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Published: Tue, 12 Dec 2017 00:00:00 -0500

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Posting or Hosting Sex Ads Could Mean 25 Years in Federal Prison Under New Republican Proposal

Mon, 11 Dec 2017 15:55:00 -0500

Looking forward to a future when federal agents monitor Tinder? We won't be far off if some folks in Congress get their way. Under a proposal from Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R–Va.), anyone posting or hosting digital content that leads to an act of prostitution could face serious federal prison time as well as civil penalties. This is obviously bad news for sex workers, but it would also leave digital platforms—including dating apps, social media, and classifieds sites such as Craigslist—open to serious legal liability for the things users post. In effect, it would give government agents more incentive and authority to monitor sex-related apps, ads, forums, and sites of all sorts. And it would give digital platforms a huge incentive to track and regulate user speech more closely. Goodlatte's measure was offered as an amendment to another House bill, this one from the Missouri Republican Ann Wagner. The House Judiciary Committee will consider both bills on Tuesday. Wagner's legislation (H.R. 1865) would open digital platforms to criminal and civil liability not just for future sex crimes that result from user posts or interactions but also for past harms brokered by the platforms in some way. So platforms that followed previous federal rules (which encouraged less content moderation in order to avoid liability) would now be especially vulnerable to charges and lawsuits. The bill currently has 171 co-sponsors, including ample numbers of both Republicans and Democrats. Specifically, Wagner's bill would amend Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act, which says that websites and other online platforms should not be treated as the creators of user-posted content. What this means in effect is that these third-party platforms can't be sued or prosecuted for users' and commenters' illegal speech (or illegal actions resulting from speech)—with some major exceptions. Digital platforms do not get a pass for content they actually create "in whole or part," for instance. As it stands, states cannot generally prosecute web services and citizens cannot sue them when user-generated content conflicts with state criminal law. Rep. Wagner's bill—like the similar and more-hyped "Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act" (SESTA)—would end this state and civil immunity for digital platforms in cases of "sex trafficking" or "sexual exploitation of children." But while that may sound like a small concession, it actually opens up a huge range of activity for liability. At the federal level, the above offenses encompass everything from the truly horrific and unconscionable (like sex trafficking by force) to things like sexting between teenagers. And at the state level, definitions can be even more varied and blurry. Wagner's bill doesn't just stop at carving out a new Section 230 exception. It also creates a new crime, "benefitting from participation in a venture engaged in sex trafficking," and makes it easy to hold all sorts of web platforms and publishers in violation. Any "provider of an interactive computer service" who hosts user-posted information "with reckless disregard that the information in furtherance of [sex trafficking] or an attempt to commit such an offense" could face a fine and up to 20 years in prison, the bill states. And nothing "shall be construed to require the Federal Government in a prosecution, or a plaintiff in a civil action, to prove any intent on the part of the information content provider." So in cases like, say, Hope Zeferjohn, the teen girl convicted of sex trafficking for talking to a younger teen on Facebook about prostitution, Facebook could be facing a federal charge for participating in a sex trafficking venture. Goodlatte's proposal, meanwhile, would work by amending the Mann Act, a century-old prohibition on transporting someone across state lines for prostitution. The new section would declare that "whoever uses or operates a facility or means of interstate or foreign commerce or attempts to do so with the intent to promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person shall be[...]

Trump vs. Weigel—Shudder, Giggle, or Both?: Podcast

Mon, 11 Dec 2017 15:15:00 -0500

At some point, a person becomes numb to weird headlines emanating from this White House, but boy, does this one just scream out "2017": "Trump calls for the Washington Post to fire Dave Weigel." This is fine, #EatArbys, smod4real 2017, etc. In a nutshell, Delaware Dave tweet-mocked the president for saying that his recent Florida rally was "packed to the rafters" by posting a photo showing anything but. But the photo was taken before Trump was speaking, so upon learning that, Weigel took it down about 20 minutes later. President Donald Trump later tweet-demanded an apology, and Weigel gave him one. Then this happened: .@DaveWeigel @WashingtonPost put out a phony photo of an empty arena hours before I arrived @ the venue, w/ thousands of people outside, on their way in. Real photos now shown as I spoke. Packed house, many people unable to get in. Demand apology & retraction from FAKE NEWS WaPo! — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 9, 2017 There went Weekend Twitter…. Since Weigel worked at Reason from 2006-2008, and since all of us here tend to have idiosyncratic views on the media, the president, and the free speech, what better topic to kick off today's Reason Podcast featuring myself, Nick Gillespie, Katherine Mangu-Ward, and Peter Suderman? Other pieces referenced on today's episode: * "Abortion Is the Get-out-of-Jail-Free Card of Republican Politics" * "Alito, Abortion, and the Bible" * "Disgraced Al Franken now a victim of sexual McCarthyism" (Cathy Young, Daily News) * "Mitch McConnell Says Caring About Legislative Process is For Losers. He's Wrong." * "Bitcoin Confuses Alan Greenspan" * "In Search of the Elusive Bitcoin Billionaire" * "Eliminate the Brutes: Nick Gillespie on Ewoks" OK, the latter hasn't been written…yet. Audio production by Ian Keyser. Subscribe, rate, and review the Reason Podcast at iTunes. Listen at SoundCloud below: src="" width="100%" height="300" frameborder="0"> Don't miss a single Reason podcast! (Archive here.) Subscribe at iTunes. Follow us at SoundCloud. Subscribe at YouTube. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.[...]

