Investigative journalist – Storyteller – Performer

Gloria Steinem taught me another thing

Posted on May 12, 2016

Yesterday, I finished Gloria Steinem’s newest (and inexplicably badly-designed)steinem book, and I learned an unexpected lesson not from the book itself, but from talking about it.
 
I tweeted a photo of a very nice quote she had included in the manuscript. The quote was simply attributed to “tribal elders.” Steinem is an incredibly thorough journalist and one of our greatest living political organizers. She credits all her success organizing to what she has learned from Native American groups and their social structures, and particularly to Wilma Mankiller and her community of tribal elders. If any non-Native-American person is going to get a Native American community’s quote right, it’s Gloria. I tweeted it, thinking the quote was wise and particularly insightful to my life right now.
 
Soon thereafter, I was carrying the book and no less than two men pointed it out, eagerly, saying they wanted to read it and asking me how it was. The move seemed a little desperate: “Look at me! I know who Gloria Steinem is! I want to read that feminist book!” The way they spoke tipped me off to this, but I can’t really paint that picture here, so you’ll have to trust me that that’s how it seemed. I thought it was sweet if a little eye-rolly, and later told friends about it (two women and one man), and we all chuckled.
 
The same night, someone tweeted back at me, calling the Steinem excerpt “bigoted” and “nonsensical,” implying that this was clearly not really a quote from “tribal elders,” and that Steinem was just trying to piggyback on increased concern for the oppression of Native Americans and other groups. This annoyed me to no end, as Steinem credits her entire success to the Native Americans who have taught her, and devoted no less than a third of her book to the specific tribes and people who taught her particular lessons. The book is nothing if not modest, and I got the impression that if Steinem could have instead written a biography of Wilma Mankiller, that’s what she would have done. But that doesn’t sell, even though it should, so she wrote a book about “life on the road,” and squeezed in what had to be 25 stories about Wilma and her tribe, alone.
 
Then I realized I’d done the very same thing the Twitter stranger did: assumed that someone’s enthusiastic support must be motivated by some self-aggrandizing impulse to appear “with it,” and an “ally.”
 
Of course, there’s something to be said for making sure your support of others isn’t all about you, and posturing to make yourself look cool. I saw that Drew Barrymore movie about how Native Americans are magical, and I wanted to vomit in my popcorn as much as the next person. And I’ve had enough male friends post on Facebook that they’re feminists to know that some of them probably just think that’s what dudes have to do now, to be considered Not-A-Creep (TM).
 
But when someone steps up to support something that’s important to you, what if we assumed, instead, that they *actually* want to support you? That it’s a good thing when men are eager to read women’s books, whatever their many, nuanced motives? That it’s good when a historian quotes the wisdom of tribal elders, and brings those thoughts to a new audience, even if we’re not sure how cool that historian fancies herself?
 
I tweeted back to the woman who got mad at Gloria. I explained the context, and Gloria’s history with Native American organizers. Instead of getting mad and self-righteous, I explained. She said she was too quick to jump to her conclusion, and politely listened. I didn’t get a chance to apologize to the guys who wanted to read Steinem’s book (not that I’d said anything to their faces anyway), but the next time some dude wants to talk about Gloria Steinem’s new book, I’ll tell him where to get a copy.
 
AND THEN IF HE DOESN’T GODDAMN READ IT, *THEN* I’LL GET MAD.

A few announcements

Posted on June 16, 2015

Hey, everyone! A few updates on what I’m doing lately, what I’ve done lately, and who I’ve been lately (deep).

Here we go:

Why M.S. and not M.A., you might ask? It's because the program focuses on multi-media journalism, rather than subject-based journalism.

Why M.S. and not M.A., you might ask? It’s because the program focuses on multi-media journalism, rather than subject-based journalism.

A. I graduated from USC last month, with a master’s in journalism. It rained during my graduation, just as Alanis Morissette said it would. But my year at USC was fantastic, and I am very happy to have learned from a bunch of delightfully haggard professionals, how to be a better writer and radio-maker.

B. I was nominated for a national award by the Society of Professional Journalists. I did not win. That’s right. You may not call me a “nationally-award winning” journalist; merely a “region-11 award winning journalist,” which, if you ask me, sounds a lot like an award you give a taxi driver. Into it.

