Petrelis won’t quit. Becker’s p.r. skills were indeed legion – especially with her sources.
The intrepid FOIA work by San Francisco gadfly and AIDSy role model, Michael Petrelis, gave us proof in Jo Becker’s own words that her book tour and promotion for Forcing The Spring were being jointly “coordinated” by her publisher, Penguin, and the Human Rights Campaign and AFER. So HRC’s head, Chad Griffin, was integrally involved in the promotion of a book that describes him as the gay Rosa Parks on the first page. We also learned that Becker tried to get another much-praised source, San Francisco City Attorney, Dennis Herrera, to bulk purchase the book for sale and hold an event at San Francisco City Hall.
Petrelis has also – through FOIA – made another discovery. Herrera paid Chad Griffin’s p.r. firm $175,000 in late 2008 to help him reach out to donors who may not have seen marriage equality as a cause to support. The conflicts of interest here are myriad. And, given the NYT’s embrace of the book – the cover of the magazine, the Book Review, the first choice of New York Times editors for a book in print, and Becker’s liberal use of her New York Times affiliation, it’s a good thing that the NYT Public Editor has decided to investigate. Stay tuned.
Earlier today I tried to tackle the question of culture, conservatism and immigration – by looking at the British political scene. We got a first-hand account of what it’s like to live on Soylent – the high-tech food substitute that tempts me so. And a reader turned the question around as our first Book Club discussion wound down: what if modernity needs Christianity to survive?
The most popular post of the day was “And Sometimes There Is A Smoking Gun Email,” followed by my post yesterday on the new world and a new era for American foreign policy, “Letting Go Of Global Hegemony, Ctd.”
See you in the morning.
(Photo: Mourners gather to pay their respects as the cortege passes by following the repatriation of five British servicemen who were killed in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan at RAF Brize Norton, on May 6, 2014 in Brize Norton, near Oxfordshire, England. Captain Thomas Clarke, Warrant Officer Spencer Faulkner and Corporal James Walters, of the Army Air Corps (AAC), who were serving as the Lynx aircrafts three-man team when they died alongside Flight Lieutenant Rakesh Chauhan of the Royal Air Force and Lance Corporal Oliver Thomas of the Intelligence Corps, were believed to have been passengers on the flight. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has denied claims by the Taliban that insurgents shot the helicopter down in Kandahar province on April 26, claiming it was a tragic accident rather than enemy action that caused of the crash. By Dan Kitwood/Getty Images.)
If you were in any way troubled by the idea that a journalist would write a book based on exclusive sources, who are portrayed as uniquely responsible for a breakthrough in civil rights, and then those very lauded sources would throw book-parties and events to promote the book, you’re not alone.
I was a little gob-smacked that Jo Becker’s book tour promotion was aided and abetted by those sources – with book parties by Ken Mehlman and Ted Olson. But we are finding out that this was only the tip of the iceberg. An inkling of this comes with the latest, ethically disturbing news that Becker’s lionized sources in San Francisco’s city government have also been promoting the book. Dennis Herrera, SF City Attorney and his aide, Terry Stewart, heroes of the book, were involved in its promotion. How do we know? Well Herrera was hosting a book event for Becker at San Francisco City Hall last week. But we also have other proof. As city officials, Stewart’s and Herrera’s emails on public business are vulnerable to public disclosure. So intrepid activist/pest/gadfly Michael Petrelis did the leg-work to get all the emails that pertained to Becker’s book. They make for interesting reading:
A journalist is offering to give her sources an event to celebrate themselves while also promoting the book. Is that what the New York Times would regard as ethical conduct? Then a second email sent by Becker the next day tells us something equally remarkable:
Note the following: “HRC and AFER are going to be coordinating w/my publisher, Penguin Press, to promote the book, and Penguin has asked me to list everyone who might be willing to help so that can put together a press/tour plan.” Becker wanted to sell books at the City hall event, but this raised ethical issues about using City Hall for a private commercial enterprise. How were those resolved? At Becker’s original suggestion, Herrera was inclined to place a bulk order under his “campaign/office-holder account.”
So to recap. A key and celebrated source in the book is placing bulk orders and holding a reception at City Hall for the tour, at Becker’s request. At the same time, HRC and AFER are integrally involved in the entire book tour. Both groups are part of Chad Griffin’s Hollywood-DC p.r. empire. So the main source and central hero for Becker’s book was integral to its publicity and promotion. While publicly writing that he disowned being called the Rosa Parks of the movement, Griffin has been actively and aggressively promoting the very book that says that in its first paragraph! And he was using HRC’s and AFER’s money – money donated to advance gay equality, not Griffin’s personal profile – to promote his own hagiography.