Final Vision Fails to Shed New Light on a Famous Family Murder Case

Fri, 08 Dec 2017 15:00:00 -0500

Final Vision. Investigation Discovery. Sunday, December 10, 8 p.m. The Jeffrey MacDonald case poses powerful arguments in favor of reincarnation. It has lived more lives, in more guises, than any Hindu priest. In 1969, when MacDonald was the sole survivor of a savage attack on his family by what he reported as a band of kids chanting "Acid is groovy, kill the pigs," barely a year after the Manson Family murders, the case seemed like the second chapter of Helter Skelter, further evidence that the 1960s counterculture was coming unhinged. (The fact that MacDonald was a Green Beret doctor who lived on a military base at a time when anti-war feelings were peaking only reinforced the political framework.) Then, when first military police and then civilian cops changed their minds and charged MacDonald with the murder of his pregnant wife and two little daughters, the case turned into an episode of Perry Mason, with melodramatic twists upending the plot. Not only did the accuser become the accused, but a journalist named Joe McGinniss—who was given full access to MacDonald's defense team—switched sides, declaring the doctor a drug-addled sociopath who slaughtered his entire family because one of the kids wet the bed. (And enhanced the television metaphor when his book became a wildly popular TV miniseries.) By the 1990s, the case had become a centerpiece for a growing skepticism about the motives and ethics of mainstream media reporters. In a searing two-part New Yorker story that evolved into a book, writer Janet Malcolm declared that journalists—and in particular, McGinniss—were nothing more than "a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse." Other books argued that McGinniss, in pursuit of a best-seller, had helped put an innocent man in jail. Investigation Discovery's Final Vision is, perhaps, the MacDonald case's last manifestation: As a tattered wraith, a ghost of American cultural obsessions past, still capable of inflicting some chills but mostly beaming the subliminal message, "What was that all about?" Final Vision is not based on McGinniss' original book, Fatal Vision, or the 1984 miniseries it spawned, both of which were true-crime whodunnits. Rather, it's adapted from a wan essay-length e-book McGinniss published in 2012 as he was dying of cancer that rebuts various theories of the crime advanced in MacDonald's endless appeals of his conviction. The result is that McGinniss himself becomes a character in this TV version, which is as much about the relationship between the journalist and the doctor as it is the crime itself. The scenario, the gumshoe reporter vs. the charismatic celebrity doctor, is not unpromising. And the two principal actors, Dave Annable (Brothers & Sisters, 666 Park Avenue) as McGinniss, Scott Foley (Scandal, The Unit) as MacDonald, are both capable. The script, however, isn't. The 1980s miniseries had four hours of screen time to tell its story, while Final Vision must make do with half that. The result is a teleplay that often feels cramped and talky. Screenwriter Denis O'Neill (The River Wild) does a reasonably good job at following the meandering path of the basic story—MacDonald goes back and forth from victim to perpetrator several times as first military and then civilian courts delve into the case—but he lacks the time to really develop the characters. The screenwriter gets a lot of help when it comes to MacDonald. Foley is dazzling as MacDonald, whose breezy big-man-on-campus shell gradually melts away to reveal something much harder, and darker, beneath. Annable doesn't do badly in his role as McGinniss, but the script never makes the journalist much better than a backboard against which the case's evidence is banged. The bare-bones characterization is a disservice to an interesting character. McGinniss was a peculiar choice as MacDonald's bard, a little-known writer known mainly for a political book, The Making Of The President [...]

Mexican Radio in Los Angeles Crashes—And Down With It Comes An Anti-Immigrant Fable

Fri, 08 Dec 2017 11:22:00 -0500

"Spanish-Language Broadcasters Take a Fall," read a front-page headline in the December 3 edition of the Los Angeles Business Journal. In just the past year, according to the accompanying article, the audience share of Spanish-language radio stations in the L.A. market fell two points, from 21.6 to 19.4, while their English-language counterparts saw an increase from a 56 to 58 share. It was a "dramatic drop for several outlets that spent years at or near the top," according to the paper. One of the big factors: a "shift in preferences among younger listeners in Spanish-speaking communities for English-speaking media." The story hasn't gotten much traction outside of media circles. But it's a big one in the continued assimilation saga of Mexicans in the United States. And it's one giant chinga tu madre to anti-immigrant types who have spent the last 25 years decrying the Mexican takeover of "American" airwaves in Southern California. One of their main proofs that unassimilable, backwards Mexican culture had taken over the Southland is the continued switchover of crappy pop and adult alternative stations to Latino formats. First they flooded our schools, then they took over welfare. Now their tuba music is all over the dial, and it probably plays hidden messages about how to sacrifice gringos with an obsidian knife! But L.A. radio station owners don't flip formats because of Reconquista, but because it makes business sense. Mexicans, like all people, are consumers. And Mexicans change their tastes as well—you know, like other people. So the industry keeps evolving. This is a story I've had the advantage of growing up in. I remember a January 6, 1993, Los Angeles Times story that reverberated across the country. KLAX-FM 97.9 ("La Equis"—The X) had topped the local Arbitron ratings with a formula used by all stations in the United States for decades: genius marketing, wisecracking on-air personalities, and a hot new genre that set it apart from rivals. Except this time, the language was Español. And the music was Mexican. KLAX's victory was so unexpected that classic rock station KLSX 97.1 "expressed concern" to the Times "that some of their audience may have gotten the call letters mixed up and that those listeners may have been attributed [in the Arbitron ratings] to KLAX." It was a line repeated by Howard Stern, who saw his reign as king of the L.A. airwaves toppled by what he dismissed as "some Mexican station." (KLAX, the Times reported, responded by sending Stern "a funeral wreath with a note reading: 'Thanks for helping us remain No. 1.'") KLAX's win started a good 15 years of Spanish-language domination of the Southern California airwaves, as other stations emerged to take turns at the top. The same began to happen across the United States. Smart programmers took advantage of changing demographics, and Mexican-Americans no longer ashamed of their ethnic background (see: Linda Ronstadt recording a mariachi album in 1987) wanted to listen to genres like banda sinaloense, pasito duranguense, and rock en Español that were previously available in el Norte only live or on pirated CDs. The influence of Spanish-language radio in the United States reached its peak in 2006, when DJs from across the country set aside their rivalries and urged their respective listeners to take to the streets in support of amnesty; the resulting protest marches were the largest in American history until the Women's March earlier this year. I remember this era well. My cousins and I had all grown up with the music of our parents and liked it enough, but we never thought of it as cool. KLAX changed all that. Suddenly, my older cousins went to quinceañeras decked out in tejanas (Stetsons), silk shirts, and cintos piteados (leather belts with arabesque designs). I'll spare you the visuals of me dressed like this as a gawky 13-year-old nerd, but I can say this: All along, we primarily spoke English and listened to hip hop at home. To anti-immigrant zealots, our c[...]