C. I and my team are nominated for an L.A. Press Club award for best talk/public affairs radio show. Together, we produced Annenberg Radio News, a live news and talk show program I hosted out of USC.

D. My first piece with VICE went live last week. It has been called terrifying and moving, or “full of shit,” depending on whether you listen to my colleagues, or that one libertarian commenter who posts about how he hates women a lot.

E. My podcast, “Oh No, Ross and Carrie,” has been nominated for Stitcher’s Academy of Podcasters award for 2015. We are nominated for best spirituality podcast, which I think we can all agree is monumentally exciting, especially considering that our last episode was really heavy on the farts. Winners will be announced at their event on July 31st in Fort Worth.

F. If you’re in Los Angeles this Thursday, you can catch me in the phenomenally talented Judith Shelton’s live show Relationsh!t.  In this show, Jude will interview me and two other comedy guests about our experiences in love, and then take questions from the audience. The questions are usually of the advice kind, and it’s always a blast, as well as a truly thoughtful show. Tickets are $10 at a the door, or you can use this link to pre-order. There’s also a 2-for-1 coupon floating around, if you want to be tenacious and find that.

Photo by Alan Mittelstaedt

Photo by Alan Mittelstaedt

G. In August, I will be teaching a podcasting seminar at USC with my radio producer, Victor Figueroa. More info on that as it becomes available. Our first seminar may be USC staff only, but I will update you here. We will be teaching our students everything they need to know about podcasting, from the technical (“How do I record three people at once?” “What is a microphone?”) to the conceptual (“What should my show be about?” “My cousin is really funny. Is that enough for a premise?”) to the businessy (“How do I get my show onto iTunes?” “How do I become a rich and famous podcaster, like… Oh.”)

H. My dog is still the cutest person on the planet.

That’s it for lettered updates. Sorry for not getting to “I,” but there’s no “I” in “update.”

Keep it real out there.

Award from the Society of Professional Journalists

Posted on April 29, 2015

My team and I won an award from the Society for Professional Journalists for a show I hosted. Best Newscast!

SPJ Award

I wasn’t there for the awarding, because it landed on the same night as a show I was hosting. But my producer went and was totally sideswiped by the honor! I had assumed the competition was too stiff, and sent him with an acceptance speech that was actually a Mussolini speech, with the name of our show replacing the word “Italy.” Fortunately, Victor is as well-spoken as he is a good producer.

Congrats, team!

A Note About Jon Ronson (Who’s Great)

Posted on April 14, 2015

Photo courtesy of The Tuesday Agency

Photo courtesy of The Tuesday Agency

People got mad on Twitter today. People get mad on Twitter every day. But today, they were mad at the writer Jon Ronson, author of The Psychopath Test, The Men Who Stare at Goats, and most recently So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. The irony needn’t be pointed out.

The source of the blowup is a sentence Ronson had in the galleys for his new book. Ronson (not his editor) voluntarily removed the line, but it looked like this:

“4chan aims to degrade the target, right? And one of the highest degradations for women in our culture is rape. We don’t talk about rape of men, so I think it doesn’t occur to most people as a male degradation. With men, they talk about getting them fired. In our society men are supposed to be employed. If they’re fired, they lose masculinity points.” I don’t know if Mercedes was right, but I do know this: I can’t think of many worse things than getting fired.

That last line is the bit that Jon removed, after feedback from friends and colleagues.

Let’s get this out of the way right now: Jon is my friend, though our friendship is decidedly lopsided. I love Jon and his writing the way some people love Jesus. I think Jon loves me the way some people love tacos. I am admittedly biased toward giving Jon the benefit of the doubt, but I like to think that knowing someone brings both insight and liability. Your friendship might blind you to their faults, but it awakens you to their humanity. And in my mind, there’s no doubt of Jon’s humanity. Jon is a caring person who feels deeply. Too deeply, in fact. If there’s one thing Jon and I share, it’s a capacity to worry, and particularly to worry about whether we’ve done something wrong. Jon’s sense of moral goodness is so central to him that if you took it away, I wouldn’t recognize him.

But of course, wonderful people can write horrible things. Monstrous things! I am not immune from saying a horrible, bigoted, racist or homophobic thing. We all have this capacity, and we all rely on those around us to gently, lovingly call us out when we do. If no one does that, the public gets to step in and tell us we screwed the pooch.