If you want more evidence that this book was access journalism at its unethical worst, here it is. Quite why the NYT Public Editor has not weighed in on this is beyond me. It’s a disgrace.
First up: some pushback on the book from someone at the NYT not apparently instructed to puff the book to the heavens. Frank Bruni:
Right now there’s an impassioned conversation about proper credit for the huge successes of the marriage-equality movement. It stems from the publication of a book by my Times colleague Jo Becker, “Forcing the Spring,” which focuses narrowly on a few key figures from the fight to overturn a 2008 California referendum prohibiting same-sex marriage. In giving them such primacy, “Forcing the Spring” has raised hackles, and it suggests a new corollary to an old adage. Perhaps history isn’t simply written by the victors. Perhaps it’s written by the publicity-conscious participants with the foresight to glue journalists to their sides.
Zing! Meanwhile, The Washington Blade‘s Chris Johnson finally tracked down the truth of Becker’s disputed scheduled attendance at a reception at the Human Rights Campaign on Saturday.
She was scheduled to be at the big donor event, despite the bizarre refusal of HRC to confirm or deny it. But, confronted at a bookstore, Becker said she “was unaware” of any HRC event for her and was scheduled to appear on MSNBC at the same time. Johnson, rightly suspicious of this strange answer, followed up:
The next day, the Blade went to HRC headquarters at 11 a.m. as the Penguin schedule indicated she would speak. An attendee near the desk, who identified himself as “Carl,” said an event was indeed taking place, but it was a private meeting for high-dollar HRC donors and not open to the public. Asked whether Becker would make an appearance, Carl said she was scheduled to come, but she cancelled to appear on MSNBC.
So Becker “was unaware” of an event she had just canceled. Meanwhile, her response to her notion that the marriage equality movement had been “languishing in obscurity” until 2008 is the following:
Mary [Bonauto] talked about this, none of the cases just didn’t garner the same amount of attention. This became a headline in the way that it hadn’t been in part because of the odd-ball, odd-couple pairing of these two straight guys who came from opposite sides of the aisle, fought Bush v. Gore. Mary told me her cases didn’t get that kind of attention.
So that’s it. Because a few court cases had not pierced public consciousness, the entire issue was “languishing in obscurity.” Pathetic. The real reason for Becker framing it that way was to make the case she followed seem more important (when it wasn’t), to further lionize the sources who glued her to their side, and to make her own book more commercially viable.
Update from a reader:
Did you see NY1’s show “NY Times Close Up” on Saturday night? I’m watching over breakfast and incredulous – mostly at the host, who is blatantly dishonest, characterizing the NYTBR cover review as a complete rave, selectively quoting in a really dishonest manner, and going on to act like there’s no controversy. He did get around to asking about what happened earlier in the movement – never mentioning that her book had been challenged, much less lampooned – and she takes the opportunity to praise unnamed predecessors in the first part of her sentence, and then diss them collectively as being against the “controversial” case. And that’s it. She never gives in to even saying this book is about one chapter in a long history or giving any inch about reality. She continues to spin this as THE history of the movement. Incredible.
It’s offensive to everyone who played any little part along the way. When I had a very active blog with a lot of followers in the early days of blogging (early 2000s), I wrote about this fanatically. And when Colorado had it’s ballot initiative, largely funded by Tim Gill, I was a minor community organizer going door to door asking people to put lawn signs up on busy avenues, recruiting them, creating and distributing literature – very small-time stuff, but devoting big chunks of months to it along with hundreds of others across Denver, and thousands more joining us in other ways, in one state along the way, where we actually lost.
And in a then-red state like Colorado, it was THE issue of the election in all the news coverage, and THE rallying issue for both the left and right. The idea of whitewashing it into “obscurity” because it was before 2008 is comical and insulting. Yet here she is on NY1, sticking to her line.
I realize that with a book on the line, and four years of her life on the line, she has a lot at stake and has to be careful. But I think she would be wise to step back, realize she has over-reached and try to reframe the book the way she should have IN the book: that this is a vivid, up-close account of one important chapter in the struggle. But she’s not ready to do that.
I appreciate your pushback on the Becker book and her claims that the fight for marriage equality did not really begin in earnest until 2008. As we now have a few well-positioned players jockeying to claim the title of “gay liberators”, I can’t help feel that unknown individual contributors that have led to the success of final obtaining marriage equality are left out of this discussion entirely.
