Media, politics and culture.
You hate to see this happen but perhaps this badly botched state execution in Oklahoma last night will help end the death penalty in the United States. It’s receiving wide coverage from the media. Although I’ve written those words before with only modest changes arriving.
A second execution there, also set for yesterday, thankfully was postponed—but just for two weeks. Probes of the (especially) cruel one that did go down are now underway.
President Obama, as we know, backs capital punishment but the White House today said the latest fell short of being “humane”—as if any state murder is humane.
See the email appeal (below) I just got from the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. I’ve written two books on this, including this recent ebook. Updates here, including corrections officials calling for truly independent probe of this execution--and a petition drive to get pharmacists to refuse to supply drugs for lethal injections or take part in executions in any other ways.
Yesterday we informed you of two executions taking place last night in Oklahoma. Today I write you in disbelief. Clayton Lockett died after the State of Oklahoma botched his execution. He called out “man,” and writhed and twitched in wrenching agony 20 minutes after the procedure began.
It was too late. Unfortunately when Mr. Lockett cried out, nobody heard his heartfelt plea, and he passed away in this botched execution. Will you join me in making a contribution today to help us prevent such cruelty from ever happening again?
Timing is of the essence, as the scheduled execution of Charles Warner was delayed only 2 weeks.
While the Governor and Department of Corrections investigates the botched execution, we need to put pressure on the legislature that the death penalty has flaws, is barbaric, and has no place in our country. Make a financial contribution today, as we don’t have much time. Mr. Warner’s life is at stake. Please answer his pleas for help now, before it’s too late.
We cannot be silent!
The government of Oklahoma has hidden what drugs they use. They have threatened to impeach 5 state Supreme Court justices who wanted to delay last night’s scheduled double execution. Your support today will help NCADP and our affiliate in Oklahoma defeat a bill that would impeach the 5 justices who have exposed the flaws in administering lethal injection.
Read Next: Steven Hsieh Inmate Dies of Heart Attack After Botched Execution, Oklahoma Postpones Another.
I’ve never thought of myself of a pioneer in warning about climate change, but maybe, just a little.
Back in 1984, Viking published a book I wrote with Pascal J. Imperato, titled Acceptable Risks, which examined how regulators, and individuals, choose to ignore certain hazards—such as smoking or living in earthquake-prone California—while taking action against others, often in a highly irrational way. The penultimate chapter explored an emerging danger we called “The Ultimate Risk: The Greenhouse Effect.”
This is what it was called before it was referred to as “global warming” and then more accurately and broadly, “climate change.” Back in the good old days we figured we still had plenty of time to address it. In that period, the nuclear threat was the prime concern.
On the eve of another Earth Day, I decided to check back on that chapter, which I penned myself, for the first time in a few years. What I found: there’s not much new under the ever-hotter sun. The “inconvenient truth” of global warming has been told for decades—Dr. James Hansen was even featured in our chapter—to little avail. Ironically, I had interviewed the young congressman Al Gore for my previous book on whistleblowers, related to toxic dump sites.
In fact, the chapter in Acceptable Risks opens with a warning about the Antarctic ice sheet melting, and a rising of the sea level likely to “submerge” coastal cities. The paragraph that followed could have come directly from the famous Al Gore film (without the slide show) twenty years on: “There have been warming trends before, but never one so rapid as this—virtually overnight on the geological clock. Rather than having several hundreds years to cope with the changes it may bring, humankind will have to adjust in little more than half a century.”
Of course, we are now thirty years into that half-century.
“More than a severe disruption of the world economy is at stake,” I wrote. “The very survival of Earth’s highest forms of life may be on the line.” But, I advised, “Something can be done to prevent—or at least mitigate—this threat. On a global basis, humankind can cut down its burning of fossil fuels, stabilizing the excessive accumulation of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere that creates the hazard known as the Greenhouse Effect.
“There is no sign, however, that we have the slightest interest in doing this.”
Back then, scientists felt sure the warming would soon come—they accurately projected a one degree global rise in twenty years—but that normal temperature cycles were probably masking the trend, and “the lack of clear-cut evidence for a major warming effect may have terrible consequences, for it has already undermined efforts at getting governments of the world’s nationals to deal with the threat of such an effect.”
So what was our own Congress doing about it then? About as much as it is now. But there was sort of an excuse. Climate change, as noted, was still somewhat speculative. One top scientist told me, “To really know anything you'll have to wait another thirty years, so we won’t be able to convince Congress of anything until 2010.”