That’s the order of it, right? That’s what we’ve agreed on, as a society? You share your raw, unedited thoughts with those close to you, and if one of those people you trust says “That’s a damaging thing to say,” you consider it sincerely, and decide whether to change your mind. And that’s what Jon did. Friends told him that his sentence was ill-crafted, and he took their advice and removed it.

But he had written it at some point, and people who saw it might make the argument that writing it at all is a very bad thing to do. It seems to imply that Jon thinks getting fired is worse than being raped (or so some interpret it). I don’t read it that way. I think he was agreeing with the woman he was talking to (Mercedes), who said that in our culture, we threaten women with rape and men with job loss. Like many men, Jon doesn’t fear being raped, and so he was agreeing: “I don’t know if Mercedes was right, but I do know this: I can’t think of many worse things than getting fired.” He can’t think of many worse things (that could happen to him) than being fired. Of course he can’t — it’s the most likely horrible thing that could happen to him. I realize being burned at the stake would be worse than dying in a car crash, but I fear car crashes more, because I am far more likely to die in one.

But I think there’s a bigger problem here — not just a misunderstanding or disagreement about what the sentence says, but a problem with how we figure out what and who to be mad at. When Trevor Noah nearly went down in flames over some tweets from six years ago, few people mentioned that the person who called him out had to comb through 9,000 tweets to find something sinister. There’s something very unsettling about someone pawing through your dirty laundry to find the dirtiest sock. It’s an ugly version of our sanctimony, that we desperately search for something to be angry about, and then reserve our mercy only for their reply. If they reply correctly, great, they get the mercy. But until then, they’re trampled under foot.

I have only once been on the receiving end of that sort of hostile (and I think in my case, deliberately obtuse) criticism, but I can understand the recipient wanting only to lash back. The moral sphere has spoken: “You’re not welcome here.” What response can we expect but “Okay! So long”?

But Jon did one better. As Twitter excoriated him, he politely and repeatedly replied, pointing out that he doesn’t think being fired is worse than rape; rather that he, as a man, fears being fired more. Exactly the sort of point a feminist should be happy to hear: Jon Ronson gets that the threats faced by women are worse, and that his worst fears might look petty next to someone else’s. That’s something we can all relate to, isn’t it? My worst fears are not as bad as the fears of the average black man, for example, as has been all too horribly made clear in the last year.

Remember how I said the irony didn’t need pointing out? Well, here I go back on my word: It’s disappointing for me, having read Jon’s fabulous book, to see its message not heeded: That criticism is inevitable, even good, but that criticism must be sincere and delicate and merciful.

I hope we take Jon’s lesson to heart.

None too Religious

Posted on December 12, 2014

Religiosity is declining in America. Although most Americans still believe in God, a significant portion of citizens aren’t religious, or even spiritual. I asked some nones about the surprising new research that seems to show they have a dirty little secret.

Produced by Carrie Poppy
Photo: Atheists United, Hollywood, CA

Why Has No One Heard of the Nonprofit Charles Manson’s Fiancée Runs?

Posted on December 1, 2014

It’s In Corcoran, the prisoners outnumber the free.2:00 in the afternoon, and I am standing in front of an apartment door in the middle of a barren complex which sits four miles from Corcoran State Prison. I hesitate to knock, because there is a sign asking me not to. And because inside is the woman who is about to marry Charles Manson.

The door is unassuming, except for two things: there is a small star made out of tiny mirrors, pasted just below the peephole, and diagonal from that, a note: “Hello, no media please. Contact my publishing agent… This is the only way to get something started.”

DSC_0043It seems a lot of media have been to the tan colored complex in the last few days, since Star Burton, the 26-year-old woman inside, announced her engagement to notorious killer Charles Manson, age 80. But I’m at this door for something else: Burton’s apartment is also the official headquarters of ATWA, a nonprofit that she and others co-founded to share Charles Manson’s philosophies — environmentalist philosophies, they say. It is paid for by taxpayers, and as a taxpayer myself, I am there to ask what exactly the nonprofit does. But I see the note, so I don’t knock. I look at the peephole and feebly wave hello. No reply.