For example: My very first “gay marriage” took place in Grant Park Chicago, on September 4th, 1982, during a Jazz Fest no less. It was a VERY public ceremony, and cake was shared with guests and complete strangers alike. It still strikes me in retrospect, how bold such a move was, yet we felt fully supported by all the strangers in our midst and did not encounter one negative reaction from the crowd assembled for the jazz festival.
Unfortunately, this “training” marriage ended up in “divorce”, and like many straight peers, I chalk it up to being simply too young.
My second marriage, came after the marriage equality window was opened up in 2008 here in California. My husband and I had already been together for nearly 10 years, and we flew down from Canada to California to tie the knot. We have since relocated here. We were part of the island of 18K “legal gay marriages” that took place here before Prop 8 made this illegal once again.
So even before Virtually Normal was published, and decades before Becker’s unfortunate book, there were many of us unknown activists forcing the issue, and in very public ways. Today, I would like to claim for us unknowns, our activist contributions and partial success, for the advancement of marriage and other equality, as well as for those of us who were out and proud and creating very public as well as private marriage ceremonies, long before Boise and Gay Inc came on board.
They’re both very adept at manufacturing reality.
We discover today that CNN’s documentary series on Chicago under Rahm was coordinated in ways big and small with the mayor’s office. And – surprise! – it turned into a major propaganda coup for the ambitious Democrat. What you see is how a public figure can effectively get the media to burnish his image by leveraging access. This access-journalism in a very competitive climate can become propaganda very easily – and is a win-win for both parties. The media entity gets a high profile product which it can use for ratings and ad money; the politician gets the kind of coverage no ad campaign could ever deliver. The only loser is the viewer.
And the more you see the Becker book’s roll-out continue, you see how brilliantly Chad Griffin has leveraged access-journalism as well – with a special Hollywood twist. Griffin, after all, is a product of Hollywood – a former agent and prodigious fundraiser. And so I’ve come to think that it’s best to see the Becker book and the coming HBO documentary as ways to manufacture a Hollywood-ready story that begins in 2008 and ends in 2013. That’s what Becker’s book is really about. It reads like a screenplay, packed full of emotional subplots, and quirky characters. In interviews, she has even referred to real people, like Dustin Lance Black, as “characters” in her story. In the big positive front page review in the New York Times (that’s two NYT cover-pieces on this book) Linda Hirshman sees the book and the HBO documentary for what they are:
Perry was more than a lawsuit; it was a Hollywood production. Griffin’s outfit, Americans for Equal Rights, was started by professional P.R. consultants — Griffin and his business partner, Kristina Schake — at lunch with the Hollywood actor, director and producer Rob Reiner. AFER was always about changing the culture; it even had its own writer and producer, Dustin Lance Black and Bruce Cohen, from the acclaimed gay-themed biopic “Milk.”
My sources tell me that the HBO documentary that Griffin also gave exclusive access to is as breathless, as fawning and as narrowly focused as Becker’s book. The entire movement for marriage equality is distilled into a five-year courtroom drama for perfect dramatic effect. Hirshman notes who the star of that future movie will be:
Supreme Court civil rights landmarks have an irresistible narrative arc. First, the protagonists are oppressed; in the marriage equality story, the protagonist who started the revolution was “a handsome, bespectacled 35-year old political consultant named Chad Griffin,” and he had spent most of his life “haunted by the fear that if he told anyone he was gay, his friends and everything he dreamed for his future would evaporate.”
“The protagonist who started the revolution.” Now, Hirshman is very well aware that this is a massive distortion, and she correctly notes that the Perry case was a failure and trivial compared with the Windsor case and that the book doesn’t just ignore the work of the real pioneers, like Evan Wolfson or Mary Bonauto, but actually sleights them in order to puff up Griffin’s role. But when even Hirshman finds herself echoing the tropes that Becker has used, you see how the truth in the end will not matter.
Griffin knows that for most people who have no grip on the history of the movement, this five-year movie narrative will be it.
Critics can complain or devastate the claims of the book, but that will not matter. For the millions who see the HBO movie, and for those who absorb the Becker book, the entire movement will have begun in 2008 and Griffin will be Rosa Parks. It’s win-win. Becker gets a big advance for exclusive access; the exclusive access keeps other journalists away from the subject; the New York Times gets big spreads for its star reporter; Griffin manufactures a Hollywood reality in which marriage equality is only achieved because of his courage; HRC coopts the entire narrative by hiring Griffin; and Olson and Boies get to portray themselves as the central lawyers in the movement. It does not matter that the Perry case failed; it does not matter that the bulk of the progress came outside the contours of this narrow, failed case, and in the decades before. What matters is an easy cinematic narrative that obliterates reality in favor of propaganda.