As it turned out, we came to know a lot long before thirty years passed. As Leonard Cohen once put it, “We asked for signs/and signs were sent.” But about that 2010 deadline…
Read Next: Greg Mitchell: ‘New York Times’ Admits It Agreed to ‘Gag Orders’ in Israel.
I’ll follow this all day, but for now: a big controversy—although, one has to admit, not a total surprise, given the paper’s history of coverage in that country—will surely build after The New York Times late yesterday finally admitted, briefly and offhand, that it agreed (long ago?) to gag orders in Israeli in exchange for press credentials.
The Times’s public editor Margaret Sullivan covers the story here, and as usual she does a good job but does not go quite far enough, focusing more on the paper’s simply disclosing the arrangement and less on the outrage of its agreeing to the harsh restrictions to begin with. Here’s an excerpt:
The Times article mentions a court-imposed gag order that was lifted on Thursday. What it doesn’t mention is that The Times, too, is subject to such gag orders.
According to its bureau chief in Jerusalem, Jodi Rudoren, that is true.
In an email, Ms. Rudoren told me that in order to get press credentials in Israeli, The Times agrees to abide by such court-imposed orders….
The Times is “indeed, bound by gag orders,” she said. “Apparently we agree to this when signing up for government press cards, which are required to operate here, for access to public officials among other things.” She said that two of her predecessors in the bureau chief position affirmed to her this week that this is the case….
Two ranking editors at The Times—the managing editor, Dean Baquet, and an assistant managing editor, Susan Chira (who was the foreign editor for eight years)—told me that they were unaware of The Times ever agreeing to abide by gag orders in Israel.
Meanwhile, an online publication called The Electronic Intifada published a number of articles about Mr. Kayyal’s detention over the past several days.
The author of those articles, Ali Abunimah, said in an email that “readers have a right to know when NYT is complying with government-imposed censorship.”
UPDATE Sullivan has added this clarification to her column:
The Times is “indeed, bound by gag orders,” Ms. Rudoren said. She said that the situation is analogous to abiding by traffic rules or any other laws of the land, and that two of her predecessors in the bureau chief position affirmed to her this week that The Times has been subject to gag orders in the past. (An earlier version of this post said that The Times agrees to abide by gag orders as a prerequisite for press credentials, but Ms. Rudoren told me today that that is not the case, although it was her initial understanding.)
She added a link to a 2010 story that was written from the US as a possible example of how the paper has handled this ban in the past.
Greg Mitchell blogs several times a day at Pressing Issues. He is the author of more than a dozen books, including recent books on Iraq and the media, atomic cover-ups, Hollywood politics, Beethoven, and influential political campaigns.
Read Next: Greg Mitchell: George W. Bush finds an apt subject for paintings—but only at The Onion.
Earlier this month, on several occasions here or at my own blog or on Twitter, I complained about the fawning media coverage of George W. Bush, world-famous painter. From the self-portraits in the shower, to his portrait of Putin, the paintings are amateurish—street-fair quality at best—but that hardly halted the media orgy.
More than once I mused that his true subjects should be dead Iraqi kids or wounded US veterans, not puppies or selfies. You didn’t see this expressed in our media, however.
Imagine how gratified I felt when I saw yesterday that my wish had come true, albeit from an unexpected, “not serious” (except deadly so in this case) source.
Thank god, The Onion goes there—where the mainstream would not—suggesting George W. Bush should be painting the ghosts of dead Iraqi children, or in their version, already is.
Read Next: Greg Mitchell Lewis Black on Why He’s a Socialist—and Creationists Get the ‘Cosmos’ Parody They Deserve.
A sentence I thought I’d never write: Comedian at National Press Club this week explains why he’s a socialist.
Yes, it happened on Monday, when Lewis Black, of stand-up notoriety and Daily Show sit-down “Back in Black” fame, appeared at the venerable DC venue, and offered this testimonial.
Yes, it was witty—he blamed his parents, for one thing (something I can’t do)—but also right on the mark in describing how fringe this is in America (he offers a shout-out to Bernie Sanders) and why it is should be regarded in a positive light as “enforced Christianity.” (My own socialist hero, of course, is Upton Sinclair.) Here’s a clip:
But it’s a good day for fun vids on the inter-tubes. Here’s the latest from Funny or Die, purporting to be the “equal time” episode for Cosmos demanded by creationists, and starring the wonderfully apt Timothy Simon—you know him as Jonah from Veep.