The Winners in the AT&T-Time Warner Merger Will Be Consumers

Mon, 04 Dec 2017 12:30:00 -0500

On October 22, AT&T and Time Warner announced they had reached an agreement to merge the two companies. The deal, valued at about $85 billion, would create a vertically integrated company that produces content (movies, TV shows) and provides access to content (through cable, fiber-optic, DSL and wireless Internet connections). But on November 20, the Department of Justice brought suit against AT&T and Time Warner, seeking to block the merger on the grounds that it would inhibit competition, harming consumers. AT&T and Time Warner formally responded to the suit last Monday, refuting these claims and arguing the merged company would be investing in innovations that would expand consumer choice. The DOJ's case is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the dynamics of the market for both access and content. If it were to succeed it would likely impede competition, resulting in less innovation and choice for consumers. Consumers are shifting away from the kinds of access and content bundles that so concern the DOJ. And they are doing so because such bundles poorly match their preferences. AT&T recognizes the trend of falling subscription rates for its traditional TV bundles. That's why it wants to expand into content. It could have done that by licensing legacy content from others, arranging syndication deals for new content, and building its own studio, as Netflix and Amazon have done. It chose instead to merge with Time Warner. At the heart of the DOJ's complaint is an assumption that the merged entity would use its market power to raise the price of content currently owned by Time Warner, or threaten to withhold programming, including hit shows such as Game of Thrones and NCAA March Madness. Time Warner could already make such threats, but the DOJ claims it would have greater incentive because it could benefit from some subscribers switching over to AT&T's networks (DirecTV, U-verse and DirecTV Now). A merged AT&T-Time Warner could, in principle, refuse to supply content to some distributors in order to drive consumers to purchase its own access and content bundles, but it would not be in the merged company's financial interest to do so. As Geoff Manne notes in the WSJ: "More than half of Time Warner's revenue, $6 billion last year, comes from fees that distributors pay to carry its content. Because fewer than 15% of home-video subscriptions are on networks owned by AT&T … the bulk of that revenue comes from other providers. In other words: Calculated using expected revenue, AT&T is paying $36 billion for the portion of Time Warner's business that comes from AT&T's competitors. The theory seems to be that the merged company would simply forgo this revenue in a speculative hope that withholding Time Warner content from distributors would induce masses of viewers to switch to AT&T—and maybe, one day, put competitors out of business. That this strategy would actually work is unfathomable. "Game of Thrones" is good, but it isn't that good." When Comcast merged with NBCUniversal in 2013, the DOJ employed a "consent decree" (a legally binding agreement between the DOJ and the merged entity) to mitigate concerns regarding the potential for the merged entity to use its market power to charge more. AT&T and Time Warner have now made a similar commitment, as they told the DOJ: "contingent only upon the closing of this merger, Turner has formally and irrevocably offered its distributors licensing terms that, for seven years after closing, (I) entitle the distributor to invoke "baseball-style" arbitration if it is unable to reach a satisfactory distribution agreement for Turner Networks and (ii) forbid Turner from "going dark" on any Turner distributor during the arbitration process." This "eliminates even the theoretical risk that lies at the heart of the Government's case – the risk that, post-close, Turner would be more inclined to threaten to "go dark" on a distributor," according to the companies. The DOJ compla[...]

Online Video Is Better Than Television: Podcast

Sat, 02 Dec 2017 10:15:00 -0500

In the latest episode of the Reason Podcast, Reason TV Editor in Chief Nick Gillespie chats with Managing Editor Meredith Bragg and Deputy Managing Editor Jim Epstein about the 10th anniversary of our video platform, our backgrounds in journalism, what makes our channel unique, its history, and where it's headed in the years to come.

This is Reason's annual webathon week, during which we ask our audience to support our activities with tax-deductible donations. If you like what we do, please consider supporting us. More details here.

Audio production by Ian Keyser.

Photo Credit: Dreamstime

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Subscribe at iTunes.

