Working in TV can be like striding through treacle. Specifically, writing for TV. So why do we do it? Specifically, why do I do it?
At the end of February last year, I hosted what we in the hosting trade haughtily call a “corporate”. It was an in-house event for the Shine Group, Elisabeth Murdoch’s production company, which has acquired a number of other production companies in the UK, including Kudos, Dragonfly and Princess, and operates Shine satellites “out of” France, Spain, Germany, Australia and the States. (They approached me after seeing me host a screening and Q&A at the Edinburgh TV Festival for the thriller Hunted where a miscalculation meant that I didn’t get a chair and had to host it standing up. One job leads to another.)
The Shine gig proved an exhilarating day; smoothly run at their end, and with a good, attentive audience of media buyers from around the world, who were able to see exclusive previews (or “premieres”) of three high-priority new shows: murder mystery Broadchurch, zombie fable In The Flesh and the sitcom Vicious. My job was to frame each screening and conduct a Q&A with “key talent” afterwards. In preparation, I was able to screen the first episodes of the two dramas privately, and in the case of In The Flesh, shooting scripts, which is quite a privilege, and a thrill if you’re a) a fan of TV drama, and b) a scriptwriter. Vicious was still in production at the time, but it was, again, quite an insight to see shooting scripts by the American writer Gary Janetti (alumnus of Will & Grace and Family Guy).
As a writer, it’s always meeting writers that thrills me the most. Why wouldn’t it? I’ve also hosted Q&As for Bafta, the BFI and Edinburgh with the likes of the writers and showrunners of Lost; Graham Linehan about The IT Crowd; creators of Outnumbered and Drop The Dead Donkey Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin; The Job Lot’s Claire Downes and Ian Jarvis; aforementioned Hunted and X-Files scribe Frank Spotnitz; the great Stephen Moffat; the great Victoria Wood; and James Corden and Matt Baynton about The Wrong Mans - all illuminating about the process.
Part of my job as Shine’s host was to oil the wheels, hand out nibbles and ensure all went smoothly and to time onstage (we had a lot to get through in one day). (The nibbles bit was a joke.) To aid that process, I had preliminary phone conversations with the “key talent” in the days preceding the event, including the producer of In The Flesh, the producer and writer of Vicious, and the writer of Broadchurch, the now-famous Chris Chibnall. (He’ll have been known to Doctor Who and Torchwood fans already, and I’d admired his single 2011 drama United and said so on my blog, which he’d read, so we had common cause.) On the day, I also met Dominic Mitchell, who was making his TV debut with In The Flesh, which made it all the more impressive.
That’s the other thing about hosting. As host, you see the shows first, and then find yourself watching them again on the day (often with a craned neck), which is unusual, but two viewings close together really tests a piece of television. Both Broadchurch and In The Flesh passed that unrealistic test. I’m not going to say that I knew both would be honoured by Bafta just over a year later. But I knew they were good.
So, let’s flash forward to Sunday evening. I’m sitting at home, watching the Bafta TV awards on telly. (For the first time, I actually sat on the jury for one of the award categories this year, Best International Programme, but you get a bottle of champagne for doing that and not, as I’d hoped, a ticket to the ceremony; when you judge the Sonys, you get a seat on the night, albeit at a table at the back, but still.) The hat-trick for Broadchurch – best drama, best actress, best supporting actor – was not a surprise; it was the cherry on the cake of an awards season ripe with accolade for Chris’s show – a Kudos production and a kudos-magnet – which had become an actual “phenomenon”. The best miniseries award for In The Flesh (bet they’re glad they were only commissioned to make three episodes now!) was more of a surprise, but a pleasant one, albeit cruelly cut from the two-hour TV broadcast. Vicious was also nominated – Frances De La Tour – so of the three shows I helped in my own small way to premiere last February, all had been given the Bafta nod.
In the interim, I befriended Chris Chibnall. We got on well when we met at the Shine bash, he kindly contributed a piece I wrote for the Guardian about “showrunning” and we have run into each other socially a couple of times since, notably at the Radio Times awards, where he introduced me to more “key talent” from the show, as you can see. They were collecting their framed Radio Times covers that night. More prizes. It’s nice to be there at the start of it, and nice to be there at the end of it, even if it is in a peripheral role. You should be thankful to get to be in the orbit of talented folk, and only become blase after you’re dead.
The reason I tell this labyrinthine tale is that it belies the notion that TV takes ages. It can do, and it does. But once a show’s green-lit and in production, it can move very quickly, not least because broadcasters have slots to fill and there’s very little wriggle room once the date is set. Broadchurch debuted on ITV a day after Mayday on BBC1 last March – that’s two whodunits set in small English towns, both produced by Kudos, although Mayday ran over five consecutive nights.
I gather that Kudos had done their damnedest to convince the rival broadcasters to put a bit of breathing space between the two mysteries but history tells us that neither would budge. As a result, Mayday fell between the cracks a bit, despite being written by the talented husband-and-wife team behind the phenomenal Ripper Street. How many times do you read an interview with a writer, or writers, who say they’ve been developing the drama that’s about to be shown on telly for years?
A TV writer of some note reminded me, sagely, that actors can potentially do between five and ten jobs a year, directors between three and five, while production companies often have several on the go at once, while writers might only get one job a year, or even every two years, unless they are in such demand the are able to overlap, which must only apply to the very highest echelon. This is a fair point to remember. As I have found, you can also spend months, even years, “in development” (and thus on a very reduced fee in comparison to a full commission), only to fall at the final fence, while other hired talent – to generalise – only start work once a project is green-lit and the hours are contracted.
