Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Press releases: Crimes and hoaxes

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Portlanders collectively sucked in their breath with fear when the story broke last Tuesday morning on Facebook and the local news media: a 20-something woman had reported to police that she had been attacked and sexually assaulted by a group of men while she was walking on Baxter Boulevard at 9:30 pm the night before.

The story, as told by the police to the press, was scary: the woman was followed by five men, who forced her to the ground, held her down, and assaulted her until a passing motorist yelled and scared the assailants off. After the bizarre one-punch killing of Eric Benson in Monument Square in May, it seemed like random horrific violence might really have come to Portland after all.

Tuesday afternoon, Portland Police Chief James Craig held a press conference near the suspected site of the attack, asking anyone who had seen or heard anything to come forward to help with the investigation. But less than an hour later, Craig was telling the media that the woman had made up the whole story and was herself being charged with the crime of filing a false report.

The city's mood went from terrified to bewildered. Why would someone make up a report like that? (The best, though still decidedly murky, answer on offer so far is that the woman had some kind of fight with her partner.) And then, how could someone have snookered the police and the media so thoroughly? The media and police have long had to deal with hoaxers and their ilk — but those isolated incidents are magnified with the power and speed of online social networking. So while both parties rushed to judgement — and will probably do so again — the audience was a lot bigger for the entire debacle than might have otherwise been the case.

It is sad but true that most assaults, even rapes and murders, in Portland and elsewhere are not random violence involving a victim and aggressor who have never met, but rather between people who know or are even related to each other. An attack may be horrific and tragic, but it rarely means there is a serial assailant on the loose. The incident is newsworthy, but less urgent, giving the police and the media a little bit of time to assemble facts and issue a more complete report.

But when information comes in that suggests that a group of unknown marauders is out attacking unknown victims, the police and the press rightfully get alarmed, and want to warn the public as quickly as possible — in hopes of preventing anyone else getting hurt for lack of timely warnings.

That urgency, though, means fact-checking time is limited. Even more than usual, the media are stenographers for officialdom — whatever the police say is broadcast, published, and posted online. And even more than usual, the police give an incomplete version of events — what they say is utterly dependent on a single person's anguished report.

This scramble happens a second time when the story is found to be a hoax. Police and the media rush to retract their earlier warnings, eager to reassure people that no, in fact, there is not a mob out attacking women, but rather a disturbed woman telling stories for unexplained reasons.

And then the rest of the information comes out — the police had known the woman was reluctant to go to the hospital to allow medical staff to collect DNA samples as potential evidence. And wait — isn't that specific stretch of the boulevard, between Hannaford and the road to North Deering, fairly well-traveled even after dark?

Those red flags might have caused a cop — or a reporter — to pause and ask more questions, but not in that rushed situation. Those inquiries came later, in the follow-up investigation and reporting. But just as Craig says he'll respond the same way to similar reports in the future, it's just as likely that the media will too.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Music Seen: Chris Teret + Man Forever + Guitar Cloud at SPACE Gallery, July 17

Published in the Portland Phoenix

When Kid Millions (Oneida) brought his new project, Man Forever, to SPACE Gallery, it was more than an opportunity to see a friend I have long known as a drummer with unusual intensity and stamina. It was a chance to see four more drummers like him — one even a local standout — at the same time, pouring sound and sweat in equal volumes into the cavernous SPACE.

Opener Chris Teret knew Kid from the past too — Kid had produced Old Baby, the 2008 Brah Records release by the band Company, of which Teret is part. He began with a few songs in his haunting voice, standing stock still, moving so economically it was almost as if the guitar itself birthed the notes and the vocals came from out of thin air.

But then, starting suddenly with a unanimous thunderous roll on snares, toms, kickdrums, and cymbals, Kid, Brian Chase (Yeah Yeah Yeahs), Shahin Motia (Ex Models, Oneida), Andrew Barker (Gold Sparkle Band), and local Andrew Barron (Cult Maze, Domino Harvey) put out a physically solid, powerful roar that Just. Kept. Going.

It was a nonstop half-hour of continuous pounding, a whirlwind of arms, legs, heads, and the occasional flying drumstick. The coordinated improvisation produced rumbles and resonance that shifted from subway-train-approaching to calving-iceberg (due not only to the performers' physical prowess, but also to Chase's pre-show efforts, tuning the drums precisely to B or F-sharp). One particularly furious collective flurry looked like a group seizure but sounded like the Earth was coming apart around us.

Bassist Richard Hoffman (Sightings) joined in after a time, and later gave the drum corps a break with a screeching, wailing solo that blistered whatever eardrums were left in the spare but rapt audience.

After the Man Forever inundation came Guitar Cloud, another planned-improv endeavor, with more than a dozen guitarists jamming together in a collective drone that broke apart into themes, anthems, and solos — sometimes soft, other times overwhelmingly loud, and always dancing on the edge between control and madness.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Judging By Their Covers Dept.: Guides for 'Complete Idiots'

Published in the Portland Phoenix

If you want more proof of the degeneracy of modern American society, look no farther than the series of books labeled The Complete Idiot's Guide To. Published by Alpha Books, they appear to be aimed at those people whose intellects are one step below the customers of Wiley Publishing's ... For Dummies series.

