Friday, October 25, 2002
E-mail from Richmond:
The sniper has been caught, it appears. A 42-year-old disenchanted (and
"other than honorably" discharged) Gulf War army veteran and a strange
accomplice - a 17-year-old nobody, not his son - are under arrest. They were
found sleeping at a rest area in Frederic, Maryland. There are many ties of
evidence to these two - all signs point to their guilt ... including the
seizure of a .223 rifle from a trap-door compartment in their vehicle - a
blue 1990 Chevrolet Caprice with Jersey plates. They also found a scope and a
The two men are black, the younger Jamaican - which explains the broken
English. Very unusual for the perpetrator to be black - but apparently, this
John Allen Williams (42) changed his name to John Muhammed a while ago ... an
Islamic convert, sympathizing with the 9/11 attackers, condemning the
government for using soldiers as pawns in the Gulf War. He had
anti-government, anti-American sentiments - serving as a motive.
Maryland, where they'll likely be tried initially, currently has a moratorium
on the death penalty ... but there is a heated race for governor there, and
the political overtones of the incumbent (a democrat) opposing the death
penalty in this case would be severe. Look for the moratorium to be lifted,
and for the elder Muhammad to receive several death sentences. They will
likely plea bargain the younger Jamaican (John Lee Malvo) to testify against
Muhammad and insure conviction - the 17-year-old is technically a juvenile
... but there will be little resistance to trying him as an adult if he is
found to be the trigger man. If so, look for a life sentence for Malvo. They
are still determining which was the shooter and which was the driver ... my
guess is, with his military background, Muhammad was the shooter and Malvo
was the driver.
These are the two guys. There's no doubt in my mind. But like I said - as
soon as they released the information on the vehicle - blue Caprice with
Jersey plates NDA-21Z - within 45 MINUTES ... a civilian called in with the
tip that would seal the deal. A man drove past the Muhammad's car at the
Maryland rest area, and having heard the media coverage just prior -
immediately called police. A swat team arrived immediately, and with the
suspects sleeping ... they had 90 minutes to surround and box in the vehicle
before apprehending the two men without incident.
Downfall of the morons? Inexplicably, after such shrewd and meticulous
management through before, they provided a) a stolen credit card number,
which was linked to an account Jamaica AND could be traced to the point of
theft, b) information about a previous murder they 'got away with' in
Montgomery, Alabama, c) a handwritten note in broken English, which tipped
the police further, d) broken English on phone messages called into the tip
hotline. They clearly were not as smart as everyone, including myself,
thought. Just incredibly lucky. Incredbily ...
... in fact, it is now known that the police missed them by just 5 minutes -
right here in Richmond. When those poor hispanic aliens were jumped at the
Exxon station ... eerily, it appears, Muhammad and Malvo were ACROSS THE
STREET - staying at the Econo Lodge on the corner of Broad and Parham (about
10 miles from my house, if that). A communication breakdown between the task
force and Richmond-area police.
It may come out that the plan was this - Muhammad shoots from - or near - the
Caprice in a wooded area. Malvo, driving the Caprice, immediately drives with
Muhammad to a nearby hotel - where they were already checked in. They stay
put in the hotel room, and click on CNN to watch the news coverage ... while
roadblocks and SWAT teams shut down all major roads within minutes.
Getting the killers within a month means no lower than a "B" grade for
Moose - but appealing to the public ... NOT the shooter ... proved to be the
right move. Getting angry at the media, and withholding information from the
public, was counterproductive - without a doubt.
The New York Times
August 11, 2002, Sunday, Late Edition - Final
SECTION: Section 3; Page 4; Column 1; Money and Business/Financial Desk
LENGTH: 1951 words
White-Collar Criminal? Pack Lightly for Prison
BYLINE: By RUSS MITCHELL
ASSUME you are a major corporate executive accused of a securities fraud that has caused hundreds of millions of dollars of investor losses. Maybe you'll be acquitted. But what if you're convicted? How long will your sentence last? Where will you serve the time? And will there be tennis?
An entire nation of stockholders, it seems, is calling for white-collar blood. Congress has enacted legislation calling for doubled maximum sentences. President Bush is threatening "hard time." Last week, Samuel D. Waksal, the former chief executive of ImClone Systems, was indicted on multiple charges including bank fraud -- which alone could carry a 30-year sentence. On the day Worldcom's former chief financial officer, Scott D. Sullivan, was handcuffed and arrested, Attorney General John Ashcroft talked about sending him away for 65 years. Hyperbole? Yes. But so is the widespread notion that major-league white-collar convicts don't face heavy prison time, according to interviews with prominent felons, lawyers and Justice Department officials.
On the contrary, nonviolent criminals convicted of financial felonies can face years or even decades in prison, especially since November 2001, when the United States Sentencing Commission drastically increased sentences for white-collar crime, with special emphasis on frauds involving many millions of dollars.
Under the older sentencing guidelines, a first-time, nonviolent offender who committed a fraud that caused 50 or more people to lose $100 million or more faced a prison sentence of 5 years to 6.5 years in a federal institution. Under the mathematical formula used by the sentencing commission in the 2001 guidelines, the same individual faces a minimum of 19.5 years and a maximum of 24.5 years. Michael R. Milken, the financier sentenced to 10 years for securities fraud in 1990, for example, could easily have received at least double that term under the 2001 guidelines. (His sentence was later reduced, and he served 22 months. Since then, federal parole has been abolished, and the best an inmate can hope for is a 15 percent reduction for good behavior.)
Ten years is a critical threshold; convicts sentenced to more than 10 years are placed in a prison behind fences and razor wire. Less than 10, and you've got a good chance of residing at a prison camp, often fenceless, for inmates with low risk for escape or violence regardless of their crime.
Say you've negotiated a deal with the prosecution, pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and been sentenced to five years in prison. The Bureau of Prisons has reviewed your nonviolent history, and you've qualified for camp. The bureau will try to locate you within 500 miles of your family, but makes no promises.
The idea that white-collar convicts angle for prisons where they can be among their own kind -- at Allenwood, Pa., say, or Lompoc, Calif. -- is a myth. For one thing, those serving time for white-collar crimes number only about 1,000 of the federal system's 160,000 inmates, or less than 1 percent. So you may be surprised to find yourself surrounded by drug dealers, robbers and check kiters. In any event, most prisoners try to land themselves where their visitors won't have to travel far.
You can request a particular camp, and sometimes you'll succeed, particularly if you have a good lawyer. You might want to be near your ailing mother, or be placed in a camp that serves special diets. You may be elderly or have special medical needs. A. Alfred Taubman, 78, the former chairman of Sotheby's, who began serving his one-year sentence less than two weeks ago for conspiring to fix prices, was placed at a prison medical center in Rochester, Minn., because of his age.
You'll also want court permission to self-surrender, which means having family or friends drive you to the prison and leave you at the gate. Otherwise, you'll ride what convicted felons call the Super Shuttle from hell: dressed in a jumpsuit, shackled, loaded on a van with up to 15 other prisoners, making stops at several prisons on a trip that could take hours or even days.