I love TV. I love watching it, and I love working in it. As a job, even a living, it’s a privilege, and, for the most part, a pleasure. But as a writer, you need superhuman patience and, in tandem, ridiculous faith in your own ability, a faith that is knocked on a regular basis, no matter what level you’re writing at. The clearly talented Chris Lunt, whose first originated on-air commission was ITV’s recent Prey, has been writing pilots, bibles and treatments for years if you read his CV – he’s effectively been in development since 2008. This invisible work improves your craft. And that which does not kill you makes your stronger.
I’m also lucky enough to work as a script editor, which also helps hones my licks as a writer, or should do in theory, but it’s always easier to cut someone else’s work than your own. (I’m script editing series two of the comedy Drifters for E4 right now, and it’s bracing to be hands-on with scripts at any level.) As previously stated, I’m in development with my first drama since leaving EastEnders in 2002, and I can only dream of that green light. I spent a lot of last year writing a long, detailed treatment for a drama that sort of went cold after two broadcasters turned their noses up at it. Not a single penny changed hands, although it involved a number of pleasant meetings with a nice, well-known actor who also has a production company and we’ve bonded, so none of it was for nothing. And that’s the job.
Going back to the end of February last year. None of us knew that Broadchurch was going to become a phenomenon – pretty much credited with saving television! – but you could sense it was bloody good. Likewise In The Flesh. It’s pleasing to me, and reassuring, that both could go from premiere to Bafta in just over a year. You wonder if Prey, series two of Line Of Duty and Happy Valley will repeat the trick in the 2015 Baftas. I’ll be rooting for Lunt out of developmental solidarity!
The business moves as if striding through treacle and we who are footsoldiers have no choice but to struggle in step behind it. But when it all comes together, it’s sweet.
A few weeks ago, I sat on a panel for the 32nd Intercultural Communication Conference at Texas Southern University. The subject for this year’s conference was the effects of Black music on Black life. I argued that contemporary Black music inaccurately reflects the Black experience in America. A large majority of modern Black music (read: Hip-Hop & B) features the same theme of ostentatious wealth and gauche misogyny, to the point where a slight deviation can be lauded as something other than a softer version of the same theme.
Questlove, of the (world famous) Roots, in his third installment of his six-part weekly series of essays, takes the theory of Hip-Hop as cultural drag and takes it a step further, arguing that the concept of Black cool has lost its luster in the current of Hip-Hop in the 21st century:
These days, the vast majority of hip-hop artists follow a script because they’re trying to succeed in a game whose rules are clear. To paraphrase Barthes: American hip-hop is usually based on imitation, and it is meant to produce artists who are users of the existing tradition, not creators. And because of that, black culture in general — which has defaulted into hip-hop — is no longer perceived as an interesting vanguard, as a source of potential disruption or a challenge to the dominant. It might be worth watching if nothing else is on, but you don’t need to keep an eye on it. And that leads to a more distressing question, not rhetorical this time: Once you don’t have a cool factor any longer — when cool gets decoupled from African-American culture — what happens to the way that black people are seen?
During my panel, I justified my theory by noting that Hip-Hop has become the primary lens by which other races view African-Americans. And while I don’t buy the “rap is bringing down the race” philosophy, nor do I believe we should leave the responsibility of full racial acceptance at the feet of Hip-Hop, it must be acknowledged that the genre, and as a result, the culture, has lost a chunk of its innovation. The fact that a new rapper is comfortable enough to wear this should serve as proof that Hip-Hop is on follower status right now.
Ultimately, it comes back to theme. If Hip-Hop throwing money down from the top at your competitors (rappers nowadays come into the game rich; very rarely do new rappers expose the vulnerability of being broke and “doing it for the love”), then what place is there for alternatives? And if no alternatives exist, how long until the wealth bubble bursts?
These days, increasingly, black cool is a Ponzi scheme that revolves around a couple of people, disingenuously at best. Everyone pays tribute to those tip-top hip-hop stars, but their cachet comes from their celebrity, and their predictable devotion to it. Do they embody black cool in the traditional sense? I don’t think they can. I don’t think any of us can. The cultural landscape now is about winning, not taking the extra beat to think your way around a problem. Today’s hip-hop stars may be the Federal Reserve of black cultural cachet, but these days they’re just printing money whose value has long ago diminished. And that’s not cool.
To whom it may concern,
Thanks for taking the time to read this letter!
I assure you, at least in terms of breaking up the monotony that is hiring a new employee, it’s the best decision you’ve made today.
I’m sure you’ve received dozens like it, promising exciting job-applicable traits like “Team-Player!” and “Hard-Working” and “Dedicated” and “Passionate!” I’m sure all of them have various examples of such traits like “That one time I saved a several hundred thousand dollar deal from falling through the cracks just because I spell-checked every word in a 200-page memo (showcasing their dedication, attention-to-detail, meticulousness, potential brilliance)” or “That other time I was involved in landing an account that you may know of by the name of HUGE TECH COMPANY (demonstrating their perseverance, persuasion, competitiveness).” I’m sure they are well-spoken individuals, promising longevity, increased revenue, innovative ground-breaking ideas, extensive connections and above all, a personality like a glowing ember, able to light up a room and provide optimistic warmth to even the darkest of situations and workplaces.
And with such prospective candidacy, how could you possibly decide between any of us? We’re like a litter of adorable puppies begging for attention, pleading you take us all. What an incredibly difficult decision you have before you. I for one certainly do not envy your position!