And what do these books help the average "Complete Idiot" do? All sorts of things — raise goats, understand Facebook, and even learn Latin (perhaps targeting those who, like former vice-president Dan Quayle, think people still speak that language).

There are several volumes, though, that are disturbing in nature, and might cross the line into realms we prefer not be trod by someone who carries around a book identifying them in large orange type as a "Complete Idiot."

Some of these books could make mini-series of their own. Start, for example, with the eye-opening Sex for Dummies book, and then move on to The Complete Idiot's Guide to Pregnancy and Childbirth. That should fill the gap before you need to buy the CI's Guides to Raising Boys or Raising Girls. A few years later, pick up the latest edition of Open Nesting, which has, according to its cover line, "all you need to know about re-opening your home to your adult children." But when they move in, give your boomerang kids the CI's Guide to Self-Sufficient Living. Maybe they'll take the hint.

And then there are the books that we really wish they hadn't published. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Getting Government Jobs, for example. Perhaps we could suggest a companion volume: The Complete Idiot's Guide to Preventing Idiots from Getting Government Jobs.

Most disturbing, though, is The Complete Idiot's Guide to the ASVAB. This refers to the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, the standardized test administered to all new members of the military to help determine what job they should do. After Abu Ghraib and General Stanley McChrystal's bizarre behavior in Afghanistan, do we really need this book?

Here are some other real highlights from the latest catalogue, with our suggested tips for each volume:
THE MUSIC BUSINESS If you don't work for the RIAA, please give this book to someone who does.
THE FINANCIAL CRISIS If you don't work for Goldman Sachs or the Federal Reserve, please give this book to someone who does.
CASHING IN ON YOUR INVENTIONS Idiots rarely invent things that actually work. Try it again, just to be sure. But first, check your life-insurance policy!
VENTRILOQUISM Please, try not to speak for others, but rather let others speak for you.
RECOVERING FROM IDENTITY THEFT Now's your chance! Steal someone else's identity and stop being an idiot!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Press Releases: Wrong, Right

Published in the Portland Phoenix

You probably missed the kerfuffle over the rules governing media access to particular areas of this weekend's Nateva Music and Camping Festival, and over what (if any) rights news photographers would have to the images they made during the multi-day event. But it's an important lesson in how lawyers try to control media access, and the reversal — and happy transparency — that can develop when actual company leaders retake the reins from the attorneys.

The furor began with an awkwardly worded e-mail on June 22, from Elevate Communications, a Boston-based public-relations firm handling various tasks relating to the festival, including coordinating attendance by members of the media. The e-mail laid out the conditions under which accredited photographers would be allowed to take and use photos.

The conditions included a few unsurprising items, like banning flash photography during band performances and stating that bands would not pay the photographers for taking photos during the show.

But they went much, much farther, making several demands that litigation-wary lawyers are increasingly placing before photographers: banning photographers from certain areas of the event, banning photos of any illegal behavior (like drug use and nudity — as if participants themselves weren't going to post them on Facebook), claiming total ownership of the images made by professional media photographers (while simultaneously forcing the photographers to accept all liability if anyone objected to the photos' content), and demanding the right to destroy photographers' physical property (digital-camera memory cards) if festival organizers disliked what a photographer was doing.

This type of move is called a "rights grab" in the news business, and is becoming "standard operating procedure" for many organizers, according to Mark Loundy, a professional photographer who tracks the terms in photographers' contracts for the National Press Photographers Association (of which I am a member).

Loundy says that while the spread of rights grabs is "like a bad case of the flu," photographers are taking up opposition. "There seems to be a higher level of awareness that these things aren't in the interest of our profession," he says, though noting that many event organizers limit recourse by presenting rights-grab requirements at the time of the photo shoot, and ensuring that any person who could change the agreement is unreachable at that moment. (Some photographers, he says, leave without shooting; others sign "Mickey Mouse" or some other fake name, while most just sign their own names and carry on.)

And yet Loundy has "never heard of any of these entities ever trying to exercise their rights" under these agreements. So lawyers demand all sorts of rights and indemnification, but never use any of them. Still, it is rare for an event organizer to say "never mind" and get rid of any requirements or limits on photographers.

But that is exactly what happened in the Nateva case. Photographers objected, and when festival creator and organizer Frank Chandler got wind of the move by his PR firm, he acted swiftly. The following morning, he and the PR firm held an "emergency meeting," and that afternoon issued an apology letter from Chandler himself to all media and prospective photographers. That letter's tone was very different from the previous day's legalese-filled e-mail: "Unless you have spent some years as a member of the Cuban or North Korean press corps, I expect that you found these 'rules' nothing short of insulting," Chandler wrote.

Noting that just about everyone has a camera in their pocket at all times these days, he dismissed the idea that any accredited photographers would need to sign any sort of form, opened the festival and its entire grounds to media access, and specified that "You own all the pictures that you take and what you do with them is your business."

Good for Chandler for doing the right thing, and doing it decisively.