FORMER convicts say many illusions are broken the first day. "They expect either 'The Shawshank Redemption' or the myth of 'Club Fed'," said David Novak, who spent nine months at the prison camp in Eglin, Fla., in 1997 for purposely crashing his aircraft and filing a false insurance claim. ("I was an idiot," Mr. Novak said. "My value system was skewed.")
The term "camp" conjures images of horseback riding, swimming and weenie roasts. Mr. Novak said some Wall Street executives showed up thinking they could wear their own clothes, go home on weekends, play golf and bring their laptops -- all wrong. Almost no personal property is allowed, not even contact lenses. Inmates are allowed only one religious text, one pair of eyeglasses, dentures and dental bridge, one solid wedding ring with no stones, $20 in change for vending machines and cash or money orders for an inmate account.
An inmate can put unlimited funds in the account but is allowed to spend only $175 a month. Inmates can buy from a small selection of athletic shoes, toiletries and snacks in the commissary, but most money is consumed on telephone calls, which are monitored. All prisoners are required to work, in jobs that pay 11 cents an hour -- tax free.
Living conditions are tight. At most camps, bunk beds are crammed into small cubicles that hold two to six inmates. As a newcomer, you get the top bunk. That's no privilege: your bunkmate is unlikely to let you hang your legs over the side. Savvy inmates try to avoid a cubicle "on the waterfront," across from the bathrooms, where the flushing can be heard all night. Mr. Novak said his two-man room at Eglin was literally an office cubicle. Think of the cubicles occupied by the minions at your company, and imagine sharing one as living quarters with another person you may or may not like for the next several years.
If prison camps are not "Club Fed," neither are they arenas for violence. Newcomers often are terrified by the possibility of forced sex, but former inmates and prison officials agree that sexual assault in federal prisons is rare, even at the highest security levels, and practically unheard of in prison camps. Former inmates say that while officially forbidden, consensual sex is common and available.
Because incidents of violence are likely to land camp residents in tougher prisons, the level of violence is low at most camps, though fights do break out. A lawyer who served a year on insider trading charges, who asked not to be identified, said his camp's inmates included overflows from Wisconsin's state prison system. "We had a fair amount of gang problems with the Wisconsin people," he said. "They hit this one guy over the head with a baseball bat in the kitchen. They beat him up really bad."
Barry Minkow, who served 7.5 years after using his ZZZZ Best carpet cleaning company to defraud investors, predicted that some inmates would try to "shake down" any big-name Wall Streeter who ends up in prison, for money or favors. "They'll tell them, you shook down investors, I'm going to shake you down; you better pay me to protect you," he said. "It's repulsive, but it'll happen." Mr. Minkow's advice: just say no. Usually, he said, that works.
For any inmate, there is always the chance of ending up in "the hole," or solitary confinement. In some camps it's not so solitary. A former inmate at the Oxford, Wis., prison camp said its "hole" was hot and packed with prisoners in two-person cells, with bright lights on 24 hours a day and raucous noise all night long. A doctor sentenced to prison camp for Medicare fraud, who asked not to be identified, said exile to the hole often seemed arbitrary. "I was in with a well-known, prominent real estate executive whose wife was having a baby," he recalled. "He told the minister he was beside himself with the need to be with her for the delivery. He was turned in as a flight risk and sent to the hole." More typically, it's a fight that leads to the hole.
The risks of violence rise if you are transported to another prison or sent to testify at a trial. You'll be put in leg shackles, handcuffs and a "belly chain" to tie it together, and placed in a bus or a van with inmates who could come from any federal prison, including the highest-security ones. Inmates call these trips "diesel therapy."
Webster L. Hubbell, the associate attorney general in the first year of the Clinton administration who served an 18-month sentence, mostly at a camp in Cumberland, Md., for crimes related to the Whitewater scandal, said he flew "Con Air" to testify at trials in Arkansas. Mr. Hubbell said his fellow passengers, chained and shackled, flew five abreast to a hub in Oklahoma City. Before boarding another plane, he'd spend the night with a general prison population. "All of a sudden, you're with 500 people you don't know; some of them are serious offenders," he said. "You don't know what their hot buttons are."
The most common advice for staying out of trouble is universal: do your own time. In other words, mind your own business, avoid confrontation. Mr. Novak has assembled a list of basic rules of prison etiquette that he's published in a 200-page manual called "Downtime: A Guide to Federal Incarceration," for which he charges $39.95. The list includes: Don't rat. Don't cut in line. Don't ask. Don't touch. Pay your debts. Flush often. Don't whine.
According to Mr. Novak, many white-collar inmates tend to be whiners, holding a sense of entitlement, complaining about food, offensive language, the closeness of quarters and the educational level of the staff. "The other inmates have kids at home, wives who might be cheating on them, pending divorces, bankruptcy proceedings," said Mr. Novak. "Everyone has their own troubles, so shush up." Nobody, he said, wants to hear you are innocent.
THE most productive way to serve your time, former inmates say, is self-improvement. Yes, several camps located at former military bases have tennis courts, now called "multi-use surfaces" that accommodate volleyball and basketball. Many inmates end up in better physical shape than their office careers ever allowed. Education in the federal prison system is widely considered a joke by inmates, but most camps have a library and, of course, there is plenty of time for reading and writing. Inmates can receive books by mail, although storage space is limited. They can subscribe to magazines, except those deemed pornographic. Mr. Hubbell advises anyone serving time, particularly those with shorter sentences, to consider it a sabbatical. "Or look on it as a monastery, though without the Gregorian chants," he said.
Mr. Minkow spent four years of his sentence doing harder time at a medium-security prison. His stay was a lot tougher than camp. He recalled watching a fellow inmate get into a fight, which moved outside where his friend got slammed in the head with a 25 pound weight-lifting plate. "It pretty near tore his ear off," Mr. Minkow said. Still, he credits his term for helping to turn his life around. "In my case, the system worked," he said. Mr. Minkow is now a preacher at the Community Bible Church in San Diego, and a spokesman for the Fraud Discovery Institute, which evaluates corporate systems to identify areas vulnerable to fraud. On Aug. 2, Mr. Minkow had the final three years of his probation removed, with the support of the prosecutor who tried him. The judge encouraged Mr. Minkow to use his business talents to fight fraud.
Mr. Minkow's hard-won advice: "Don't fail jail. Don't leave the same way you came in."
GRAPHIC: Photos: David Novak, above, who served nine months in a prison camp, assembled a guide for convicts with advice like "Don't whine." Barry Minkow, right, served time for fraud. Now a preacher, he delivered a sermon recently in his prison garb. (Greg Wahl-Stephens for The New York Times); White-collar criminals serving less than 10 years may be sent to a prison camp, like this one in Bryan, Tex., with manicured grounds. (Dave McDermand for The New York Times); (Associated Press)
Chart: "Doing Time"
A sampling of prominent white-collar felons of recent times.
Ivan F. Boesky (Wall Street arbitrageur)
CONVICTION: Securities fraud
SENTENCE: 3 years
FEDERAL PRISON: Lompoc, Calif.
TIME SERVED: 2 years, released April 90
Michael R. Milken (Junk bond financier)
CONVICTION: Securities fraud
SENTENCE: 10 years
FEDERAL PRISON: Pleasanton, Calif.