And so by now I’m sure you’re wondering. Say Meg, enough about your competition. Tell me. What is it ABOUT YOU that sets you apart from all these inherently perfect corporate robotic life forms? What makes you so much more stellar in the planetarium that is our email inbox of shining super-star future employees? Why should I keep reading this letter?
Well. I’m glad you asked! Because I’ve thought awhile about my answer. And it doesn’t lie in experience. It doesn’t lie in a laundry list of personality traits, or accomplishments. In the grand scheme of things, I suppose I am the runt of the potential employment litter-box. My mark on the world is chalk-status, in that it’s visible but slightly uncertain, brush up against it and I often feel I’m just a smudge of foggy possibility. There’s never been the word manager, or senior, or executive in front of my name. I don’t have 4-5, 6-8, 10-12 years experience. I’ve never been in charge of any multi-million dollar accounts, I don’t have a masters degree, I haven’t saved any living thing from a burning building and I speak exactly one language.
So by this point I’m sure you’re thinking alright, wise gal. Wrap up the reverse psychological babble. We have a lot of people who can do all of these things waiting in the ranks. Applicant number 6 can speak 4 languages and regularly saves newborn kittens from trees. You’re out of your league here sweetheart.
And maybe I am. If it comes down to what I’ve done so far in terms of creative accomplishment, I suppose I don’t have too much to bring to the interviewing table. And that is always the struggle I suppose. The battle between what I have already done and what I could do if given the right opportunity.
And so I sign off with my one shining accolade. Potential. That is what I offer. The promise that despite my rather short resume, my youth, my inexperience, my lack of prestigious titles and lengthy accomplishments, I am untapped talent and endless capability. And I say that with absolute confidence. Without flowery statements or grandiose declarations.
Very simply, I believe in myself. And I think you should too.
But maybe that’s not you. Maybe that’s not today. Maybe this is merely as I say above, a chance to break up the tediousness in another 9-5 Monday morning. Maybe potential isn’t enough here. Maybe you need more. And that’s ok. Because someday, sometime, someone will read this and believe it. Believe me.
And then, at that point, I’ll go down to the great chalk board of life, grab a sharpie and write my name in big black permanent ink.
And that will be merely the beginning.
But in between now and then, thank you once again for taking your time to review my application and I wish you the best of luck in your search for your next great employee. May they really be all that they promise they are.
In the morning I awoke to the train clumsily arriving in Denver with the blood orange sun rising in the east. Most of the night was spent alternating between sleeping across the seat I commandeered next to mine or sitting upright, lazy boy style. Neither of those strategies were too effective. On a bus ride to New York City some years ago I arrived at a stop in Philadelphia in the same sedated state and I still can’t decide if I can say I’ve been there or not. Denver looks tyrannically boring. I had read it is best to get a seat in the observation car upon departure from the “Queen City.” Apparently everyone else read this as the car was packed full of geriatrics. A tour guide soon grabbed the mic to narrate our journey and it became apparent he planned to rant for some time. He informed us the train depot was beside the Rockies stadium and that the team should get their act together. My little league baseball team was the Rockies; maybe I can gather the team again and we can go out there.
As I’ve reset my watch, I realize this not a journey through space, but time. I am engaged in time travel. If the USS Enterprise faces one contorted and contracted plane of time as it enters light speed, the California Zephyr faces the same plane as a vast sheet of stretched spandex. Those that will inevitably invent and use the methods of time travel in the future will age at a slower rate than those stuck on earth, monogamous with time. When they return home, they will be much younger and perhaps many of their friends will then be gone. On this train the opposite is true. You age quicker while your friends retain their youth longer. There is especially strong evidence of this all around me. It’s my belief all the seniors now on the train simply boarded it before me and have lost their exuberant youth somewhere between the east coast and Chicago. I will soon be this age. The train will disappear into the oblivion of the Rockies when I am to report to administration cart to receive my AARP card and establish my will.
The eastern pass of the Rockies shortly follows Denver on the rail. We climb along on switchbacks and occasionally the mountain has been sliced as if it were only an apple. The dark tan and green mixture of pasture and evergreen that sits atop these crosscuts are a stark contrast to the burnt orange color of the rock below, as if you bit into a granny apple only to find an orange’s flesh. Everything looks flammable. It is no wonder there are so many fires in Colorado. This yearly burn must send the land through constant cycles of rejuvenation. The houses on the other hand are of course lost. I have heard State Farm and some other insurance companies have filed a class action lawsuit against nature for insurance fraud, but alas no court will take their case. They are hopeful the upcoming years will bring justice.
We pass through the heart of the Rockies, approaching its Western slope.
Native American’s used to fling arrows at passing caravans, or so I’ve seen in countless westerns and paintings. It seems the Indians have been replaced by white water rafters, and the arrows by bare asses. All day we were mooned as we followed the Colorado River. This caused me to become deeply ashamed. Every one of those in the observation car was raucously amused, but I grew grim. I am the mooner, not the moonee. For the past two years I have paddled the South Branch of the Potomac with friends at their long running fishing camp in the highlands of West Virginia. Each Saturday morning we load the canoes with as much domestic beer as they will bear and drift eight miles down river. Along the rivers banks runs a train tourists take to spot bald eagles in the area demarcated as a bird sanctuary. It’s a tradition to moon these amateur ornithologists. To be on the other end of this exchange is a deep betrayal of my identity.
On to the desert.