Of course, everything can be explained in the Bible. And God made everything—except for gays (who made that choice themselves). His vehicle of choice for navigating the stars? A church mini-van.
Finally, just for laughs: The Amy Schumer show this week offers a send-up of Aaron Sorkin (and his Newsroom series) with Sorkin veteran Josh Charles.
Read Next: Greg Mitchell: Stephen Colbert gets Letterman’s job—and right-wingers freak out.
UPDATE 3 pm: Yes, it's a win—and go here for full list of prizes, and finalists, and comments by Edward Snowden, and more, such as fiction, poetry and theatre winners.
Earlier: They won a prestigious Polk Award the other night for their wide-ranging and groundbreaking journalistic work on the NSA and Edward Snowden—and they took a risk flying to the United States to pick it up. But now it’s Pulitzer day, and we’ll soon get an answer to the question that’s been posed for months: Will the committee up at Columbia University honor them with a major one?
Speculation has run riot for the past several weeks. Back in the days when I was editing Editor & Publisher we would have had that halfway solved by now. My ace reporter Joe Strupp found a way each year to get leaks from Pulitzer panel members, put them together, stick out his neck and predict, or rather reveal, the three finalists in most categories, although the winners, picked at nearly the last moment, were harder to get and we felt we shouldn’t reveal them out-front anyway.
However, we would then run fun stories about how most of the winners were told hours or a day in advance, making some of the “surprise” shots at 3 pm on the Monday afternoons a little goofy.
So it’s safe to say that Poitras and Greenwald, and compatriot Bart Gellman, know what’s up by now. But stay tuned this afternoon. (Years ago I covered Greenwald’s work extensively in my books on Iraq and the media and on Wikileaks and Chelsea Manning.)
Meanwhile, here’s the full Greenwald-Poitras press conference in New York.
Read Next: Greg Mitchell: “Stephen Colbert Gets Letterman’s Job—and Right-Wingers Freak Out.”
Yes, many wanted a woman to break the old- and older-boy network late night line-up, but the news from CBS that Stephen Colbert, as rumored, would take David Letterman’s seat next year brought general applause or at least acceptance—except from many conservatives he had long parodied or mocked on his current show.
They got a true “Colbert” bump—and didn’t like it. Apparently his satire has hit too close to the bone. On Letterman’s ex-show, however, he has vowed to just be himself, not a right-wing blowhard.
Meanwhile, reacting to the Letterman news late last night: Jon Stewart opened The Daily Show with the Colbert news, a clip (the famous gay-banana crack-up), and other exclamations about this “wild” day. He recalled the difficulty in not cracking up on air when Stephen was doing his bits on Jon’s show. “The exciting news,” he concluded, “is I no longer need a cable subscription to enjoy Stephen Colbert.” (This was generous, as Stewart helped create and has a financial stake in the outgoing Colbert Report.)
Then he paid tribute to Letterman as the “best” TV host there ever was but claimed Stephen is “up to the challenge… There’s no greater joy than to see a genuinely good man get the success he deserves.” He added that he looks forward to seeing Colbert’s name on marquee of the Ed Sullivan theater.
Then Colbert opened his show by deadpanning that he’ll miss Letterman on the air now. He has watched him since college and “he influenced every host who came after him, and some who came before. And I tell you, I do not envy anyone they try to put in that chair. Those are some big shoes to fill—and some really big pants.”
Meanwhile, on the right, as Salon reported:
While many people responded to the news with pleasure and excitement, right-wing talk-radio king Rush Limbaugh was quick to offer his two cents, saying that Colbert’s hiring was a declaration of war on the American “heartland” by CBS.
And as a perusal of the right-wing Twitter community shows, Limbaugh was hardly the only conservative to greet Colbert’s promotion with anger and dismay. Indeed, the sentiment on the right in response to the news can be summarized like so: Stephen Colbert’s being chosen to succeed David Letterman shows that liberal media bias is real. And, also too, Colbert’s not funny, anyway.
Ben Shapiro offered a typical view from those quarters: “Colbert? Really? Why not just wait until President Obama is out of office and hire him to replace Letterman directly?”
