon Staff

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