On afternoon I decided it was time to explore a different part of Havana that I had yet to see, Centro Habana or Central Havana. I’d see enough of beautiful Old Havana and thought it was time to see the real Havana that has been untouched. Central Havana is the most densely populated part of town and unlike Old Havana, nothing has been restored.
I hailed a coco-taxi (a three-wheeled scooter) right from my hotel in Vedado and enjoyed a fun ride down the Malecón to my first destination in Central Havana, a special place called El Callejón de Hamel (Hamel’s Alley). I was in for quite a wonderful surprise!
I paid my fare which was much cheaper than a traditional taxi and wondered why I hadn’t tried a coco taxi earlier. It certainly was a fun way to see Havana! The neighborhood was dramatically different from the other parts of Havana I’d seen. Much more rustic, rundown with buildings in various states of disrepair. Yet it also felt more Cuban. More like the real thing.
In Central Havana, homes and buildings are not being restored like they are in Old Havana and nearby my hotel in Vedado. Instead, buildings are decaying, weathered and falling apart. Sidewalks are filled with huge gaps and the streets could use a good repaving. Yet, the people are all the same. Smiling. Resolute. Frustrated. Resigned. Just like other nicer parts of Havana, Cubans sit outside on doorsteps chatting with neighbors and playing the guitar.
I had heard that Hamel’s Alley (El Callejón de Hamel) was a treasure for photographers. Tucked away between two streets Calle Aramburu and Calle Hospital on Hamel this two block area is a phenomenal Afro-Cuban community art project. Created in 1990 by self-taught Afro-Cuban painter and sculptor, Salvador Gonzales Escalona, Hamel’s Ally is an impressive example of how a simple idea can transform a rundown place into a creative explosion of color, culture and art.
The moment I stepped out of the coco cab and set foot into this magical place, I was entranced. Entire four-story buildings are painted in a burst of color and designs reaching all the way to the sky. Whimsical sculptures are made out of recycled antiques into works of art. Inspiring quotes and saying are painted into the walls.
As soon as I walked through the gate I was met by a licensed guide who for a few dollars gave me a tour of the place, pointing out the best works of art. For some reason, I had the entire place to myself, a rarity per my guide. If it had been a Sunday afternoon, Hamel’s Alley would have been jammed packed with locals and tourists alike listening to live Rumba music and dancing.
Besides the murals, there are interesting sculptures made out of antiques and other recycled objects such as bathtubs, typewriters and even old cars. Nothing goes to waste in Hamel’s Alley. There is also a learning area for children in the community to take their try at creating art.
I couldn’t get enough of this place but felt it was time to move on with my exploring of Centro Habana. I only had another hour until I had to go on our next people to people visit. We were having cocktails at our hotel with Cuban university students.
“Moon of my Stars”… “Mother of Dragons”… Call this smoldering dinosaur kale burger what you will, just don’t call it weak. Smokey morsels of crisped shiitake “bacon,” crown a regal beet gratin, smothered in Red Dragon cheese on top of a crunchy, berberre-rubbed kale patty, heirloom tomato, and slathering of sumac aioli. Dracarys! (Translation: “Fuck raw horse heart!”)
serious h/t to J. Kenji Lopez for the mushroom bacon
I took part in a discussion with a few Twitter users the other day in which we spoke about the appropriation of the term “depressing” in the title of a webchat about the effects of fourth wave feminism. This conversation took many meandering paths and we were pretty unanimous in our opprobrium of medicalised terms to discuss everyday experiences. We spoke, at length, about the myriad ways in which we, as women with disabilities, are erased from the discourse of mainstream feminism. On the one hand my instinct is to ignore the word “depressing” as something which has become deeply assimilated into our everyday conversations, but on the other I am aware of the hypocrisy of ignoring such terms whilst feeling offend by the use of other medical terms such as “schizophrenic” or “retarded” as adjectives for negative terminology.
My life has been full of a variety of tragic strands which, if sewn together, would make a large shroud. I have written about them on several occasions: my experiences as a person with disabilities, my fight against anorexia, my life as a survivor of rape, my battle against post-natal depression & my general feeling of being ostracised by the world because of my disability. Those who read my blog will be familiar with my life. But what I wanted to write about is my particular experience with depression and why I take issue with it being co-opted as a term to describe non-medical annoyance or frustration and why non-disabled feminists need to make more careful choices regarding the words they use.
I entered psychiatric inpatient care on a Sunday, much like any other, in July. There was nothing particularly special about that weekend, neither for the rest of the world nor for myself. It was by random chance that I had decided that that weekend would be my last. On the Friday I took a large dose of Valium, nothing happened, other than a long sleep and lost memories, and so on Sunday I decided I would give it a harder push and took an overdose of Baclofen, my muscle relaxant. I didn’t even get very far into this second overdose, due to the restrictions on my liberty (due to being a wheelchair user largely confined to bed), before the ambulance and police were called and so, before I could cause myself significant harm I was carted off to hospital. I don’t remember much of what happened next. But somewhere along the lines my indignation about my right to die led to me receiving a ticket to a psychiatric hospital.
When you first arrive for check in one of the first things they do is give you a physical medical, it was at that moment that a hidden truth was discovered: I hadn’t eaten in quite some time. I had fallen from a size 16 to a size 6 and the jutting ribs and sagging skin made alarm bells ring in the on call doctor’s head. It was from that moment on that the ins and outs of my body became public property. Scale reading after painful scale reading was meticulously recorded by the medical staff and weekly review meetings centred on whether they had convinced me to eat yet.