And just because it never gets old: here’s that classic Colbert putdown of the media and President Bush (to his face) at the White House Correspondents dinner:
Read Next: Stephen Colbert points out the absurdities of lethal injection secrecy laws.
On the morning of this day eleven years ago, in 2003, I happened to be sitting in the ballroom of the Fairmont Hotel in New Orleans waiting for Dick Cheney. This may sound like the beginning of a joke, perhaps with a musical or culinary kicker, but the punch line in this case is quite tragic.
I was covering a newspaper convention as editor of Editor & Publisher and the vice president had been scheduled weeks earlier as the featured morning speaker. We wondered if he’d show up: US forces had just entered central Baghdad and victory had been declared. Now, along with millions of others, I watched as locals, apparently acting on their own, toppled a giant statue of Saddam Hussein. I remember it well. There were two giant, if fragile, screens set up on either side of the stage where Cheney would soon appear—and just as the statue of Saddam was pulled down, live, the screen on the right also started to topple.
I should have known the worst was yet to come right there. Actually, unlike most in the mainstream media, I’d been warning about that for weeks, just the previous weekend on Bill Moyers’s PBS show.
A few minutes later, Cheney arrived and naturally hailed the events of the day. He also told us that critics of our conduct of the war were merely ”retired military officers embedded in TV studios.” Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, back in Washington, gushed, “The scenes of free Iraqis celebrating in the streets, riding American tanks, tearing down the statues of Saddam Hussein in the center of Baghdad are breathtaking. Watching them, one cannot help but think of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Iron Curtain.”
Okay, we expected nothing less from the architects of the war. But what about our media? Commentators suffered from premature ejaculations. Chris Matthews on MSNBC announced, “We’re all neo-cons now.” Joe Scarborough, also on MSNBC, declared: “I’m waiting to hear the words ‘I was wrong’ from some of the world’s most elite journalists, politicians and Hollywood types.”
Fred Barnes at Fox News said: “The war was the hard part. The hard part was putting together a coalition, getting 300,000 troops over there and all their equipment and winning. And it gets easier. I mean, setting up a democracy is hard, but it is not as hard as winning a war.” Dick Morris at Fox News: “Over the next couple of weeks, when we find the chemical weapons this guy was amassing, the fact that this war was attacked by the left and so the right was so vindicated, I think, really means that the left is going to have to hang its head for three or four more years.”
And William Safire in The New York Times:
Like newly freed Parisians tossing flowers at Allied tanks; like newly freed Germans tearing down the Berlin Wall; like newly freed Russians pulling down the statue of the hated secret police chief in Dzerzhinsky Square, the newly freed Iraqis toppled the figure of their tyrant and ground their shoes into the face of Saddam Hussein….
Even in the flush of triumph, doubts will be raised. Where are the supplies of germs and poison gas and plans for nukes to justify pre-emption? (Freed scientists will lead us to caches no inspectors could find.) What about remaining danger from Baathist torturers and war criminals forming pockets of resistance and plotting vengeance? (Their death wish is our command.)
Alas, extensive looting soon began in Baghdad and many other large cities, with prizes ranging from household items to deadly weapons and bomb-making equipment. Rumsfeld explained, “Stuff happens…. Freedom’s untidy.” Mobs were greeting Americans as something less than liberators. On April 18, tens of thousands of Iraqis demonstrated against a US occupation in Baghdad. In late April, in separate incidents in Baghdad and Fallujah, US troops fired on demonstrators, killing more than dozen and inspiring grenade attacks on Americans.
Thomas Friedman wrote in The New York Times, “As far as I’m concerned, we do not need to find any weapons of mass destruction to justify this war…. Mr. Bush doesn’t owe the world any explanation for missing chemical weapons.” David Ignatius of The Washington Post wrote a column along the same lines. Richard Perle on May 1 advised in a triumphal USA Today op-ed, “Relax, Celebrate Victory.”
The same day, President Bush, dressed in flight suit, would land on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln and declare an end to major military operations in Iraq—with the now notorious “Mission Accomplished” arrayed behind him in the war’s greatest photo op. Chris Matthews called Bush a “hero” and PBS’s Gwen Ifill said he was “part Tom Cruise, part Ronald Reagan.”
Of course, there is much that can be, and has, been written about the decade that followed in Iraq, the treasure squandered, the media malpractice, the hundreds of thousands of lives lost (see my updated book on Iraq and the media, So Wrong for So Long). But on this day, I’d simply recommend a now-forgotten 2011 piece at The New Yorker and Pro Publica by Peter Maass.