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You Won’t Be Afraid of This Dark, But You Might Be Bored

Fri, 01 Dec 2017 15:00:00 -0500

Dark. Available now on Netflix. "We trust that time is linear," says the narrator in the early moments of Netflix's new sci-fi series Dark. But what if "yesterday, today and tomorrow are not consecutive"? A few minutes later, a young boy is showing his newest magic trick to his dad, a variant of the venerable street hustle in which a pea moves from under one cup to another, unseen. "How did it do that?" wonders the dad. "The question is not how," replies the magisterial young kid. "It's when." From these snapshots, you can tell a good deal about Dark: that it's about time travel. That the producers read a screenwriting textbook that contained a chapter or 10 about foreshadowing. And that watching this thing will require a degree of patience that would make Job look like somebody who accidentally took crystal meth in place of his OCD medicine. Though Dark was commissioned independently by Netflix, it's written, produced and largely acted by veterans of a German television industry that is undistinguished and likely to stay that way. Though the producers of Dark swear their scripts were all completed before the release of Netflix's Stranger Things last year, there are a striking number of coincident plot points between the two, starting with the premise: The disappearance of a kid that's seemingly rooted in a top-secret government facility just outside town. But it's the differences that are more significant. Where Stranger Things is deft, Dark is heavy-handed; where Stranger Things is well-paced, Dark moves at the speed of a dump truck lost in a bog; where Stranger Things' kids are likeable and funny, Dark's are sullen and sour. Dark is set in a rural German town on the edge of a gloomy woods, over which ominously towers an aging nuclear power plant that's about to be shut down. Among the characters—among being a key word, to which we'll return—are Jonas Kahnwald, a teenager shattered by his father's suicide; Ulrich Nielsen (Oliver Masucci), a married cop who's having an affair with Jonas' mother; and Ulrich's wife Katharina (Jördis Triebel), an administrator at the local high school, earnest but completely clueless about the murky undercurrents rippling through her student body. A gothic landscape populated by half-undone families seems promising territory for a spooky melodrama, and indeed, Dark's first episode crackles with sinister foreboding. But by the second, the show is hopelessly bogged down. Part of the problem is its weirdly schizoid gait; events move quickly, but scenes do not. Even more distracting is the constant parade of new characters with little or no suggestion of who they are or why they're important. Hi, Egon, Torben, and Jurgen! Why don't you go sit over there with Regina, Tronte and Edda, and talk about Bernd, Clara and Udo behind their backs? None of this is helped by Dark's poorly designed subtitles—the show is entirely in German—which are placed on-screen in such whimsical locations that finding them is a bit like a game of "Where's Waldo?" played at 24 frames per second, but without the intellectual satisfaction. Ultimately, Dark is underlit and underexplained, with too many characters too inclined to sit around in darkened rooms in wordless contemplation of existential mysteries. Among which are the dead birds who turn up, provenance unknown, every few scenes. Dark seems to want to say something profound on the subject of avicide, but the message doesn't get much beyond "Yuck!" At least I think so; I couldn't find the subtitle.[...]

Reason Is THE Libertarian Voice in National Debates About Politics, Culture, and Ideas

Fri, 01 Dec 2017 14:00:00 -0500

Note: This is Reason's annual webathon week, during which we ask our audience to support our activities with tax-deductible donations. If you like what we do, please consider supporting us. More details here. Check out this novel take on the sexual harassment and assault scandals that are clear-cutting vast parts of Hollywood, the news business, and private companies: We're rightfully concerned about how the internet gives corporations more opportunities to exert power over consumers, but we talk far less about the flip side: We have more power over companies now, too. For better or worse, we've all become remarkably effective at mobilizing it to our own causes. In contrast, look at Washington. If either Representative John Conyers Jr. or Senator Al Franken were in today's corporate world, they'd be long gone. And just imagine if Roy Moore was a candidate for a C-suite job this month. He'd have no shot.... The modern American capitalist system is far from perfect. But for all its flaws, our system — and the digital communication channels it enabled — has delivered social justice more swiftly and effectively than supposedly more enlightened public bodies tend to. As we observe and adjust to the sociosexual storm we're all in, let's appreciate the powers and paradigms making it possible: feminism, but also free markets. That's an op-ed written by Reason's Elizabeth Nolan Brown and published in The New York Times earlier this week. It's not simply a sharp, bold, and provocative take on changing social mores, it's an explicitly libertarian take that stresses individual agency and responsibility, the ways in which new forms of communication empower the voiceless, and why even powerful corporations can be brought to heel by market forces. Brown's piece, titled "NBC Didn't Fire Matt Lauer. We Did," exemplifies one of the major services Reason provides for its readers and like-minded libertarians. Not only do we publish dozens of articles every day, hundreds of videos and podcasts every year, and an award-winning magazine every month, our writers and editors appear all over the place, representing libertarian views where they are mostly lacking. We don't just preach to the choir at Reason, we go into the dragon's lair and do battle with right-wingers, left-wingers, and everyone in between who wants to limit the way you can live your life. We strive to be your voice in national debates about politics, culture, and ideas, a voice that argues for hard-core libertarian principles such as autonomy and self-ownership, the right to be left alone, and the ability to live without having to ask permission for every deviation from the "norm" when it comes to lifestyle, business, or whatever. Editor-at-Large Matt Welch is a one-man wrecking crew when it comes to appearing on Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC, making sure that "Free Minds and Free Markets" have a seat at the table; he's a regular on satellite radio to boot. He and I have both had memorable appearances on HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher, where libertarians are greeted the way Nikolai Volkoff and the Iron Sheikh were greeted by professional wrestling crowds in the 1980s. In recent months, Brown has been joined in the Times' pages by colleagues Peter Suderman, Katherine Mangu-Ward, and Robby Soave. We show up in The Washington Post, too, which employs a couple of former Reason staffers (David Weigel and Radley Balko), The Daily Beast, The Week, and just about every place in print, online, or on air that you can think of. Later today, for instance, you can catch me on NPR's wildly popular show On the Media, where I'll debate net neutrality with Tom Wheeler, the former Federal Communications Commission chairman who implemented those very rules. We're not shrinking violets when it comes to representing, that's for sure. We take our ideas, beliefs, and policies seriously. And we take seriously ou[...]