TIME SERVED: 22 months, released Jan. 93
Charles H. Keating Jr. (Savings and loan executive)
CONVICTION: Racketeering; securities fraud
SENTENCE: 12.5 years
FEDERAL PRISON: Tucson, Ariz.
TIME SERVED: 4.5 years, conviction overturned Oct. 96
A. Alfred Taubman (Chairman of Sothebys)
CONVICTION: Conspiracy to fix prices
SENTENCE: 1 year
FEDERAL PRISON: Rochester, Minn.
TIME SERVED: Started serving on July 31
Martin R. Frankel (Financier)
CONVICTION: Racketeering; securities fraud
FEDERAL PRISON: Central Falls, R.I.
TIME SERVED: Five months since extradition
Chart: "Crime and Punishment"
Under current federal guidelines, which may be toughened, a person convicted of financial fraud can face varying prison terms, depending on the amount of money involved.
Graph shows MAXIMUM SENTENCE* (Left scale) and MINIMUM VALUE OF FRAUD (Right scale) in millions of dollars.
*Assumes felon is a first-time offender who defrauded more than 50 people.
(Source: United States Sentencing Commission)
Tuesday, October 22, 2002
e-mail from Richmond:
As many of you know (and as my fellow Richmond resident [X.] also knows
first-hand), Monday was a roller coaster day - with each day creating more
tension here in the Richmond area. The latest shooting in Ashland, followed
by an apparent call made from a pay phone in Richmond (Parham and Broad,
close to where [my wife's office] used to be - very close to [X]'s
apartment), then the erroneous raid on a couple of illegal immigrants ...
it's chaos here right now.
All Richmond-area schools will be closed again Tuesday. With the distinct
possibility that the sniper is currently in this very vicinity - normal
activities like pumping gas and grocery shopping come with an element,
however remote, of risk.
Like John Walsh (America's Most Wanted) - I disagree with the manner in
which local and state authorities are handling this matter. Appealing,
negotiating, and cow-towing to the sniper from a position of weakness -
rather than putting the public-at-large on full alert and enlisting a
full-scale militia of civilian detectives and eyewitnesses - it's a losing
game of Russian roulette ... literally. Sacrificing public awareness as a
means of appeasing the sniper is foolish - it merely adds to his egomania,
and creates a state of panic.
Not every detail of the case should be divulged to the public - this could
definitely put lives in jeopardy, especially in the face of threats from the
sniper. However, once Sgt. Moose decided to surrender to the sniper control
of the flow of media information - he began fighting a losing battle. He made
a deal with the devil.
This sniper will likely kill again - he needed no reason before, and needs
none now - regardless of any efforts by the police to negotiate. This is not
a man to be rationed or reasoned with. By necessity, a witch hunt may be the
only answer - this guy has to be linked to someone who knows of his mindset
and is able to connect the dots and report him to police. Or someone who
witnesses bizarre/strange behavior or actions by him. He cannot possibly hide
from everyone and everything if he continues to attack in public venues. This
may mean following up several tips to no avail - but appealing to a public
who is eager to help in any way, rather than an assassin who's mission is to
evade and confuse police, is a better investment of time, trust, and
resources. They found the Unabomber, a total recluse - they can find this
It is not a member of Al-Qaeda. Blaze of Glory, suicide bombings with the
promise of virgins in heaven, taking out as many "infidels" at a time
as possible - these are the consistent calling cards of Islamic extremist
terrorists. Patiently picking off one random person at a time, not claiming
responsibility, using a single-shot rifle, knowing the geography and roads of
Maryland and Virginia as well as he obviously does - it doesn't add up. The
clincher - the tarot cards. There have been more than one. Tarot cards point
to the Occult - i.e. Paganism. Like Christian extremists, Islamic extremists
condemn Pagans as "infidels". It just doesn't seem like there is a
"cause" or a "jihad" behind this ...
-The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that police have found more than one
tarot card during the investigation. A tarot death card was reported found
Oct. 7 outside a Bowie, Md., middle school where the sniper wounded a
13-year-old boy. It had the words ''Dear Policeman, I am God'' written on it.
History suggests the person is definitely not black or Asian, and probably
not hispanic. Narrowing in on a militant, professionally-trained, angry white
male is probably the right guess. A Timothy McVeigh-type; A John Malkovich
character in a movie (In the Line of Fire). Someone with a military or law
enforcement background. Perhaps a hunter. This person's skill with a rifle,
as well as logistical planning and strategy; ability to evaluate, adapt, and
escape; knowledge of terrain, direction, escape routes, concealed shooting
locations - this is a trained and skilled individual, with advanced knowledge
of his surroundings ... Maryland, D.C. and Virginia. This is not a crime of
hot-blooded passion - it is a crime of cold calculation. Deliberate,
meticulous, detailed, consistent in its formula for each attack.
The muffled phone exchange apparently revealed a possible European accent -
indiscernible because of the bad audio quality, which may fit with this
- France alerted Interpol about a French army deserter who is known as a
marksman and is missing in North America. A Defense Ministry spokesman said
there was speculation of a link to the sniper.
I'm curious to find out all of your thoughts, as we are - of course -
transfixed by the events and directly affected by their outcome!
Friday, October 11, 2002
The Washington Post
December 09, 2001, Sunday, Final Edition
SECTION: EDITORIAL; Pg. B07
LENGTH: 841 words
HEADLINE: The Genius of Ari Fleischer
BYLINE: Michael Kinsley
The press briefings of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld are widely acknowledged to be the best show on television, and watching him perform in person is probably even more entertaining. By contrast it must be hell to be trapped in the White House briefing room with press secretary Ari Fleischer. Reading the transcripts of Fleischer's performances on the Web, though, is fascinating. Most of the reviews dismiss him as an evasive bore. This doesn't give Fleischer nearly enough credit: He is a great evasive bore.
There's a war on, for heaven's sake. The fate of civilization may be at stake, and your job is to tell the world how the war is going. Under these circumstances, how hard is it to be interesting? On the other hand, to be boring and to stay boring -- to maintain your rock-solid commitment to the lack of information while fascinating information cascades from the heavens all around you like emergency food parcels -- takes discipline. It takes imagination. Let us not flinch: It takes genius. Rumsfeld's techniques are fairly easy to discern. He gives the impression of enjoying himself. He teases the reporters. He uses vivid language. He seasons the agitprop with refreshing little truthlets, like the fact that bombs kill people. He says things like "I don't know" -- and not just in situations where it's obvious he really does know. He even says that he knows but won't say, or that he's still thinking about it, two mental states that journalists have long suspected might exist among Washington officials.
How Fleischer does it is, like all genius, ultimately unfathomable to the rest of us. But we can study the texts, looking for clues. Last Wednesday, for example. The question was: Is President Bush "prepared to do some horse trading" to get enhanced trade authority? In reply, Fleischer noted that "the president believes that trade is right on principle," noted it again, then continued:
"Having said that, there are certain elements of trade that are always up for discussion; that there are valid points that members can make that typically do get discussed. And there is a lot of consultation that goes on in the trade process; many members of Congress, in exchange for giving up their right to amend an agreement that is submitted to them, seek an additional role in the negotiations. And so that is not an uncommon request from members of Congress. So the president will continue to act on principle as he works with members of Congress and listens to their ideas."