He had covered the taking of Baghdad for The New York Times that day as a non-embedded or “unilateral” reporter. His article lays out, in detail, what actually happened that day in Baghdad—revealing the full nature of the media malpractice. The crowds that gathered around the statue of Saddam were much smaller and less enthusiastic than the TV images showed, and US marines played a central role in pulling down the statue. And the images would have profound and long-lasting negative effects in America, he argues. He also quotes from the likes of John Burns of The New York Times admitting that his gratitude toward the US marines that day was explicit. “They were my liberators, too. They seemed like ministering angels to me.”
Maas reveals that two CNN correspondents elsewhere in Baghdad were each ready to go on air with coverage of Iraqis firing on US troops but producers kept the focus on the statue for two hours. One of them, Walter Rodgers, seemed to defend this later: “Pictures are the mother’s milk of television, and it was a hell of a picture.”
Meanwhile, on CNN, Wolf Blitzer described the toppling as “the image that sums up the day and, in many ways, the war itself” and anchor Bill Hemmer added, “You think about seminal moments in a nation’s history … indelible moments like the fall of the Berlin Wall, and that’s what we’re seeing right now.” Fox anchor Brit Hume said, “This transcends anything I’ve ever seen…. This speaks volumes, and with power that no words can really match.”
Maass relates that a study found that between 11 am and 8 pm that day, “Fox replayed the toppling every 4.4 minutes, and CNN every 7.5 minutes. The networks also showed the toppling in house ads; it became a branding device.”
Anne Garrels, a leading NPR reporter in Baghdad, revealed that her editors requested that she emphasize the celebratory angle, because the television coverage was more upbeat. In an oral history, Garrels claimed she told her editors that they were getting the story wrong: “There are so few people trying to pull down the statue that they can’t do it themselves…. Many people were just sort of standing, hoping for the best, but they weren’t joyous.”
Robert Collier, a San Francisco Chronicle reporter, “filed a dispatch that noted a small number of Iraqis at Firdos, many of whom were not enthusiastic. When he woke up the next day, he found that his editors had recast the story. The published version said that ‘a jubilant crowd roared its approval’ as onlookers shouted, ‘We are free! Thank you, President Bush!’” Collier told Maass, “That was the one case in my time in Iraq when I can clearly say there was editorial interference in my work. They threw in a lot of triumphalism. I was told by my editor that I had screwed up and had not seen the importance of the historical event. They took out quite a few of my qualifiers.”
Among Maass’s conclusions:
I had little awareness of the media dynamics that turned the episode into a festive symbol of what appeared to be the war’s finale. In reality, the war was just getting under way. Many thousands of people would be killed or injured before the Bush administration acknowledged that it faced not just “pockets of dead-enders” in Iraq, as Rumsfeld insisted, but what grew to be a full-fledged insurgency. The toppling of Saddam’s statue turned out to be emblematic of primarily one thing: the fact that American troops had taken the center of Baghdad. That was significant, but everything else the toppling was said to represent during repeated replays on television—victory for America, the end of the war, joy throughout Iraq—was a disservice to the truth….
The media have been criticized for accepting the Bush administration’s claims, in the run-up to the invasion, that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. The WMD myth, and the media’s embrace of it, encouraged public support for war. The media also failed at Firdos Square, but in this case it was the media, rather than the government, that created the victory myth.
Among the handful of studies of Firdos Square, the most incisive was George Washington University’s, led by Sean Aday, an associate professor of media and public affairs. It concluded that the coverage had “profound implications for both international policy and the domestic political landscape in America.” According to the study, the saturation coverage of Firdos Square fueled the perception that the war had been won, and diverted attention from Iraq at precisely the moment that more attention was needed, not less. “Whereas battle stories imply a war is going on, statues falling—especially when placed in the context of truly climactic images from recent history—imply the war is over,” the study noted.
Read Next: Greg Mitchell: “New Surge in Death and Violence in Iraq—Eleven Years After We Took Baghdad.”
In the wake of George W. Bush’s gaining serious treatment as an artist over the weekend, and being greeted warmly at NCAA basketball finals last night—even as we mark eleven years since the US took Baghdad (based on his lies)—there’s this today from Agence France-Presse:
Attacks in Iraq left 15 people dead Tuesday while security forces said they killed 25 militants near Baghdad amid worries insurgents are encroaching on the capital weeks ahead of elections.