Godless Is a Classic Western for the New Millennium

Fri, 24 Nov 2017 08:00:00 -0500

Godless. Available now on Netflix. When screenwriter Scott Frank was taking his script for Godless—then planned as a film rather than a TV miniseries—around to studios, he recalls that he was inevitably greeted with enthusiasm, but of entirely the wrong kind. "Oh, you wrote a Western," the suits would say. "I really hope someone else makes it." In today's Hollywood, Westerns are regard as politically malodorous relics of a white-guy Manifest Destiny era, and, even worse—so much worse, so much—dead on arrival in the overseas box-office sweepstakes. So thank heavens—or perhaps some lower theologic entity, it's not clear yet—for Netflix, which not only bought Godless on the spot but suggested tripling its length to turn it into a TV miniseries. Godless is a classic Western, the sort with big skies, wide prairies, gorgeous desolation, thundering herds, and smoking six-shooters. There are good men with failed nerves and bad men who get worse. Morality clashes with survival and doesn't always win. Frank has been mostly known as a screenwriter. (Among other things, he adapted Phillip K. Dick's short story Minority Report for Steven Spielberg.) But on Godless he took the writing and producing reins, too, and the scope of his vision is obvious from the show's opening moments: Several men ride into a town, nearly invisible in the middle of a blinding dust storm, the only sound the tolling of a lonely church bell. Little by little, forms emerge from the darkness ... two, three, four, many. Shot, stabbed, crushed, dangling from the end of ropes. At the end of main street, the telegraph chatters with messages that no living hand will ever decipher. This hellish landscape is the work of Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels, disguised under a beard the size of a rose bush), a psychopathic bandit whose recitation of Biblical scripture usually presages the violent death of somebody, or more likely, a bunch of somebodies. Griffin and his gang obliterated the town in the process of trying to rob a train carrying the railroad payroll. Their ordinary blood-lust went into overdrive when the $50,000 proceeds of the heist was made off with by Griffin's renegade lieutenant, master gunslinger Roy Goode (Jack O'Connell, Unbroken). To add injury to insult, Goode blew Griffin's arm off while making his escape. Now Goode is racing across the desert with Griffin in hot pursuit. Their paths will soon converge in a New Mexico town called, with exquisite irony, La Belle. Virtually destroyed—both physically and economically—by a mining explosion that killed nearly the entire adult male population, La Belle is now home mostly to just a few dozen penniless widows. Worse yet, the face of the law in La Belle is a discredited sheriff, Bill McNue (Scoot McNairy, Halt And Catch Fire), scorned by the townspeople as a coward for unspecified reasons. Their contempt would increase ten-fold if they knew his secret—that he's going blind. His only supporter is the twice-widowed Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery, Downton Abbey), whose ability to keep wringing a living out of the ranch without a man to lean on has made the citizens of La Belle regard her as a witch or worse, a consort of Indians. The collision of all these vectors results in a show that's something like a handball match between High Noon and The Magnificent Seven, in which meditations on the nature of courage and the meaning of masculinity are batted back and forth with poignancy and clarity (and none of the fruitless debate about whether Gary Cooper is supposed to represent Dalton Trumbo or Joe McCarthy). But Frank has deftly moved the terms of the debate into the new millennium, without any sense of heavy-handed political correction looming overhead. The demographics of La Belle—which were plenty real for a number of mining towns in the 19th century—allow a plausible feminist[...]

Is Donald Trump Responsible for the Attack on Rand Paul?

Mon, 20 Nov 2017 12:25:00 -0500

Trump Derangement Syndrome (TDS) has taken hold at The New Yorker. Hence, this idiotic story, which is advertised in a tweet from the magazine's official feed: The attack on Rand Paul by his neighbor reveals a sinister banality of American life that, these days, is often emanating from Donald Trump. — The New Yorker (@NewYorker) November 20, 2017 The actual story, written by Jeffrey Frank, is a minor classic of snide political-violence tourism, noting that Paul, the libertarian-leaning Republican senator, lives in a gated community in Kentucky and that his attacker, a liberal Democrat, is supposedly a "near-perfect" neighbor, according to a (Republican!) resident. Near-perfect, of course, except for his violent attack on an unsuspecting Paul while he was mowing his lawn. The attack busted the senator's ribs and is, to put it mildly, fucked up. But, says Frank, Although [Jim] Skaggs was once the chairman of the Warren County Republican Party, he seemed to side with Boucher, whom he called a "near-perfect" neighbor, as opposed to Paul, who, he said, was less willing to go along with the regulations of the homeowners association "because he has a strong belief in property rights."... The Times reported that Paul grows pumpkins, and composts. Pumpkins and compost may well be at the root of things. This fall has been unusually warm in Kentucky, and the heat may affect decomposing organic matter in unpleasant, olfactory ways. Paul, who leans toward libertarianism, could well have considered the compost of a private gardener, on private property, to be an inalienable right, and one can sympathize with that view. Haw haw haw! Frank then dredges up a 1980 novel by Thomas Berger, Neighbors, that was "the basis of an unfunny movie starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd," because, well, you know, it's important to remind New Yorker readers that novels exist and are usually better than the movie version, right? But the real point, of course, is that somehow Donald Trump is responsible for all that is baffling in this world, including an indefensible attack by a "near-perfect" neighbor who is a Democrat against a libertarianish Republican. Frank again: Berger told the critic Richard Schickel what he'd learned from Kafka: "That at any moment banality might turn sinister, for existence was not meant to be unfailingly genial." The sinister banality of American life periodically moves into view, with a lot of it these days emanating from Donald J. Trump, the person who was elected President, a year ago. Yeah, sure. Forget that maybe, just maybe, Boucher is responsible for his own sinister banality, whether his reported "feud" with Rand Paul had more to do with lawn-care issues than political ones. Then again, Boucher did post at Facebook his wish, "May Robert Mueller fry Trump's gonads." But isn't that how all doctors—Boucher is an anesthesiologist—talk? I think there's a real problem with throwing violence perpetrated by individuals onto broad zeitgeist-y forces, partly because doing so minimizes the responsibility we all have for the choices we make and partly because it's so often wrong (remember how all that "right-wing" hate and paranoia in Dallas drove communist-sympathizer Lee Harvey Oswald to plug JFK?). It's a small step from such atrributions to start blaming all sorts of things—books! movies! video games! Trump!—on whatever you happen to find objectionable. Donald Trump does this all the time, blaming immigrants, antifa, you name it for a phantom crime wave, job losses, and more. Do liberals at publications need to join him in such efforts? Of course not, but they're already blaming Trump not only for his misdeeds, but their own as well.[...]