In other words: yes. Anyone can sound evasive when he's being evasive. It takes talent to sound evasive when you're not being evasive.
Fleischer speaks a sort of imperial court English, in which any question, no matter how specific, is parried with general assurances that the emperor is keenly aware and deeply concerned and firmly resolved and infallibly right and the people are fully supportive and further information should be sought elsewhere. Answering a sharp question about whether all the money that investors lost in the Enron collapse had any effect on the administration's enthusiasm for privatizing Social Security, Fleischer first (like an unhelpful telephone receptionist) referred the questioner to the Treasury Department, then to the Labor Department, and then delivered a brilliantly bromidic defense of privatization that made no acknowledgment of anything about the question except its general subject matter.
The Middle East? "I think that, as always, the president wants events to develop over time in a way that he hopes will be fruitful." That "as always" is truly bravura banality. Never for one moment has the president wavered in his desire to see events develop in ways he hopes will be fruitful. Logicians may puzzle over how it is even possible to hope that your own hopes be dashed, but in case it is possible, the president is not doing it.
When Fleischer produces a rare vivid image, it appears to be unintentional. But is it? On Wednesday, he was asked about the president's thoughts regarding the American who was caught fighting for the Taliban. Rather than say he didn't know the president's thoughts or the president had no thoughts -- dangerous territory -- Fleischer rushed through only a few throat-clearing pieties to declare that "the president hasn't really entered the realm of conjecture." The image lingers, like one of those huge allegorical paintings in art museums: George W. Bush poised at the portals of the Realm of Conjecture. Will he enter? In the background are vignettes of other adventures: in the Land of Deficits, the Precinct of Chad, the National Guard of Texas. A clutch of advisers stands nearby, warning him away. Notice the brilliant blue of Dick Cheney's tie. . . .
Don Rumsfeld paints a world reasonably similar to the one we really live in. Ari Fleischer creates an entire alternative universe. That is what makes him the greater artist.
Michael Kinsley, editor of Slate (www.slate.com), writes a weekly column for The Post.
THE PECULIAR DUPLICITY OF ARI FLEISCHER.
by Jonathan Chait
Post date: 05.30.02
Issue date: 06.10.02
Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary, is famous. But I knew him back when he was merely infamous, as chief Republican spokesman on the House Ways and Means Committee. He spoke with a cool, quick certainty, unhindered by any sense of conscience. A profile in GQ--not many Hill staffers receive such attention--dubbed him the "flack out of hell."
The typical press secretary shovels out fairly blunt propaganda, the kind reporters can spot a mile away and sidestep easily. But Fleischer has a way of blindsiding you, leaving you disoriented and awestruck. Once, about six years ago, I called to ask him something about tax reform. Knowing Fleischer, I tried to anticipate his possible replies and map out countermeasures to cut off his escape routes. I began the conversation by bringing up what seemed a simple premise: His boss, Bill Archer, favored replacing the income tax with a national sales tax. Fleischer immediately interrupted to insist that Archer did not support any such thing. I was dumbfounded. Forgetting my line of questioning, I frantically tried to recall how it was I knew that Archer had advocated a sales tax. But in the face of this confident assertion, my mind went blank. "Wha ... uh, really?" I stammered. He assured me it was true. Completely flustered, I thanked him and hung up. I rummaged through my files, trying to piece together my reality. Didn't everybody who followed these things know that Archer favored a sales tax? Yes--here was one newspaper story, and another, and finally a crinkled position paper, authored by Bill Archer, explaining why we needed a national sales tax. Of course he favored it. Fleischer had made the whole thing up.
Most press secretaries "spin." Spin is a clever, lawyerly art, often performed with a knowing wink, which involves casting your boss's actions in the most favorable light. Practitioners of spin don't deny generally accepted facts or contest a reporter's right to ask questions. Rather, they emphasize alternative facts as a way of establishing the difference between what their boss is perceived to have done and what he or she actually did. During the Clinton administration, spin came to symbolize everything reporters loathed about what they saw as a too-clever-by-half presidency. The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz, in his book Spin Cycle, describes Bill Clinton's spinsters as trying "to defend the indefensible," by, for instance, insisting that White House coffees with donors were not "fund-raisers" because the money was raised beforehand.
But what Fleischer does, for the most part, is not really spin. It's a system of disinformation--blunter, more aggressive, and, in its own way, more impressive than spin. Much of the time Fleischer does not engage with the logic of a question at all. He simply denies its premises--or refuses to answer it on the grounds that it conflicts with a Byzantine set of rules governing what questions he deems appropriate. Fleischer has broken new ground in the dark art of flackdom: Rather than respond tendentiously to questions, he negates them altogether.
I. The Audacious Fib
Like any skilled craftsman, Fleischer has a variety of techniques at his disposal. The first is the one he used to such great effect at Ways and Means: He cuts off the question with a blunt, factual assertion. Sometimes the assertion is an outright lie; sometimes it's on the edge. But in either case the intent is to deceive--to define a legitimate question as based on false premises and, therefore, illegitimate. Fleischer does this so well, in part because of his breathtaking audacity: Rather than tell a little fib--i.e., attacking the facts most open to interpretation in a reporter's query--he often tells a big one, challenging the question in a way the reporter could not possibly anticipate. Then there's his delivery: Fleischer radiates boundless certainty, recounting even his wildest fibs in the matter-of-fact, slightly patronizing tone you would use to explain, say, the changing of the seasons to a child. He neither under-emotes (which would appear robotic) nor overemotes (which would appear defensive) but seems at all times so natural that one wonders if somehow he has convinced himself of his own untruths.
One month ago, for example, a reporter cited the administration's recent plan to build an education, health, and welfare infrastructure in Afghanistan and asked Fleischer when George W. Bush--who during the campaign repeatedly bad-mouthed nation-building--had come around to the idea. A lesser flack would have given the obvious, spun response: The Bush administration's policies in Afghanistan don't constitute nation-building for reasons X, Y, and Z. The reporter might have expected that reply and prepared a follow-up accordingly. But Fleischer went the other way, bluntly asserting that Bush had never derided nation-building to begin with. "The president has always been for those," Fleischer said. The questioner, likely caught off guard, repeated, "He's always been for..." when Fleischer interjected, "Do you have any evidence to the contrary?" In fact, Bush had denounced nation-building just as unambiguously as Archer had endorsed the national sales tax. "I don't think our troops ought to be used for what's called nation-building," said candidate Bush in the second presidential debate, to take one of many examples. The offending reporter, of course, didn't have any of these quotes handy at the press conference, and so Fleischer managed to extinguish the nation-building queries.
To take another example, after the coup in Venezuela last month, Fleischer announced that "it happened in a very quick fashion as a result of the message of the Venezuelan people." But once the coup was reversed, the administration's seeming support proved embarrassing. So at the next press conference, a reporter asked Fleischer, "Last Friday, you said that it--the seizure of power illegitimately in Venezuela--`happened in a very quick fashion as a result of the message of the Venezuelan people'; that the seizure of power, extraconstitutionally, that is, dissolution of the congress and the supreme court happened as a result of the message of the Venezuelan people."