The latest violence is part of a protracted surge in nationwide bloodshed that has left more than 2,400 people dead since the start of the year and sparked fears Iraq is slipping back into the all-out sectarian fighting that plagued it in 2006 and 2007.
The unrest has been driven principally by anger in the Sunni Arab community over alleged mistreatment at the hands of the Shiite-led government and security forces, as well as spillover from the civil war in neighboring Syria.
In Tuesday’s bloodiest incident, soldiers killed 25 militants in an ambush southwest of Baghdad, the capital’s security spokesman Brigadier General Saad Maan said. Elsewhere in Iraq on Tuesday, attacks north of the capital killed 15 people overall, security and medical officials said, including six members of the same family shot dead inside their home on the outskirts of the restive city of Mosul.
Near-daily bloodshed is part of a long list of voter concerns that also include lengthy power cuts, poor wastewater treatment, rampant corruption and high unemployment.
Looking through an article in The New York Times eleven years ago today (Baghdad would fall on April 9, 2003), one is struck by how many were already noting that we were not being greeted as liberators and that tough times were ahead, though none recognized the true scope of the problem (and the crime of the invasion to start with). “Chaos” and “looting” were also beginning, amid false US reports that “barrels” of chemical agents had been found, a possible “smoking gun,” as one official put it.
Thomas Friedman, later rightly mocked for his prediction, over and over, for years, that things would be turning around there within six months, was pretty clear-eyed in a column titled ‘Hold Your Applause,” which closed with:
America broke Iraq; now America owns Iraq, and it owns the primary responsibility for normalizing it. If the water doesn’t flow, if the food doesn’t arrive, if the rains don’t come and if the sun doesn’t shine, it’s now America’s fault. We’d better get used to it, we’d better make things right, we’d better do it soon, and we’d better get all the help we can get.
Greg Mitchell’s new book on Iraq and media malpractice is So Wrong for So Long.
Read Next: Greg Mitchell: “Eleven Years Ago: Questions Arise About ‘Embedded’ Media Coverage of Our Iraq Invasion.”
In the wake of the latest US Supreme Court ruling, the problem of money in politics will soon reach a true crisis point, if it’s not already there. Of course, this has been a slow, steady match to this precipice.
The first modern campaign to raise massive amounts of money, secretly, via front groups or consultants outside the political party offices, sometimes with strong-arm tactics, and across the country—even though it was a state contest—took place in 1934, when the famous Socialist author Upton Sinclair swept the Democratic primary and appeared headed for victory leading a mass movement known as EPIC (End Poverty in California). I’ve written about this at length previously here (and in my book The Campaign of the Century), so I’ll just provide a link to the full story.
But one of the key sources of money was right in California—within the Hollywood studios, where tens of thousands toiled. My new e-book, When Hollywood Turned Left, was published last week. It focuses on the wild response in Hollywood—then controlled by conservative Republicans—to Sinclair, which included the creation of the first use of the screen for “attack ads,” thanks to MGM’s Irving Thalberg. The right-wing attack was so outrageous it sparked liberals out there to organize, and Hollywood has tilted left ever since.
Here’s an excerpt about one of the most notorious aspects: almost all the studio chiefs docked their employees, from low-level to top stars, one day’s pay to go for the slush fund of the hack Republican candidate, Frank Merriam. One of those who protested but lacked the clout to resist was the young screenwriter (later famed director) Billy Wilder, who had arrived in the US just recently. Jimmy Cagney and Kate Hepburn, already top stars, did fight back.
* * *
Stars in the studio system enjoyed a wide variety of benefits and privileges. The studio bosses at least asked them to donate to the Merriam fund before threatening to dock them. Some writers, such as Donald Ogden Stewart, went along with the request. Less established figures were given no choice in the matter.
Take the young writer Billy Wilder over at the Fox studio, for example. Wilder, who was still trying to salvage Raoul Walsh’s East River, received his latest paycheck, normally $250, only to find $50 missing.
“There’s something wrong,” Billy said to the studio cashier in his heavily accented English. “There’s been a mistake.”
“There was no mistake,” she replied. “They took fifty dollars from everyone to give to Governor Merriam. If you have any complaints, talk to Mr. Sheehan.”