Future Man Is Gleefully Sophomoric, and That's Part of the Charm

Fri, 17 Nov 2017 15:30:00 -0500

Future Man. Available now on Hulu. I am officially on record as complaining that television relies on time travel just a tad heavily. But then along comes Future Man, in which a mild-mannered and generally witless janitor has been selected by some tough bastards from the future to interrupt a sexual act in 1969 (and yeah, "sexual act" and "1969" are a smirky non-coincidence), which, if performed, will a couple of hundred years later plunge the world into fascism. The janitor has what passes in Future Man as an epiphany. "We cock block him!" he exclaims. One of the tough guys nods in approval: "Okay, rip his cock off, he bleeds out slow. I like it." How is any past or present 13-year-old boy not gonna cackle in joy at that and break out the popcorn to binge-watch the next the next 12 episodes? Sophomorically funny and hormonally twitchy, Future Man is just too stupidly engaging to pass by. Once you know that Future Man is written and produced by Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Kyle Hunter, and Ariel Shaffir, the team behind the epically uncouth cartoon Sausage Party, further explanation becomes almost totally unnecessary. It's a comic onslaught against video-gamers and their culture of the past 30 years or so, with the occasional random shot at baby boomers so they won't be left out of the fun. The plot—which sounds like it could have been lifted from a video game if it weren't already stolen, as the script gleefully acknowledges, from the 1984 teensploitaton film The Last Starfighter—centers around that janitor, Josh Futturman (Josh Hutcherson, The Hunger Games). Nerd to the very bone, Josh lives in his parents' basement and plays video games 18 hours a day. Well, make that a game, singular; he plays the same one, over and over. His nerd friends are certain it's because he wants to diddle himself while watching one of the game's female characters. (Not that they judge; in a group harboring unnatural designs on Ms. Pac-Man or Mario's brother Luigi, the gender spectrum is pretty wide.) But when an apparently dumb strategy unlocks the game's final level, two of its characters pop out with disconcerting news: The cartridge was really a training and recruitment device to locate the man who could save the future from its enemies. Even if his job is sweeping the floor at a herpes pharmaceutical research facility where the activity seems mainly to consist of jamming cotton swab up the urethras of infected lab animals. The two warriors who escape from the game, Tiger (Eliza Coupe, Quantico) and Wolf (Derek Wilson, Preacher), come from a future where the veneer of civilization has been pretty much worn away from everything, and their sanguinary work habits—Wolf's favorite plan is "Rip his fucking dick off!"—supply much of Future Man's staple humor. (Bodily effluents, emitted in always surprising but ever disgusting ways, are pretty much the rest.) But it's hard to resist a show a show that so relentlessly mocks its own origins. Future Man is a tapestry of withering allusions to everything from The Terminator movies to the Mortal Kombat video games (can you guess which organ gets ripped out of losing contestants?) to Animal House. Even entire epochs get the shiv. When Josh, Tiger, and Wolf take their time machine back to the Age of Aquarius in hopes of stopping the forbidden sexual act, they wind up in the home of Josh's grandparents—who promptly try to kill them, assuming they're drug-crazed hippies. Coupe, Wilson, and Hutcherson all show a nice facility for playing off of one another as well as a sense of balance with the material, deftly avoiding the temptation to overplay. I know I said time travel shows are the stuff of doltishness, but that doesn't mean you can't have some secret fun with this one as long as you do it in secret and remember that no pen[...]