Star Burton moved to Corcoran, California in 2007. She left behind her family and her name (she was born Afton Elaine Burton), and moved here, to this desolate square of dead brush. A sign on the way into town boasts “Corcoran: Farming Capital of California,” and behind the sign sit several abandoned acres of dead grass. As I drive the long road into town, I feel the prison looming ahead, a shadow draping the tiny city. A gas station attendant confirms my suspicions when I ask him what there is in Corcoran.

“Well…” he says, his eyes drifting off in the general direction of the prison.

“The prison?” I ask, letting him off the hook.

“Yeah,” he says, “There’s no other reason to be here.”

Corcoran’s official population is 23,154, and 51% are prisoners. Since it’s an all-male prison, that means women make up somewhere around a quarter of the town, and the waves of this imbalance are felt throughout the county. While California’s female population is 50%, Kings County is 42% female.

I ask the attendant if he’s ever met Burton, Manson’s wife-to-be.

“Aww, yeah!” he says, lighting up, “I saw her in town once. She has the X on her forehead, and everything. But she doesn’t say much. Listen,” he went on, “if you want something to do, you gotta go north. About 30 miles north.”

One has to wonder what would bring a 19 year old girl to this dismal place to play companion to a convicted killer, seven years ago. And it appears Burton isn’t the only one. Craig Hammond, a 64 year old retiree, has been listed at the same address as Burton. He goes by the names Gray Wolf or Black Wolf, names which, like Star, were gifted by Manson himself. Last year, Hammond was found smuggling a cell phone to Manson in prison, according to the LA Times. But Hammond is someone else, to me: he’s one of the co-founders of ATWA. Which makes ATWA a singular nonprofit in that it is the only one to name as their sole staff Manson’s fiancé, and someone who risked his freedom for Manson.

If you were looking to support an environmental charity, ATWA would be an easy one to turn to. The acronym stands for Air, Trees, Water and Animals (or All the Way Alive, depending on the day you ask them). Sometimes they add an “R” for revolution, giving the organization the threatening acronym “ATWAR.” According to ATWA’s founding documents (accessed through the Attorney General of California), the organization exists “to educate the general public on ecological and environmental issues[,] and to provide environmental and ecological volunteer opportunities across the country.” In fact, ATWA was founded twice, once in 1997 by another die-hard Manson devotee, George Stimson, and again in 2011, by Hammond and Burton.

This image from the "Charles Manson Official" Facebook page was re-shared by ATWA.But after its more recent founding, ATWA virtually disappeared. GuideStar, which lists nonprofits’ tax filings, has no record of ATWA turning in their government-required 990s, and the Attorney General’s charity registry lists the charity as delinquent [Editor’s note: ATWA claims that they have in fact filed their 990s, and have receipts. We have requested these receipts]. The only hint of the organization existing is their web presence: a website, a rarely-used Twitter account, and a Facebook page. Over 7,000 people subscribe to the Facebook page, which often shares pro-vegetarian or environmental messages, but also intersperses announcements about Charles Manson and his alleged innocence, as well as posts about Squeaky Fromme and other Manson Family members.
rsz_211On any given day on ATWA’s Facebook page, you might see a picture of a panda with a swastika on her forehead, a poem by Charles Manson wherein he addresses air, warning it, “ I can crush your heart with a thought,” updates from Manson, chastising fans for wanting him to write back, or creepy videos to show your least-favorite child as they fall asleep.

“Love for ATWA -Love 4 Air-Love 4 Charlie who is all,” writes one adoring fan.

In all of this online activity, there is very little to be seen of the organization’s mission to provide environmental volunteer opportunities, save promise of a future project called “The Savior Project” which centers around “a seed gun invented by Charles Manson… to help renew and restore degraded land areas.” Yet, the seed gun is not available on the site, and there are no blueprints or instructions on how to assemble one, even though the announcement of the new project went up over a year ago. In fact, on ATWAEarth.com, the single instructional page for volunteers appears to be one half-page recipe for home made seedballs, the main ingredients to which might be guessed: seeds, dirt, clay, and water.

As I stand in front of Burton’s apartment door, questioning whether to knock, I see another website listed in her note: mansondirect.com. I recognize it because ATWA has promoted it many times, on its website and Facebook page. The site claims Manson did not really mastermind the famous Tate-LaBianca murders for which he was imprisoned. Given the recent news that Burton is engaged to Manson, the site seems a reasonable place to send curious reporters and visitors. But for those, like me, who want to know more about the nonprofit headquartered here, behind this door, there is not a single mention of ATWA.