And it will, I think, work. Check out Entertainment Weekly’s conclusion:
Forcing the Spring stands as … the definitive account of the battle for same-sex marriage rights.
Not one account; “the definitive account.” Not an account of one ultimately unsuccessful case, decided on a technicality, but “of the battle for same-sex marriage rights.” Then check out the promotional materials for Olson and Boies’ forthcoming book – and the p.r. campaign becomes clearer still:
As allies and not foes, they tell the fascinating story of the five-year struggle to win the right for gays to marry, from Proposition 8’s adoption by voters in 2008, to its defeat before the highest court in the land in Hollingsworth v. Perry in 2013. Boies and Olson guide readers through the legal framing of the case, making crystal clear the constitutional principles of due process and equal protection in support of marriage equality while explaining, with intricacy, the basic human truths they set out to prove when the duo put state-sanctioned discrimination on trial.
Redeeming the Dream offers readers an authoritative, dramatic, and up-close account of the most important civil rights issue — fought and won — since Brown v. Board of Education and Loving v. Virginia.
So Perry is now Brown v. Board of Education? Even though it failed? Even though another case succeeded? Even if there has been no definitive federal ruling from the Supreme Court yet? And notice the framing here as well: “the five-year struggle for the right for gays to marry.” That’s the “reality” that Griffin has successfully manufactured through the fawning screenplay of Jo Becker. The decades before – and the countless people, public and private, famous and unknown – are wiped from history. They don’t work so well as a movie, after all.
(Photo: Griffin and yours truly, with our spouses, in a happier time, at the White House state dinner for David Cameron, May 14, 2012.)
I ask because of this – now deleted – calendar from Penguin, Becker’s publisher, which we stumbled upon three days ago:
We called the HRC building and press office and, after several attempts, we could not get an answer. They told us that the only event planned this weekend is private and they cannot give us any details about it. Blogger Will Kohler tried to get an answer too and tells the Dish that the HRC spokesman wouldn’t deny or confirm a Becker event. But HRC rents the space out and would presumably get reimbursed for hosting an event. So this is a genuine question for HRC members: is HRC honoring a book that trashes everyone else in the marriage equality movement?
We can’t get an answer from them, which is par for the course. But maybe you can: firstname.lastname@example.org. Be nice.
Update: we’re not the only ones getting the run-around. From Metro Weekly’s Justin Snow:
— Justin Snow (@JustinCSnow) April 25, 2014
Update: A reader writes:
What about Becker also being hosted at Gibson Dunn, Ted Olson’s law-firm, for a private event on April 28 (as shown in your screenshot)? Even more inside access.
Indeed. An author who is hosted at book signings and events by the “characters” she fawns over in her book is crossing an ethical line. Another one. And, yes, I think, given the refusal of HRC to confirm or deny that the Becker event is canceled tomorrow, we can assume that it’s a party for Becker, and a thank you for the public relations job she has done for the organization. It’s all win-win-win. Except for the truth.
One last update: Because HRC would not respond to requests for clarification, Chris Johnson asked Becker herself at her DC book-signing at Politics and Prose if HRC was hosting her on Saturday:
I ask Jo Becker if she'll be at HRC tmrw. Her response: No, will be on MSNBC. I ask if there was ever an HRC event. Says she's not aware.
— Chris Johnson (@chrisjohnson82) April 26, 2014
The head of the Human Rights Campaign doesn’t take on the distortions and exaggerations in the Becker book, but he does necessary damage control by saluting just a few of the countless individuals who, far from allowing marriage equality to “languish in obscurity” for years, actually made everything we are tackling now possible. The statement is made under obvious duress, but it’s also graceful. And true.
With any luck, we can get past this ugly, unnecessary spat and get on with the business of making marriage equality a reality in every state. Internal debates about strategy are inevitable and usually good things. But the point must never be about who’s getting credit. It must always be about getting the job done. We owe it to this vital moral cause not to lose sight of that.
Update – a reader writes:
This reader comment on his parva mea culpa made me spit coffee on the monitor:
Truly, he stands on the necks of giants.
He made a nice first start, but it’s not nearly enough, IMO.