Every day a menu card was brought to me in my room and every day I would have to explain to another member of my medical team that “I don’t eat”. There is a painting by Max Ernst called Europe After the Rain, in it sits dozens of references to eyeballs watching the painter, signifying the paranoia during WWII. This painting perfectly exemplified the sensation of being watched which I experienced. In reality, my medical team were solely invested in keeping me alive but in the mind set I inhabited for that time they were the enemy who sought my destruction. All food was poison to me, a rotten carcass with detrivores spilling out of its remains.
Nurses, doctors were only seen on a weekly basis, tried to talk me out of my depression and desire to end my life. I was presented with classes in clay making, presented with dogs to pat, given sedating medications on my request, and even sent on long-spiralling guilt trips about my responsibilities to my children. Alas nothing would shift my desire to end my life. I was placed upon a course of drugs which I flouted by refusing some medications and, at other times, sneaking large amounts of laxative into my bedroom. My thirst for self-extinction was unquenchable.
I had no desire to do anything, and death occupied most of my thoughts. Indeed, the feeling of disconnection caused by starvation gave me cause for hope. No one could connect with me, because I inhabited a different plane: they were in the land of the living whilst I was somewhere nearer to death. Eventually the only thing which, ironically, sent me from my self-destructive course was the death of one of the most important people of my life. Though her death didn’t make me eat, it did stop me from being in a place of continual overdose. A desire to protect those I loved somehow caused a paradigm shift that I doubt I will ever truly understand.
When I think back to this time and compare it with my feelings about feminism the latter seems entirely ridiculous. How can something so desperate and soul destroying be used as a synonym for what equates to upsetting? That said, feminism does, quite literally depress me, specifically because of the way in which it makes women with mental illness and disabilities feel alienated and erased. The repeated instances of feminists using lazy and bungled ableist language need to end. Having a disability is already isolating, and presents women with more complex oppressions, feminists need to make a conscious effort to be more aware of these issues and seek to support their sisters. Perhaps the question of whether feminism is depressing wasn’t so silly after all.
There always has been one unsolvable problem for any follower of a sports franchise. Bad coaches can get fired. If a player — say a talented, if unmanageable young left-handed pitcher — becomes too much of a headache in the clubhouse, with his gluttony and his drunkenness and his predilection for being discovered in brothels as dawn breaks on game day, your team can release him, trade him, or sell him for big money that it allegedly can use to mount a stage musical. I mean, really — no matter how good the player — as fans, you’ll be relieved. After all, what possible long-term damage could unloading that clubhouse cancer really cause?
But there is one problem that never can be solved. This is because what is a problem for you might not be a problem for the good old boy network of plutocrats that actually own the games into which you pour your devotion and your money. And, even if you decide to stop spending the latter to satisfy the former, it may not really matter. The odds are that, through the largesse of television and the legerdemain of modern accounting, you can’t solve it that way, either. There never has been anything you can do about a bad owner. That one is out of your hands.
Which is where we find ourselves today in the case of Donald Sterling, the alleged racist slumlord owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, who was an alleged racist slumlord, and a confirmed terrible owner, for three decades before audio surfaced of a conversation that was reportedly between him and a woman named V. Stiviano, who appears to have James O’Keefe’d him. (Is there more? Of course there is.)
The league is investigating the audio, but by now, half the world has already weighed in, including the coach of his team, the commissioner of the National Basketball Association, LeBron James, and the president of the United States. All of them agree — as does any advanced carbon-based life form — that if the recording is authentic, the comments show that Sterling is undeniably racist, undeniably revolting, and undeniably rooted in the mind of a man who would have to yield his moral pride of place to algae. There have been a number of calls for the league to strip Sterling of his franchise. This, I confess, makes me more than a little nervous. Taking someone’s assets because of what they think and say, no matter how grotesque it is, sets off all kinds of alarm bells in my First Amendment conscience. The league certainly is within its rights to suspend him, for as long as it wants to suspend him. There were also calls for the Clippers players to make some kind of public statement. Before Sunday’s Game 4 against the Golden State Warriors, they did just that, when they removed their shooting shirts at center court and turned their red warm-ups inside out.
The point is that all of what we’ve discovered about Donald Sterling over the past three days has been an open secret for as long as he’s owned the Clippers. He has a track record as a conspicuous bag of dirt, dating back at least to 1996, when he was sued by a former employee for sexual harassment, and that was only the first of several legal battles. He’s been sued at least twice for housing discrimination. He was sued by Elgin Baylor for employment discrimination, during which Baylor claimed that Sterling said he wanted “poor black boys from the South” playing for a “white head coach,” an allegation that seems to be even more believable today, given what’s emerged over the weekend.
The audio tape of Sterling’s alleged comments comes at a time when the country is also riveted by the sociological musings of Cliven Bundy. With much of the chattering class being shocked — shocked! — that there is racism going on here, here comes Donald Sterling with some thoughts of his own. Not only is he an incompetent public bigot, he has godawful timing.
That said, let us look beyond recent events and point out that the NBA has tolerated this guy for years, despite the fact that, even if he had been Francis of Assisi, he still has been the worst owner in the modern history of professional sports. Nobody else is close. Since 1981, when he bought the team, Sterling’s Clippers have compiled not merely the worst winning percentage in the NBA, but the worst winning percentage in all four major American sports, and that includes several teams that didn’t even exist when Sterling first graced the Association with his presence. It allowed him to run this franchise into the ground a number of times. It allowed him to hang Baylor, one of the league’s founding superstars, out to dry. And it allowed him to reap the benefits now that his team is the only one in Los Angeles that is in the NBA playoffs.