Fleischer could have acknowledged the underlying fact--that the Bush administration initially endorsed the coup--but then expressed regret at its anti-democratic turn, a turn that the United States presumably opposed and perhaps even tried to prevent. Instead, he replied, "No, that's not what I said." And indeed, it wasn't exactly what he said--after quoting Fleischer verbatim reacting to the coup, the reporter went on to describe some of the things that happened after the coup. And that gave Fleischer his opening: "The dissolution that you just referred to did not take place until later Friday afternoon," he noted. "It could not possibly be addressed in my briefing because it hadn't taken place yet." By focusing on the latter, subordinate part of the reporter's question, Fleischer negated the verbatim quote of his earlier remarks--and thus neatly cut off discussion of the administration's early reaction to news of the coup.
The problem with this tactic is that it's always possible to get caught in an outright lie. Speaking to reporters on the morning of February 28, for instance, Fleischer said of Middle East peace negotiations under Clinton: "As a result of an attempt to push the parties beyond where they were willing to go, that led to expectations that were raised to such a high level that it turned to violence." The story went out that the administration blamed Middle East violence on its predecessor's peacemaking. That afternoon, Fleischer insisted he had said no such thing. "That's a mischaracterization of what I said," he protested. But Fleischer's earlier statement was too fresh in the press corps's mind to simply deny, and the press continued to hound him. Later in the day he was forced to issue a statement of regret.
What this episode illustrates is that stating unambiguous falsehoods carries certain risks--and no press secretary can afford to have his factual accuracy repeatedly challenged by the press. So while Fleischer may employ this tactic more frequently than most press secretaries, it is still relatively rare--the p.r. equivalent of a trick play in football: While spectacular to behold and often successful, more frequent usage would dilute its effectiveness and risk disaster.
The greater feat is to put yourself in a position where you don't have to lie. This can be accomplished in lots of ways--spinning is the preferred approach for most flacks, but that isn't Fleischer's style; candor, obviously, is out of the question. Fleischer's method of choice is question-avoidance. After all, you can't be accused of answering a question untruthfully if you haven't answered it at all.
II. The Process Non Sequitur
Fleischer has two ways of not answering a question. The first is the non sequitur, a banal statement that, though related to the general topic, sheds no light upon the question at hand. Here, again, Fleischer is an innovator: Whereas most spinners abhor questions about legislative process and try to turn them into questions about their boss's beliefs, Fleischer excels at turning specific questions about Bush's beliefs and intentions into remedial-level civics-class descriptions of process. For example, asked last month if Bush would sign an energy bill that didn't include new drilling in Alaska, here was Fleischer's response in full: "Again, the process, as you know, is the House passes a bill, the Senate passes a bill. And we'll go to conference and try to improve the bill from what the Senate passed. The purpose of energy legislation is to make America more energy-independent. And that's the goal of the conference, in the president's opinion." Will Bush sign a campaign finance bill that doesn't restrict union dues? Fleischer's reply in full: "The president is looking forward to working together to bring people together so he can sign a bill."
At his best, Fleischer can fasten together clumps of non sequiturs into an elaborate web of obfuscation. Last year Bush persuaded GOP Representative Charlie Norwood to back off his own patients' bill of rights just before the other co-sponsors held a press conference, effectively splitting up a bipartisan coalition. Yet patients' rights was popular, and Bush wanted to present himself as supporting the bill he had just scuttled. The task of disseminating this message fell to Fleischer, and the result was inspired. The transcript of that afternoon's press conference reads like dialogue from a David Mamet film:
Fleischer: [W]e're going to be prepared to work with a number of people to get it done.
Q: You would work with the people, including the ones who put the bill forward today? Why won't you work with them?
Fleischer: Absolutely. Absolutely we will.
Q: So why are you asking lawmakers not to go with them, to stay with us?
Fleischer: Again, I think the president is just in a position now where we want to begin the process, begin this year working directly with some of the more influential people who have been part of the patients' bill of rights in the past, and we'll continue to do that.
A few minutes later Fleischer stated, "We view what's happening today on the Hill"-- that is, the press conference Bush had pressured Norwood to abandon--"as very helpful to the process." But, a reporter asked, "If it's helpful ... why was Norwood asked not to attend today's event?" Fleischer explained, "I think congressmen decide every day whether they want to co-sponsor bills or not co-sponsor bills." His purpose in this exercise was not to make the press corps see Bush's side of the argument, or even to make any argument at all, but simply to befuddle them with non sequitur nonsense until they ran out of questions.
III. The Rules
After the non sequitur, the other kind of non-answer is more straightforward: the open refusal to reply. This is tricky business. A press secretary, after all, is supposed to provide information to the press, not deny it. The straight rebuff, then, must be couched in terms of some broader principle. And it is here that Fleischer's particular genius is on clearest display. As press secretary, Fleischer has developed a complex, arbitrary, and constantly shifting set of rules governing what questions he can answer. If a reporter's question can be answered simply by reciting talking points about process, Fleischer will comply. If he can't, he will find a way to rule it out of order.
Fleischer declines to answer any question he deems "hypothetical." This, too, is a common press-secretary tactic, but Fleischer has a talent for finding hypotheticals buried in what would seem to be extremely concrete questions. Earlier this year, for example, the administration praised an Arab League resolution supporting the Saudi peace plan, but dismissed as irrelevant a resolution condemning a possible U.S. attack on Iraq. A reporter asked why one Arab League resolution mattered but the other didn't. "I'm not going to speculate about plans that the president has said that he has made no decisions on and have not crossed his desk," Fleischer replied. "That wasn't my question," the reporter retorted. Fleischer insisted: "You're asking about an attack on Iraq, and the president has said repeatedly that he has no plans and nothing has crossed his desk. So that enters into the area of hypothetical." Fleischer redefined a question about something that had happened--the Arab League resolution--into a question about something that hadn't--a U.S. attack on Iraq--and then dismissed the latter as hypothetical.
Perhaps the easiest way for Fleischer to dismiss questions is to suggest that he is not the appropriate person to answer them--something he does with remarkable promiscuity. Do the administration and Pakistan agree on extraditing the killers of Daniel Pearl? "You'd have to ask Pakistan," Fleischer replied on February 25. Did Israel's offensive in the West Bank enhance its security? "That's a judgment for Israel to make," he said on April 16. In short, if a question can be said to pertain to another country, that discharges the White House from having to state an opinion.