I leave the apartment and call the press agent listed on the note. James McGrath, a mysterious news and assignment editor at Polaris Images with very little online history, is the first and last stop in any attempt to reach Burton, Manson, or ATWA. I tell him I am writing a story on the nonprofit, and he says that Burton might be interested.

“I’m vegan!” I tell him, in an effort to validate my sincerity about animal and environmental issues. He doesn’t seem all that impressed.

But it’s true. I do care about environmental issues, and animal issues especially. And like most people, I want to know that the nonprofits that aren’t paying taxes on their income are trading that obligation in, in return for offering a public service. And what is ATWA’s?

I had asked that question via email to ATWA’s various email addresses, and received no reply. I asked Becki Ueno, an attorney who helped file ATWA’s application for nonprofit status, but she said that ATWA was no longer her client. She refused to tell me if she knew of any connection to Manson, saying it would violate the attorney-client privilege. In fact, she declined to answer nearly all of my questions. But she did tell me that it was neither her place, nor mine, to determine whether a nonprofit was successful in accomplishing their mission.

ATWA certainly has not been financially successful. The highest level of assets it has claimed were $5,727 in 2012, up from $400 in 2011. Yet, almost $6,000, tax-free, is enough to ask questions, especially given the organization’s propensity to
promote Charles Manson at least as much as their mission.

3So I ask McGrath, this time via email, what programming ATWA provides that makes it deserve tax exempt status. I also asked him nine more questions, including “Are Craig Hammond and Star Burton still the principle acting agents? What is Mr. Hammond’s current incarceration status?” When he replies, it’s with a statement from Burton and Hammond, named as Secretary and Board Chair, respectively. They decline to comment on Hammond’s incarceration.

ATWA, they say, exists solely online, providing environmental insights through their website and Facebook page. The Savior Project, they explain, is a “new seed distribution method,” though as we’ve seen, it was announced over a year ago. They also claim that none of the other websites are ATWA-related (i.e. using ATWA funds), though MansonDirect.com is clearly listed on their site under ATWA sites.

When I ask why they were founded twice, they give no comment. When I point out that their Tumblr site advertised the Charles Manson Legal Trust, and ask if that might violate the federal requirement that nonprofits not benefit any one person, they reply, “Because of confusion regarding the intent of our informational posts, we have discontinued the ATWA Tumblr site,” and they remove it that day. However, the site remains cached at the Wayback Machine, including a request for donations to Manson’s legal fund.

Corcoran State Prison

Before leaving Corcoran, I stop at the prison to ask how many visitors come to see Charles Manson on an average day.

“I couldn’t say,” says the guard.

“You couldn’t say, like, you don’t know? Or you couldn’t say, like, you can’t tell me?”

He asks for my ID. Then he politely asks me to go.

My last stop is the post office. This tiny operation, closed for a two-hour lunch every day, has two staff and two visitors when I stop in. A few hundred P.O. boxes line the walls. Three of them are attached, in some way, to Manson.

The P.O. box for Manson's legal trust.

P.O. Box 131 is for those who order copies of Manson’s art or writings.

P.O. Box 303 is ATWA’s official contact address.

P.O. Box 1000 is for Manson’s legal trust.

And the mail for Corcoran State Prison comes through here, too, in large bundles, “so big, I couldn’t even read all the names if I wanted to,” says the woman behind the counter.

And so, this tiny post office on Chase Street in Corcoran is perhaps the only doorway from the world to Charles Manson. And if the comments on Manson-affiliated sites are any hint,  the letters are fawning, idol-worshipping, and written by the free. His supporters, it seems, will do anything for him. And a nonprofit devoted to his philosophies… Well, perhaps it should be watched closely.

When the AP asked Star Burton why she was marrying Manson, a man 54 years her senior, she said she wanted to exonerate the convict.

“There’s certain things next of kin can do,” she said.

As I drive back through the empty roads of Corcoran, filled with dead shrubbery, barrels of cotton, and grey landscapes that stretch into the horizon, I wonder who was on the other side of that peephole, and how long she stared back.

Thanks to Claire Knowlton, who contributed nonprofit expertise to this story.