Billy didn’t know what this was all about, but he knew one thing: he desperately needed that fifty dollars to make the rent on his tiny room at the Chateau Marmont and to pay for his English lessons. He was behind on payments on his ‘28 De Soto, too. In no position to approach Winnie Sheehan, Fox’s top man, he cornered another studio exec instead.
“Will you please explain?” Wilder asked. “I’m just here on a visa, I’m not interested in politics.”
“Sinclair is dangerous,” the executive replied, “he must be defeated. The Communists want to take over.”
“Shouldn’t I have the privilege of making the donation myself?” Billy asked innocently.
“No, the house is burning down,” the exec said, “and we need as much water as possible to put it out. That son of a bitch bolshevik Sinclair must be stopped.”
“And my hard-earned fifty dollars is going to stop him?” Wilder wondered.
Billy was aghast. It seemed childish, foolish and incipiently fascist at the same time. And he knew something about fascism. He went back to his office and asked his colleagues, red-blooded Americans all, what he should do. After all, he was just a hick from Austria and unwise to the ways of American politics. This just didn’t seem like the American way, as he understood it.
They said, “It had to be done,” and “There’s nothing you can do.” You can’t fight city hall, and all that. Some of them agreed that Sinclair
was a Communist. Wilder said he knew a little bit about Sinclair and he was not by any means a Communist.
“Oh, you’re a Communist too?” one writer replied. “You better watch it.”
Wilder was out of fifty dollars and left with two conflicting thoughts concerning the forced donations. One was: It may not be democratic, but it’s a brilliant idea. Maybe if businessmen in Germany had deducted fifty marks from their workers to stop Hitler, Europe would be a safer place today.
The other was: I fled fascism for THIS?
Another Hollywood figure rebelling against the so-called Merriam tax was that “professional againster” James Cagney. He was back in Los Angeles after shooting Devil Dogs of the Air in San Diego. Politically, Jimmy was still skating on thin ice thanks to the flap over his alleged role in last summer’s Communist uprising, so it behooved him to go along with Jack Warner’s request for money for Merriam. But Cagney wouldn’t sign the studio’s check.
At least that’s what he told Frank Scully, head of the writers’ committee for Upton Sinclair, when they met, for secrecy’s sake, just outside the Warner Brothers gate. Scully found it amusing that two solid Americans were huddling on the street, speaking in whispers, as if they were plotting a revolution. Cagney told Scully not only that he had refused to sign the check delivering one day’s wage to Merriam but that if the studio forced him, he would donate one week’s salary to Sinclair. Since that represented a six-to-one advantage for EPIC, Jimmy figured that would stop them.
Unlike the writers, Hollywood’s acting talent, with the exception of Jimmy Cagney and a handful of others, seemed to go along with the Merriam tax without much of a fuss. Early reports that Jean Harlow planned to buck the system proved premature. But the name of another
young star supposedly fighting the Merriam tax had surfaced in Hollywood. It raised eyebrows, for the actress, Katharine Hepburn, had much to lose, having just won an Academy Award. While Jean Harlow’s career, in the Production Code “decency” era, appeared to be imperiled, Hepburn had clear sailing.
But 1934, by and large, was not kind to Kate. After a flop or two, criticism of Hepburn’s cool manner and unconventional dress mounted. Gossip columnists referred to her as La Hepburn. One writer dryly commented that she “occasionally has human impulses and she is not all snobbery and self-satisfaction.” On October 7, Louella Parsons revealed that “photographers have agreed not to take a single pic of her because she’s been so rude.”
Yet, if anything, Hepburn took herself less seriously than others did. When her habit of wearing men’s pants caused a stir in Paris, she commented, “I couldn’t be dignified if I tried.” She hated reading references to Kit Hepburn as the mother of Katharine Hepburn. “My mother is important,” she explained, “I am not.” Kate wished she could paint, play music, or write books instead of act, but “alas, I’m not talented at all.” With her friend Laura Harding she lived in an isolated home in Coldwater Canyon.
As the California governor’s race heated up this autumn, Hepburn was filming The Little Minister, based on the J. M. Barrie play, for RKO. It was a big-budget production, and the studio expected the film to put Hepburn’s career back on track. With that much invested, RKO executives could not have been pleased when rumors circulated that Kate Hepburn favored Upton Sinclair or would not pay the “Merriam tax,” or both. Now the Los Angeles district attorney had sent an investigator to find out what Hepburn really believed—and whether RKO had threatened to punish her for those beliefs.
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