In fact, not only can it be said that the NBA tolerated this clown, it can be argued that the league actively empowered him. After all, the sainted David Stern was a lot harder on rap music and on clothing than he ever was on Sterling.
“The dress code is, to me, a continuation of things,” Stern told the Boston Globe in 2005. “It’s a small thing that contributes to a sense of professionalism.”
By the way, not long after Stern said this, the Department of Justice was preparing to sue Sterling in federal court for refusing to rent to minority tenants. But that, of course, had nothing to do with the NBA’s “sense of professionalism.” Stern also intervened to scuttle the trade of Chris Paul to the Lakers, which resulted in Paul winding up in Sterling’s employ so that, this weekend, as president of the National Basketball Players Association, Paul would find himself denouncing racist prattle that allegedly came from the guy who signs his checks. Donald Sterling is the Caliban of the NBA’s golden age, and the league has known it for decades, and has done precious little about it. And that is why a bad owner is the worst thing that can happen to a fan.
The closest parallel is said to be the case of Marge Schott, the extraordinary loon who once owned the Cincinnati Reds. Schott was notoriously cheap, but her real problems came in 1992, when her employees claimed she referred to two of her best players as “million-dollar n—–s,” that she talked about “sneaky goddamn Jews,” and that she kept some Nazi memorabilia around the house. That November, in an attempt to explain herself, Schott said she had been kidding about her African American players. Four years later, after having been suspended once, she opined that Adolf Hitler had had some good ideas at the beginning, but had gone too far. She also mocked Asian Americans, and she called players who wore earrings “fruits.” If diversity training had a chronic ward, Marge Schott would have been an inmate for life. Eventually, with her limited partners threatening an uprising, she sold her majority share in the team.
Schott was far from the only racist who ever owned a team. Calvin Griffith moved the Washington Senators all the way to Minneapolis in search of a white fan base. George Marshall, the original owner of the Washington Redskins, was an outright bigot, and Daniel Snyder, the team’s current owner, clinging as he is to a racist nickname, must be spending every morning these days lighting candles beneath Sterling’s picture, out of gratitude for grabbing the spotlight away from him.
But the person who can best be said to be Sterling’s most direct ancestor in bad ownership is a person nearly forgotten except by those who remember the days when the NBA was one small step from the ash heap of history. His name was Ted Stepien, and he owned the Cleveland Cavaliers. For almost 20 years, the mere mention of his name was enough to give any NBA owner a severe case of the vapors. He is the person whom NBA owners use to scare their children into staying in bed at night. Go to sleep, or Ted Stepien will trade you to Milwaukee for a pound of Usinger’s sausage and half a case of Blatz.
The parallels are almost cosmic. A guy who got rich in the advertising game, Stepien bought the Cavs in 1980 and immediately went to work bungling his way into history. He fired a play-by-play guy for being critical. He moved his team’s games from one radio station to another because he didn’t like how a talk-show host criticized him. He hired Bill Musselman not once, but twice. In the 1981-82 season, he fired three coaches and hired four. Going for instant gratification, he squandered the high draft picks that were a result of his terrible ownership, including one that became James Worthy. In fact, Stepien’s personnel moves were so preposterous that the NBA changed its rules to make it nearly impossible for a team to trade first-round draft picks in consecutive years. The Stepien Rule is his lasting contribution to the league’s history.
Not only was Stepien’s record as an owner the equal of Sterling’s, but, as Cliven Bundy put it, Stepien also had a “thought” about race that he was more than happy to share. At one point, Stepien argued that the NBA should always make sure that 50 percent of its players were white, because white people preferred to watch white people play. To be fair to history, it was Stern, then the league’s general counsel, who finessed the deal through which Stepien sold the Cavaliers to the Gund brothers. But that was a long time ago, and why the league hasn’t been more forceful about prying the Clippers loose from Sterling is a question that new commissioner Adam Silver thus far has been unable or unwilling to answer.
The NBA has a lot to answer for in the career of Donald Sterling. I like what the Clippers did Sunday. It was a statement. I just hope the league doesn’t fine them for violating the dress code. That, after all, is serious business.
More on Donald Sterling:
You know for a fact that no one knows Biryani like you do. No one loves biryani like you do. No one misses biryani like you do.
You don’t get anything in your neighbourhood that even remotely resembles biryani. Here in Kolkata, when you were in the mood for some subtlety in your Biryani you’d walk down to Aminia. For a full bodied taste, you’d stroll down to Aliya/ Shiraz/ Arsalan. For a plate of sumputous lip smacking biryani in general, with a large chunk of aaloo and one whole dim seddho (boiled egg) you used to step out of that car/ bus/ auto/ taxi anywhere in Kolkata. And just in case you were one of those adventurous ones, you walked frequently down that dingy lane off CIT road Puddopukur for the heavenly beef biryani at Qayum’s. You have never tasted better Biryani. Anywhere. In the World.
Where you drowned your sorrows. Where you made friends. Where you graduated out of childhood. You grieved over lost love/ first break up over pints of beer or pegs of rum or whatever your choice of poison was. You passionately debated Nihilism and Existentialism in the musty corridor of the Olypub, cigarette in hand, after having actively helped the well done beef steak to its rightful destination (to your tummy that is).
You’re not decided whether he is the hero or the villain of the Kolkata roads. Not yet. He might have flatly refused to take you to the most convenient of locations. He might have dropped you right at your doorstep at 4 AM when you were too drunk from that binge session at Park Street to give him directions (he remembers you from the last ride you took in his cab). He has argued with you over topics ranging from the fare chart, politics, sports to the sanskaars of the present generation. He was the silent witness of your first drag of smoke and watchful guard during that first quick kiss.