BBC Dark Comedy Ill Behaviour Finds Home on Showtime

Fri, 10 Nov 2017 15:00:00 -0500

Ill Behaviour. Showtime. Monday, November 13, 10 p.m. Showtime is intent that you need a laugh. Ill Behaviour is its third sitcom to debut in less than a month, after White Famous and SMILF. And the deranged/debauched underclass comedy Shameless returned for its eight season in that same time span. Maybe somebody at Showtime is trying to eliminate the market for Zoloft so they can short stock in Pfizer. Whether Ill Behaviour, a co-production with the BBC (it aired in Great Britain this summer), will aid in this endeavor remains to be seen. Its combination of black humor and gross-out jokes is a little bit on the hit-or-miss side. Ill Behaviour is about a four-way relationship between four bughouse millennials. The show opens with one of them, professional slacker Joel (Chris Geere, FX's You're The Worst) sitting on the ledge of a skyscraper, scattering cash into the wind, shouting "It's my money and I can do what a want with it." (Bonus points for the allusion to the wise Randian philosopher-queen Lesley Gore.) The money is a settlement from the wealthy wife who has blindsided Joel with a divorce. His tragic dismay is only worsened by the delight of his friends, hippie airhead Charlie (Tom Riley, Da Vinci's Demons) and budding robot-porn writer Tess (Jessica Regan, among the epic numbers of the cast of the long-running Brit soap opera Doctors), whose novel in progress is For the Love of a Synthezoid. It seems they've secretly loathed the now-departed wife since the day Joel met her, and even, long ago, set up a profile for him at a dating site on the grounds that "sometimes wishful thinking pays off." The fruit of the dating profile turns out to be Nadia (Lizzy Caplan, Masters of Sex), a cokehead American oncologist with a yen for sex in public bathrooms. Her presence turns out to be quite fortuitous, since Charlie has just been diagnosed with cancer. Which, he announces, he will not treat with chemotherapy but coffee enemas and herbal remedies of the gloriously cancer-free 19th century. What follows is a blizzard of kidnappings, crossbow fights, macrobiotic-food jokes and gooey body-parts humor, all of it with highly variant degrees of success. Sometimes Ill Behaviour is amusing, sometimes—as the put-down line of my grade-school years had it—about as funny as a stop sign in a polio ward. In Great Britain, that criticism of the show turned nearly literal; there was clamor about the decorum of making a comedy about cancer. The fuss was largely lost on Ill Behaviour's creator-writer Sam Bain, a British TV veteran whose shows (which mostly haven't made it across the Atlantic) have never exhibited an overreliance on good taste. "I've done cancer, terrorism, pedophiles," he parried the complaints. "I'm ticking off a good list." In any event, Showtime broke that barrier long ago in the United States with The Big C, in which a cancer diagnosis liberated Laura Linney from a stifling marriage and job and allowed her to be herself—for a while, anyway. And the subject of Ill Behaviour is not really cancer, but the implications of intervention in somebody's life, even that of a friend. As Joel protests when his buds try to stop him from throwing his money off the roof, "If I wanna be a dick, let me be a dick." Not that you policy wonks are excluded. Joel and Nadia prepare for a toilet-top tryst, her beeper goes off. "Is that an emergency?" wonders Joel. "I guess we'll never know," replies Nadia, clicking the device off. No wonder British healthcare prices are so affordable.[...]

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting Turns 50

Tue, 07 Nov 2017 12:23:00 -0500

Fifty years ago this week, Lyndon Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, the law that created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. I've been writing about the CPB for two of its five decades; here's a sampling of those stories: • "With Friends Like These" (July 24, 1997): A paper I wrote for Cato on the ways the CPB has made independent, listener-funded, volunteer-driven community radio stations blander and less accountable to their communities. This is out of date in all sorts of ways, but the history I discuss is still relevant. And there may be some broader lessons in my explanation of a cycle built into the CPB's subsidies: The limited amount of money the state has to offer requires it to discriminate on some rational basis—if the CPB dispensed funds to every small community station in America, it would have to divide its budget so finely that no station would receive enough money to justify the corporation's existence. So the CPB strives to direct its money to the stations with the most powerful signals and the largest measured audiences and shies away from financing more than one outlet in a single market. But the CPB requirements encourage stations to grow and adopt "professional" values, putting further pressure on the CPB's budget and forcing it to further restrict the flow of money, refueling the cycle yet again. If the CPB's budget is expanding anyway—as it did during the Carter years, for example—the cycle might be slowed and the problem concealed. If the budget is contracting, as it is today, the problem only gets worse. Under any circumstances, the professionalization and expansion cycle is built into the federal subsidies; it cannot be eliminated by minor reforms or by putting a friendlier group of bureaucrats in charge. • "It Didn't Begin with Sesame Street" (October 1997): I review Ralph Engelman's book Public Radio and Television in America: A Political History. Among other things, the article discusses the birth of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting; it also looks at the handful of public TV stations that existed before the CPB, when some social engineers at the Ford Foundation argued that "educational television" (as it was then known) could be a force for social uplift, "an instrument for the development of community leaders," even "a form of psychotherapy." • "Independent Airwaves" (March 2001): I interview a man with a plan to "restructure public broadcasting as an independent public trust." His group was split between people who wanted a completely independent institution and people who just wanted to rearrange how the government gives broadcasters money. • Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (2001): The CPB isn't the only topic I cover in this book, but it's a significant part of it. • "The Way to Sesame Street" (November 2009): For Sesame Street's 40th birthday, I looked at the complicated social legacy of a show that "reflected both an antipathy to commercialism and a fascination with commercials, which served not just as a source for its parodies but as a model for its programming." We had to make some cuts to the piece to fit it into a two-page spread; I posted some of the outtakes, including the tale of the time an executive mistook Jim Henson for a member of the Weather Underground, on my personal blog. • "Radio Theater" (February 2011): Republicans have repeatedly threatened to defund the CPB. Not only do these standoffs always end with the institution still standing, but in the long run its budget keeps growing. This article takes a tour through the history of those fights, arguing that the real point of these exercises isn't to cut the broadcasters loose. It's to use the threat of cutting them loose t[...]