Fleischer uses the same technique for discussions of domestic policy. Does the administration want Congress to move ahead with campaign finance reform? "The president does not determine the Senate schedule," Fleischer explained on March 19. "The Senate leadership determines the Senate schedule." (That hasn't stopped the White House from demanding the Senate take up other legislation on numerous occasions.) Does an anti-administration court ruling strengthen the U.S. General Accounting Office's case for demanding energy documents? "That's for the courts to judge, not for me," Fleischer demurred on February 28. What about the recent decision by Stanley Works to relocate to Bermuda, which several members of Congress condemned? "I can't comment on any one individual corporate action." Indeed, Fleischer will even pawn off questions involving other branches of the Bush administration. Asked this spring whether Army Secretary Thomas White has lived up to the standards Bush set out after Enron, Fleischer answered, "Anything particular to Enron, I would refer you to the Department of Justice." What sort of access did GOP donors get to White House officials at a recent fund-raiser? Ask the Republican National Committee, replied Fleischer. Has Colin Powell met with Ariel Sharon? Ask the State Department. Did the administration intervene to allow more pollutants in Alabama? Ask the Environmental Protection Agency. And so on.
hen questions cannot be fobbed off on other departments, Fleischer often rephrases them to make them seem so complex and esoteric that he couldn't possibly be expected to answer them. Asked two weeks ago to comment on a blockbuster quote by Bush counterterrorism official Richard Clarke prominently featured in a front-page Washington Post story, he replied, "I do not receive a daily briefing on his verbatim quotes." One year ago Fleischer listed six members of Congress who would appear at an event with Bush. Asked how many were Democrats--this was two months into Bush's tenure, when he was making a big deal of meeting with members of the other party--Fleischer said, "I don't have any breakdown here." (The breakdown was six Republicans, no Democrats.) Last year Fleischer ticked off for the press Bush's legislative priorities. "Where does campaign finance rank in those priorities?" asked one. "I don't do linear rankings," Fleischer replied, as if to suggest that answering the question would require a sophisticated mathematical analysis.
To emphasize his inability to answer these complicated questions, Fleischer occasionally pleads lack of expertise. Last year he touted a drop in oil prices since Bush took office and plugged the president's energy plan. Would the energy plan, which would take effect over the long run, impact short-term prices? "I'm not an economist," he demurred. What does the administration think about an unfavorable court ruling? "I'm not a lawyer." Has Yasir Arafat been elected democratically? "I personally am just not expert enough to be able to answer that question.... That was before I came to this White House."
For any administration, the most damaging information often comes in the form of anonymous quotes from White House staffers. Leaks rarely happen in this administration; but when they do, they are often more damaging for their infrequency. So in order to avoid answering questions arising from such leaks, Fleischer simply denies their veracity. Asked, in the wake of the Venezuelan coup, about a quote in The New York Times attributed to a "Defense Department official," Fleischer went on the attack:
Fleischer: And what's the name of the official?
Q: The official is unnamed. But it is--
Fleischer: Then how do you know he's "top"?
Q: It says, according to The New York Times. So is this official mistaken?
Fleischer: You don't know the person's name?
Q: No, I don't know the--
Fleischer: The person obviously doesn't have enough confidence in what he said to say it on the record.... So I think if you can establish the name of this person who now without a name you're calling "top," we can further that. But I think you're--you need to dig into that.
(Fleischer himself, of course, makes a regular practice of speaking to reporters off the record.)
In the even rarer case that an administration official cuts against the party line on the record, Fleischer still manages to come up with a set of rules that enables him not to acknowledge it. A few weeks ago a reporter asked him if Bush agreed with Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, who had said he "can't find too many Americans who believe that they are overtaxed." Fleischer enthusiastically replied in the affirmative. The reporter, realizing Fleischer must have misunderstood the quote, helpfully repeated it. "Oh, I'm sorry. I thought your question was--I hadn't heard that Secretary O'Neill said that," Fleischer backtracked, proceeding to declare, "I have a long-standing habit in this briefing room, when a reporter describes to me the statements that are made by government officials, I always like to see those statements myself with my own eyes before I comment." Needless to say, that "long-standing habit" had not prevented Fleischer from commenting when he thought the statement concurred with Bush's own view.
Fleischer likewise reserves the right to close off topics because of timing. This applies first to events that have already taken place. Upon taking office, Fleischer wouldn't comment on allegations (fed by White House leaks) of massive vandalism by departing Clintonites because "the president is looking forward and not backwards." He wouldn't discuss the firing of Army Corps of Engineers head Mike Parker because it was "over and dealt with."
But Fleischer also refuses to address events that have yet to take place. When campaign finance reform moved through the Senate last year, he declined to explain Bush's position: "It's too early, yet, to say." After it passed, and went to the House, Fleischer continued to demur because "[i]t hasn't even made its way through the House yet." After it passed the House, he still wouldn't express a view, because "you just don't know what the Senate is going to do.... There's a lot of talk about will the Senate try to amend it, will they be unsuccessful in amending it? Will the Senate basically take the House bill and put it in a photocopier, and, therefore, send it directly to the president?" Well, a reporter asked, what if they do photocopy it? Fleischer retorted--you guessed it--"I don't answer hypotheticals."
The reporter tried, valiantly, to get an answer one more time, with a query that was clear, nonhypothetical, White House-related, and present tense: "Of the two bills that have been passed, is there any reason to veto either one?" Fleischer's answer? "We're going to go around in circles on this." You can't argue with that.
Jonathan Chait is a senior editor at TNR.
Wednesday, October 09, 2002
Detroit Free Press
Original submission/published article
By Nathan Bierma
By now I've lost interest in the question of whether we should invade Iraq, however fascinating the constant news coverage suggests the subject is. I’m not convinced Saddam Hussein is more of a threat than he was two years ago, or less of a threat than he will be two years from now. But President Bush's hawk-heavy staff is all riled up, so there's only one way for this to end: by barging into Baghdad. Besides, the chances of getting satisfactory weapons inspections in Iraq are about as good as getting a fair election in Florida.
But while I don't denounce the dethroning of a dictator, I do wonder if Bush has given enough thought to the next step--and if he wouldn't mind sharing it with the rest of the world. After all, the U.S.' credibility in the Middle East and around the world depends on how convincingly we demonstrate our vision of long-term peace and prosperity for the troubled places we invade, not just how well we bump out our nuisances. If we can't help build nations as successfully as we invade them, then no one is going to want us around when another dictator draws our ire.
As intolerably cruel as Saddam Hussein is, the idea of a post-Saddam Iraq is daunting, and we deserve to hear our leaders talk about it. We’ll need a plan to reconstruct a region that is strangely stabilized by Saddam but could degenerate into ethnic conflict once we bury him—when, as columnist Thomas Friedman puts it, “having broken Iraq, we own Iraq.” Friedman says we need to find "an Iraqi George Washington.” But failing that, what will we do? And how will we involve other nations, to balance our responsibility to rebuild without appearing imperialist? I'm not saying the question is easy, just that it should be as hot a topic in the White House as war plans.
The question of how committed we are to Iraq's long-term rebirth isn't just sentimental--it's in our interest to prevent a new threat from the country. We could also use a like-minded ally in our dealings with Iran, considered by some analysts to be the international capital of terrorism, and with Libya, which some fear will be the first Arab nation to get the bomb. And we need to form a model of how democracy can work peacefully in the Middle East, because Israel isn’t it.
The fear that the United States will be perceived as a serial parachuter–landing in troubled nations, toppling their leaders, and then carelessly moving on–is more than just hypothetical, thanks to our intervention in Afghanistan. Mercifully, the country is now scoured of the Taliban, and its girls have gone back to school. But despair still reigns. The nation needs schools, infrastructure, an economy, and political stability; new President Harmid Karzai had to dodge a recent assassination attempt by extremists.
But the U.S. can't to be bothered much to pitch in. The political journal The New Republic reports that the U.S. has yet to contribute as much as two percent of the $15 million it estimates Afghanistan will need over the next ten years, and has cut its Afghanistan fund by more than half for the 2003 budget.