It’s not Puchka. It’s Phuchka. That’s what you have tried to explain in vain to your colleagues and friends there. This deep fried thin skinned hollow flourball with a filling of mashed potato with spices, dipped in tamarind water is a foodie’s delight and a dietician’s nightmare. They do not mash the potato like they do it here in Kolkata. The flour is not as crisp with memories and the water is not as tangy with love.
If you are a boy, 15th August was more about that day long football tournament than anything else. Or that annual school football match. You woke up sharp at six to rush to the maidan for your weekly muddy joust of football. Football was your first love.
The Norwesters they call it. But you always thought that the English word lacked the punch for once. Kaalboishakhi in all its glory is what made you aware of all the emotions that homo sapiens are capable of experiencing. And that smell of the moist earth. That always kind of meant that the final exams were over. Those Kaalboishakhi evenings made you wonder what if you were a kite or what if you could fly, directionless, like that yellow leaf. Those were evenings that made you rhyme your first verse.
The tea stall. It was always less about the tea and more about the adda. The clay bhaanr that carefully kept the searing heat from travelling to your fingertips while you sipped the boiling hot tea. The kaku with the sokaler kagoj. Or the Sandho Ajkal. The transistor radio blaring out live commentaries of the Mohunbagan-East Bengal football match or the cricket world cup.
The Geriatric Jethu
The para’r jethu, (who claims to have accomplished wondrous deeds when his hair was still black and he was a foot and a half taller). He lectured you on everything from bankimchandra to bishnu puran. He’s the Windows 98 version of Wikipedia. If you were a girl, he has cast disapproving glances at you when you tried that skirt out for the first time. If you were a boy, he probably has advised you to drive the ball with your head down and steady.
When the biological clock of Kolkata worked upside down. When the city stayed awake throughout the night, keeping you company, while you pandal hopped first with parents and then with friends. And Maddox Square was its very own DOS version of facebook, where the classmate from school/ college suddenly looked hot/ handsome.
Your Home. Where you reached late, night after night. Where they cared whether you ate before sleeping. Your mom and the way she blew warm air on her aanchol to give you a quick warm compress every time you poked your eye. Your dad and all those times when he got you that ice cream or that comic book or that toy you so wanted or scolded you and didn’t. Your brother who played pranks on you or was your partner in crime. Dadu or Dida for the umpteen times they saved your ass. For that chhad or that one small window that let the sky dance on your maths notebooks on those pleasant afternoons.
The issue of net neutrality is back in the news again, thanks to some proposed rule changes by the Federal Communications Commission, changes that the regulator says are aimed at protecting a “free and open internet.” A chorus of critics, however, say the commission is trying to eat its cake and have it too — by pretending to create rules that will protect net-neutrality, while actually implementing what amounts to a pay-to-play version of the internet, one that favors large incumbents.
It’s a complicated topic, and one that is prone to a certain amount of hysteria and hyperbole. So what follows is a breakdown of what you need to know, and what some legal experts, technology insiders and advocacy groups are saying about it:
The regulator’s ability to monitor and punish breaches of net neutrality was thrown into limbo by a court ruling in January, which said that the commission didn’t have the authority to crack down on certain kinds of behavior because it hadn’t defined cable networks as “common carriers,” the way phone networks are. Since that ruling, the FCC has been trying to find a way to repair those abilities.
The commission has said that it remains committed to upholding the principles of net neutrality, and that under the new rules “behavior harmful to consumers or competition by limiting the openness of the Internet will not be permitted,” but others have a less charitable view of what it is up to, and say it is betraying the promises President Obama made to uphold net neutrality.
According to a report in the Wall Street Journal on Thursday, among the changes that the FCC is considering are rules that would permit networks and carriers to create “fast lanes,” in which certain content providers who pay for the privilege are given preferential treatment. This, many critics argue — including our own Stacey Higginbotham — would be a direct violation of the principle of net neutrality that the FCC is supposed to be upholding.
In a post at the New Yorker site, Tim Wu — the Columbia Law School professor who is credited with inventing the term “net neutrality” — said that the kinds of loopholes the FCC appears to be considering are exactly what cable providers have wanted for a decade or more: namely, the right to speed up or slow down certain kinds of traffic. But the outcome could be disastrous, he says:
“This is what one might call a net-discrimination rule, and, if enacted, it will profoundly change the Internet as a platform for free speech and small-scale innovation. It threatens to make the Internet just like everything else in American society: unequal in a way that deeply threatens our long-term prosperity.”
Veteran technology writer Dan Gillmor says that the FCC is trying to “axe murder” net neutrality, and that while pretending to fix the problem it is “actually letting it get worse, by providing a so-called ‘fast lane’ for carriers to hike fees on sites trying to reach customers like you and me.” Gillmor called the FCC’s moves “a potentially tragic turning point in American politics.” Instapaper creator Marco Arment said:
“This is not building anything new — it’s discriminating and restricting what we already have. This is not making anything faster — it’s allowing ISPs to selectively slow down traffic that they don’t strategically or financially benefit from, and only permit traffic from their partners to run at the speeds that everything runs at today.”
In the WSJ story, BitTorrent CEO Eric Klinker says that “For technologists and entrepreneurs alike this is a worst-case scenario. Creating a fast lane for those that can afford it is by its very definition discrimination.”