The Death of the Alt-Weekly As Told By An Industry Lifer

Sat, 04 Nov 2017 07:00:00 -0400

On September 21, The Village Voice printed its final paper edition, its cover a Dont Look Back–era Bob Dylan offering a defiant adiós. Though the publication continues online, pundits mourned the end of an era, not just for the legendary rag but for the industry it spawned. For decades, the alternative weekly was a staple of any city where there were young people who felt the mainstream media sucked and who wanted to read as many underground cartoons, scandalous exposés, concert reviews, and wacky columnists as could fit between the ads for massages and head shops. The Voice's last issue sparked a dark autumn for alt-weeklies. Seattle's irreverent The Stranger, home to the iconic sex-advice columnist Dan Savage, switched to a biweekly format, even though its owners say the paper makes money. Creative Loafing Atlanta, around since 1972, became a monthly. The Baltimore City Paper announced it would close for good on November 1. And then there was the week that began October 13, when I announced I was resigning as editor of OC Weekly after 15 years at the paper (the last six as editor) because I refused the owner's demand that I lay off half my staff. Soon after, the Washington City Paper—once home to David Carr, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Jake Tapper, among others—was put up for sale. LA Weekly got sold to mysterious owners represented by a marijuana lawyer. And the Seattle Weekly dropped out of the alt-business altogether and became just another throwaway community fishwrap. Media watchers have spilled a lot of ink and tears this year over what The Guardian called "the death of the great alt-weeklies." But more damning was the stream of hosannas put forth by alt-week alumni about the supposed glory days—so many, that the Columbia Journalism Review ridiculed such nostalgia as "hoary remembrances." Such cynicism was right. The fact is, alt-weeklies long ago condemned themselves to a slow, pitiful death. They had an amazing advantage to conquer the digital age, because they were historically younger, ostensibly hipper, and seemingly more open to evolve than the media dinosaurs they so gleefully mocked. Their legacy defines a modern-day media landscape dominated by Vice, Buzzfeed, podcasts, Instagrammers, and other outlets that inherited the alt-weekly emphasis on point of view, individualism, and creating a self-contained universe for consumers. But the alts blew it. They're even more imperiled now than the dailies, which can at least count on big-ticket advertisers too afraid to buy space in papers that drop f-bombs. Alt-weeklies find themselves in a position much like the baby boomers who launched most of them: stuck in the past, oblivious to the present, and increasingly obsolete. ¡Ask a Mexican! OC Weekly launched in the fall of 1995, when I was a junior at Anaheim High School. It was spun off from LA Weekly, a paper that served as a beacon to the West Coast left for its unabashedly progressive politics. Orange County, long defined by the libertarian Orange County Register, welcomed the outrageous weekly to the point that it broke even within a year, leading The New York Times to note it had "found an eager audience and receptive advertisers." I didn't discover the paper until April Fool's Day of 2000, because it didn't circulate in the barrio. I found out about it only because I found a copy in the trash late one night while I volunteered for a city council race. After I wrote a fake letter to the editor (long story), Weekly founder and then-editor Will Swaim invited me to pitch him story ideas. He didn't care that I was a college kid better versed in film theory than in FOIAs; he saw a guy who knew his community. I was freelancing within months, became food editor [...]

Showtime Comedy SMILF Offers Questionable Authenticity

Fri, 03 Nov 2017 15:15:00 -0400

SMILF. Showtime. Sunday, November 5. If you're making short films these days, it's all about vision and authenticity and postmodernism rather than the ancient and discredited concept of quality. So Showtime's SMILF (the first S is for "single"; you guess the rest), which originated as a popular film-festival short, has to be presented as a chronicle of the actual life of producer-star Frankie Shaw. This seems, well, unlikely. SMILF's lead character, Bridgette, is a gritty South Boston actress wannabe who can hold her own in pickup basketball with the neighbor guys. She lives in a scruffy one-room apartment with her son by an amiable but utterly jobless recovering drunk. The only thing emptier than her fridge is the credit remaining on her charge cards. This doesn't sound a great deal like Frankie Shaw, who went to Milton and Barnard and was already scoring roles in shows like Law & Order: Criminal Intent while she was a college student. I have no idea if Mark Webber, the father of her child, had a drinking problem, but he certainly hasn't had an employment problem: He's an actor with over 70 screen credits in the past 19 years. A little resume puffery by Shaw is not a big deal. (Though only in Hollywood does it take the form of slumming down your actual life.) What makes it noteworthy in this case is there's so much else about SMILF that that doesn't add up. Beneath that indy-film facade of grainy candor is a big pile of canny Hollywood calculation. Start with the title, which is supposed to be ironic, because no one is signing onto the "ILF" part of it—Bridgette's most intimate relationship is with a purple vibrator. Though Bridgette is lithe, pretty and—most importantly—singularly undiscriminating in her quest for a sexual partner, she hasn't hooked up once in the months since splitting with her boyfriend. Prospective pickups flee from the sight of her child as if he's a flea-infested vermin in a time of plague. Which invites the question, "On which planet?" I understand male commitment phobia, but that fear's about commitment, not no-strings-attached offers of quickies from a delectably naked woman standing two feet away. Then there's Bridgette's puzzling timeline. She acts like a new mom jittery about her sexual allure—her gynecologist's advice to do kegels triggers the panicked response, "Why? Did you see something up there?" But her little boy is a toddler, 2 or 3 years old. It seems like Shaw wanted some sexual paranoia wisecracks but not the fidgety concept of a horny mom barely removed from the delivery room. But, despite these conceptual weaknesses—some of which may have been forced on Shaw by suits nervous the instincts of a young, first-time producer, SMILF has a considerable number of merits. Shaw has created a memorable set of characters and assembled an estimable cast to play them. Chief among them is Connie Britton (Nashville, Friday Night Lights) as Ally, the wealthy mom who pays Bridgette to tutor her aimless teenagers. But the fact that Ally pretends to her family that she's going to yoga exercises, then hides out wolfing down prodigious piles of junk food punctuated by terrifying crying jags suggests her life is more complicated than it appears. Another damaged-goods character is Tutu (startlingly well-played by Rosie O'Donnell), Bridgette's weatherbeaten mom, who appears to have taken a licking from life and is barely ticking. She listens to tape's of Frank McCourt's brutal memoir Angela's Ashes to cheer herself up. The best of all is Bridgette, loving the daylights out of her child even as she resents the restrictions he's imposed on her life, affectionately shielding Ally's kids even as she winces at the knowledg[...]