Now we're backing down from a promise Bush made to the visiting Karzai last month to chip in $80 million for a transcontinental highway, the possible new backbone of a revived Afghanistan economy. Instead, the Office of Management and Budget suggests taking $20 million slated for Afghan village development and women's centers and spending it on the road. "In the singular logic of OMB chief Mitch Daniels," The New Republic wrote, "in order to reconstruct Afghanistan the U.S. government would have to cut funding for the reconstruction of Afghanistan."
This stinginess is disgraceful, especially when you consider that Bush's paramount economic legacy so far is over one trillion dollars in upper class tax cuts. If Bush wants to argue that 9/11 led us to see Saddam in a new light, than he can have the boldness to say 9/11 also changed his mind about financial priorities, and that tax cuts represent money that could be put to better use for the cause of worldwide democracy. But he won't, because in election seasons, we have no leaders, only politicians.
Our checkbook sends an alarming signal to a world that is examining our post-invasion legacy. To be responsible champions of world prosperity, and not just a wrecking crew wherever we find cruelty, we must say that we are invested in other nations' future as much as removing their current threats, and then put our money where our mouth is. Iraqis will be grateful to be liberated from their dictator, but will be disappointed to discover their new occupiers are cheapskates.
Pardon me for glancing beyond an invasion that hasn't happened yet, but people my age have a vested interest in how things go when the guns quit. Today's youth will have to live the longest with whatever the new Iraq becomes, and we stand to be the most inspired by a vison of an interconnected, stably prosperous new world, towards which hard postwar work in Iraq would advance us. President Bush moved the world with his thunderous call to war in a speech to the U.N. Before he invades Iraq, he should make another speech, just as passionately, that explains his plan for long-term peace.
Tuesday, October 08, 2002
Animators ready to take a leap of faith
Big Idea hopes its salad days have arrived
By Robert K. Elder
Tribune staff reporter
October 6, 2002
Behind the nondescript doors of the makeshift Big Idea animation studio in a rehabbed Lombard Woolworth building, talking vegetables rule. Now, they are trying to expand their reign to movie theaters nationwide.
Big Idea, led by "VeggieTales" castmates Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber, sold $30 million of its computer-animated, Judeo-Christian-based videos in the late 1990s.
This weekend, like the computer-animated "Toy Story" and "Antz" before them, "VeggieTales'" cast of salad ingredients is trying to storm Hollywood with "Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie."
It's a huge leap to try to play in the same league as Disney and Dreamworks, but three weeks before the opening (it was being shown on 900 screens this weekend and in two weeks will expand its reach), Big Idea CEO Phil Vischer seems calm inside the Midwest's largest animation studio, which is now reaching a fever pitch of activity.
He bounces from meeting to meeting, preparing last-minute details before his lifelong dream splashes down in front of what could potentially be its biggest audience. Perhaps most striking of all, Vischer and his company haven't sacrificed their philosophy or personality in bringing the VeggieTales to the silver screen.
"I've always felt very called to do this, kinda like the Blues Brothers," says Vischer, 36, who voices Bob the Tomato and 22-plus other characters.
He quotes a line from the 1980 Jim Belushi/Dan Aykroyd comedy: "It's 106 miles to Chicago. We got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it's dark and we're wearing sunglasses."
On a mission
"We're on a mission from God," he says, parroting Aykroyd's deadpan delivery.
Lombard isn't quite 106 miles from Chicago, but Vischer's mission to deliver "Sunday morning values, Saturday morning fun" has led him from St. Paul Bible College -- where he met creative partner Mike Nawrocki -- to the former department store in Yorktown Center mall.
Until a few weeks ago, a Pet Center sign still hung near the Big Idea studio's humble entrance. Above the paralyzed escalator, a "Women's Apparel" sign remains one of the few relics of the space's former retail life.
Now, muted Easter colors cling to the walls as track lighting illuminates a vast city of cubicles -- each populated with seemingly endless rows of toys, scripts and movie paraphernalia. Computer monitors and banks of central processing units vie for space, perhaps to show that people actually work here.
Big Idea moved in during the autumn of 1999 and started production on "Jonah" soon after in the ever-evolving office.
"We were building a feature film studio and the same time we were making our feature film," says Nawrocki, of the organic clutter.
The voice of Larry the Cucumber, Nawrocki also shares writing and directing credits with Vischer on "Jonah."
At 36 and the tall father of two, Nawrocki looks noticeably younger than Vischer, a small matter of ribbing between the two.
"Nobody can believe Phil and I are the same age," Nawrocki says. "It's a mixture of genetics and not having to deal with the corporate world. I get to stay in the studio."
Forming a team
The studio today is a far cry from St. Paul Bible College, where Vischer and aspiring Peace Corps doctor Nawrocki skipped services to write puppet plays and trade pop culture references. They were asked to leave after three semesters of chapel absenteeism.
Through the '80s, Vischer and Nawrocki grew closer and continued to develop ideas. They worked for Chicago production houses designing specialty logos for "The Jerry Springer Show" and "The Oprah Winfrey Show," borrowing equipment in the evenings to make their own films. In 1989, Vischer started his own company, "wanting to become the next Walt Disney or George Lucas," he says. Big Idea was born from bigger aspirations.
In the design stage, what started as a candy bar character soon became Larry the Cucumber, partly because Vischer's wife, Lisa, told him parents would be mad at him for making their kids fall in love with candy and partly for "technical pragmatism." Early computer programs animated simple shapes easier, Vischer says, he wasn't trying to get kids to eat vegetables.
Since Big Idea's first video, 1993's "Where's God When I'm S-Scared?", Vischer has forged an independent, family-friendly brand unafraid to flaunt its Judeo-Christian values and pop culture influences. Some VeggieTale videos feature stories right out of the Old Testament, with a cucumber bringing down the walls of Jericho in "Josh and the Big Wall," while others, such as "Rack, Shack & Benny," teach children to resist peer pressure. Bob, Larry and Junior Asparagus appear in almost all the videos, with red-faced Bob providing the straight vegetable role against Larry's antics.
Recently, Big Idea has also spun-off shows "Larry-Boy" and "3-2-1 Penguins!" Others VeggieTales episodes, such as the immensely popular "Silly Songs with Larry" segments, offer clear moral messages between modern day laughs and homages to "Star Trek" and "The Gods Must Be Crazy." References in "Jonah" include a Blues Brothers-type musical number, as well as a tip of the hat to "Lawrence of Arabia," Madonna's "Vogue" and Jabba the Hut.
Big Idea's cartoons, especially its videos for a religious-minded audience, have been anomalies in family entertainment media. Until recently, Lyrick Studios, run by prominent Catholic family, distributed purple dinosaur Barney and perky Bob the Builder (the company also represented VeggieTales videos before it was bought out by Britain's Hit Entertainment) -- neither property nor their peers openly espoused Judeo-Christian ties. Only the Evangelical Lutheran Church's clay puppets "Davey and Goliath," now Mountain Dew spokesmen, have come close to the cultural identification VeggieTales has achieved. In nine years, Big Idea has produced 23 video titles.
"They've sold more than 30 million videos -- it's a big phenomenon," says Ryan Ball, Web editor of Animation Magazine. "Who would have guessed that little talking vegetables would become so big?"