In response to the stories in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler published a statement that said the reports about the regulator’s plans were filled with “misinformation.” Wheeler said that under the new rules, the commission would continue to ensure that ISPs and networks “do not act in a commercially unreasonable manner to harm the Internet, including favoring the traffic from an affiliated entity.”
For at least some critics of the commission’s approach, this statement still leaves holes you could drive a fleet of cable trucks through — including the definition of what is “commercially unreasonable,” and the question of whether the regulator will care if a network or provider favors certain kinds of traffic, provided that traffic doesn’t come from an “affiliated entity.” As Stacey put it, the FCC might not want to kill net neutrality, but it might end up doing so anyway.
“Whether or not you think this is a good idea, inserting any sort of commercial relationship into delivering last mile web content – outside of what the end-consumer pays the ISP — is not network neutrality. So let’s stop calling it that. The FCC should man up and say exactly what it is doing here: It is implementing a double-sided market for the internet that could allow businesses to enter into commercial relationships with ISPs — who do not operate in a competitive market in the U.S. — for faster delivery of their content”
Net neutrality is a principle which states that networks should not discriminate when it comes to the content that flows through their pipes — that they should not give certain kinds of content or certain providers preferential treatment in return for money. In other words, one bit should be treated like any other bit. As former Wired writer Ryan Singel put it in explanatory piece at Medium:
“Net Neutrality is the simple concept that the company that provides you internet access on your phone and at your house should be a utility — like a phone company. It should deliver you the information you ask for at the speed you are promised without playing favorites or blocking or degrading services.”
Technology-industry advocates and open web supporters argue that if networks start to charge content providers for special treatment, then only those who can afford to pay these extra charges will be able to reach the end user. That would be fine for existing content companies, but could disadvantage smaller competitors and thus lead to a decline in internet-related innovation. As Stacey says:
“The idea that we would let ISPs make decisions that could lead to ISPs setting commercial terms that would impose taxes on startups and existing companies all without ensuring any sort of lowered price for consumers or network upgrades from the ISPs, is ridiculous. Broadband networks are not a public utility, but they are the foundation for our economy.”
One recent example of a deal that caused a lot of consternation among net neutrality advocates is the one that Netflix cut with Comcast, which gave Netflix preferential access to Comcast’s customers. Although this deal is actually more about what the industry calls “peering arrangements” than it is about true net neutrality, it brings up many of the same issues around discriminatory access to content. In a statement it posted on its website Thursday, Netflix said:
“In sum, Comcast is not charging Netflix for transit service. It is charging Netflix for access to its subscribers. Comcast also charges its subscribers for access to Internet content providers like Netflix. In this way, Comcast is double dipping by getting both its subscribers and Internet content providers to pay for access to each other.”
In a response, Comcast suggested that Netflix’s argument was disingenuous, and that the content company itself chose to make the deal with Comcast willingly in order to “improve its business model.” The cable network said that it remains committed to an open internet, and supports “appropriate FCC rules” to ensure consumers’ access to the internet is protected “in a legally enforceable way.”
Net neutrality advocates argue that the simplest and most effective route for the regulator to take is to declare unilaterally that cable networks like Comcast are “common carriers” in the same way that phone networks are, a door that the January court decision left open to it. Under that system, networks would be more like utilities than anything else — dedicated to carrying content without discriminating between different types. As Ryan Singel puts it:
“The FCC has a very simple way to create simple, fair and enforceable rules to protect innovation, free speech and commerce. It lacks the courage and (perhaps) political capital to re-grant itself this power. Lacking this power, [it] is relying on a small loophole given to it by the courts [and] that loophole requires the FCC to allow Verizon, Comcast and AT&T to create slow and fast lanes. The FCC wants to call this ‘net neutrality.’ It’s nothing of the sort and the proposal needs to be killed. It’s a bargain that will kill innovation on the net.”
Some critics of this kind of move, including Andreessen Horowitz founder Marc Andreessen, have argued that turning cable networks into utilities could make them less likely to devote the kind of resources to improving the internet, and that this kind of investment is required if we are to have the kind of broadband innovation America needs to support its economic future.
The FCC’s proposed changes will be opened up for comment and then voted on, and then the regulator will enshrine some or all of them in legislation — and hope that what it has implemented doesn’t run afoul of the law, the way the previous version did. As Stacey describes it:
“The agency’s hope is to have new rules in place by the end of this year, and it plans to release a public document called a Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) outlining its thinking and asking questions about the new rules. It plans to release this NPRM in three weeks at its May 15 open meeting. Once the documents are released, the public will have a chance to comment on them.”
In the meantime, lobby groups dedicated to the open internet and net neutrality will be mounting a campaign aimed at convincing legislators that they need to take action to ensure that net neutrality remains in force. Craig Aaron of the non-profit advocacy group Free Press said in a post that such pay-for-priority schemes “would be a disaster for startups, nonprofits, independent content creators and everyday Internet users who wouldn’t be able to pay these unnecessary tolls. And the stifling of future competitors and disruptive innovators would be a fringe benefit for the big ISPs as they line their pockets.”
Todd O’Boyle of Common Cause’s Media and Democracy Reform Initiative, told the New York Times that “If it goes forward, this capitulation will represent Washington at its worst. Americans were promised, and deserve, an Internet that is free of toll roads, fast lanes and censorship — corporate or governmental.” The Electronic Frontier Foundation said that a pay-to-play model would be “profoundly dangerous for competition. New innovators often cannot afford to pay to reach consumers at the same speeds as well-established web companies [and] that means ISPs could effectively become gatekeepers to their subscribers.”
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Thinkstock/ Chuyu