Comparatively, Barney has sold 66 million units in North America in its 15-year history, according to Hit Entertainment's Web site. BBC World Service reported in May that Bob the Builder, created in 1999, passed the 2 million mark.
In 1994, distributors approached Vischer about putting VeggieTales on Wal-Mart shelves nationwide, provided they strip all references to God and drop their signature Biblical passage from the end of each video.
"We were seeing some pretty serious opportunities to break into the mainstream, but we didn't want to change who we were or our message, Vischer said of the distributor's demands.
Vischer passed, only to gain momentum and catch the eye of other high-caliber distributors. In the summer of 1998, with Lyrick behind them, Larry the Cucumber and friends were showing up in Wal-Mart, Kmart, Costco and other national outlets -- scripture and all.
Big Idea, which produced the movie in-house, partnered with Artisan Entertainment, the same company behind the savvy "The Blair Witch Project" and "Buena Vista Social Club" campaigns, to distribute and help promote the film, which cost a reported $15 million to produce.
Had you asked Nawrocki nine years ago if he could envision a feature-length VeggieTales movie, the answer would have been an emphatic yes.
"Back then, I would have thought we would have had a feature film sooner," Nawrocki laughs. "But I'm glad we didn't, I'm glad our film has come now because we've learned so much."
Vischer is more pragmatic about their expansion.
"We've only been able to grow at the rate people bought our videos," Vischer says. "To a certain extent, I looked at the half-hour videos as practice. Can we do a chase scene? A musical?"
A father of three, Vischer lists his biggest influences as Walt Disney, Tim Burton, the Coen Brothers and Monty Python -- the final being an odd choice considering the British comedy troupe's penchant for thumbing its nose at organized religion.
"You recognize when people who don't share your faith have found truth about -- not about your faith, but about the people who claim to share it. It is so easy to make fun of Christians in particular. Many of us are ridiculous hypocrites," Vischer says.
"You can't take everything so seriously that you can't watch someone else's view of the world. Take Pink Floyd's `The Wall.' Christians hate that album for a hundred different reasons. When I was in high school, I loved that album -- not because I necessarily agreed with it, but because it was such an incredible piece of literature out of someone's experience. Anyone who speaks with integrity I respect, whether or not I share their beliefs."
Keeping it real
Rising above commercial hypocrisy remains a Big Idea tenet. If he can't tell a mother in Wichita, Kan., that she can trust his company, Vischer says, he'll shut it down.
"If your work doesn't reflect your beliefs, you're a hypocrite. There are so many hypocritical filmmakers because they are saying what they think will make them money, whether or not they believe it," he says. "It's just crass commercialism."
So Vischer is putting his money where his mouth -- not to mention faith -- is. An animated biblical epic is a considerably larger gamble than a secular movie starring singing vegetables.
"The biggest challenge we face is to make people understand that we're not preachy at all," says Ameake Owens, the film's producer. "Christian films have come to represent the apocalyptic thriller, and we couldn't be further from that."
Big Idea is trying to break that mold, Nawrocki says, and Vischer goes one step further. He wants to make a positive cultural impact through the media, one without cynicism or secular political correctness.
"We're portraying characters that openly believe in God. In Hollywood, you can maybe have one [character] in a movie, and he's a little bit kooky," Vischer says. "We're trying to preserve our purpose and our values and the meaning of the brand. I think this is what I'm supposed to do. It feels more like a mission than a good idea."
Copyright © 2002, Chicago Tribune
Wisdom amid the digital noise
The Banner, August 28, 2002
By Nathan Bierma
The cyber-boom of the 1990s came with such dizzying speed and delivered such profound changes to our lives, we’re only beginning to weigh the consequences. Quentin Schultze is among the first to haul out the scale. The spread of digital technology over the last decade may have brought some improvements to the world, Schultze says,
but not without great cost to coherent systems of moral meaning.
In his new book, Habits of the High-Tech Heart: Living Virtuously in the Information Age, Schultze is out to do more than just gloat over the burst dot-com bubble; in an astute and entertaining critique, he deconstructs the Silicon Valley “cyberculture”—its mythology, methods, and the lifestyle it introduced to the nation. As usual, the renowned Calvin College communications scholar takes a unique approach to a much-discussed subject. His title is a take-off on the book Habits of the Heart, in which sociologist Robert Bellah and various co-authors argue for the appreciation of communities and shared narratives in an individualistic age. Schultze takes an analogous approach to the subject of digital technology, anchoring his analysis in the civic and moral insights of Democracy in America author Alexis de Tocqueville, who coined the term “habits of the heart” in the nineteenth century, and former Czech Republic president and moral thinker Vaschlav Havel. Schultze manages to craft a work that is distinctly Reformed in its approach, but minus much of the standard Reformed vocabulary, so as to reach the wide public and academic audience that needs it.
What was lost in the giddy dot-com mania of the 1990s, writes Schultze, was any sense that “the moral value of information depends on distinctly human faculties, such as insight, discernment, and judgment.” These virtues are not inherent in technological progress; indeed, sometimes they run counterintuitive to the convenience-minded conventional thinking of technological soothsayers. The innovations and ambitions of the “digerati”—the Silicon Valley elite—may in fact hold “no real solutions to today’s or tomorrow’s moral dilemmas,” writes Schultze. “Will a fingertip-controlled world or a wearable computer bring us more peace and justice? Will they foster virtue at home and work?”
Nonetheless, the gushing, sometimes salvific rhetoric of the narrow-minded digerati builds a seemingly unassailable narrative of social progress. Schultze says the Information Age has actually ushered in a new religion: that of informationism, foolish faith in the possession and spread of information as the redemption of humankind. This new faith values the is over the ought, observation over participation, and measurement over meaning.
With witty and informed observation, Schultze explores the dynamics of the new cyber-age—with its ephemeral digital empires and 15-minute celebrities rising and falling like tides, and its bizarre anecdotes from bleary-eyed workers at dot-com startups—and forms a refreshing critique. Computers and the Internet, he says, have actually served to fragment our lives, drowning us in a digital Babel, distracting and distancing us from sound collective understandings of moral wisdom. The more we are randomly connected across unseen digital networks, authenticity is flimsy, and important virtues such as truthfulness, humility, empathy, and selfless friendship are considered to be dinosaurs. We must moderate our own informationism, respond to informationist rhetoric with humility and wisdom, and reject society’s decision that efficiency is a virtue.
A book that asks such good questions begs more answers, or at least more suggestions. We’re not going back to an un-wired world, after all; e-mail and the Internet are here to stay. So how do Christians go forward, besides embracing their traditional and moral roots, and faithfully engage new digital technology? In his incisive 1992 book, Redeeming Television, Schultze offers several practical measures Christians can take as citizens, churchgoers, and media professionals in their interaction with the medium of television. A similar prescription, or a discussion of whether one is possible, would have enhanced his latest book.
Nonetheless, Schultze has penned the authoritative theological analysis of digital technology in the new century. It is fitting that he do so; there are few media experts who have the theological depth of Schultze, and likewise few religious scholars who have Schultze’s experience and expertise in the field of communications. This book teaches much about both areas, and, true to its theme, answers the noise of the digital age with a voice of wisdom.