Monday, December 5, 2016

Land of the Blind: Everything is Connected

A Carlo Kostner Mystery
: Chapter Three :

IT MAY NOT be in the cards to finish this before moving on to a safer location. When I arrived – it feels like weeks ago but has actually been only days – Lucas said I could stay as long as necessary. But if someone wants to find me, it won’t take forever to figure out that I might call on an old friend, admittedly one with whom I had a very public falling out years ago.
     The association goes back even longer, more than thirty years, to when the three of us – Gene Montoya, Lucas Vega and yours truly – sometimes got stoned together, and, to a certain extent, shared an Aquarian dream. So did my first wife Miranda, a Native American princess and certified wacko, as well as the rest of the Coyote clan. But Gene was on a different road even then, a harder political track rather than our countercultural yellow brick road. 
      Lucas, being older and the one with real money, had the strongest sense of how he wanted to deal with the world. On his own terms.
     “We are at the center of the universe,” he proclaimed, then quickly stipulated, “Don’t laugh. What I mean is that our actions will spiral out and change everything.”
     In Lucas’ case the argument could be made that it wasn’t just bluster; his work was having a real world impact. The creator of a unique, organic architectural school that built on the philosophy of Louis Kahn – “to create a presence, consult nature,” he would say – Lucas Vega had fused design with ecology and attracted students to a remote sub-alpine workshop. By the time we met in the mid-seventies, just after I finished college, he was starting the next phase of his journey – visionary eccentric. Lucas was building an intentional community in the Southwest while promoting a radical agenda, a non-mechanistic vision of what it means to be part of a living whole. 
     “We are a body of humanity embedded in our living parent planet,” he said. I was always a sucker for great rhetoric and a Big Idea. Then again, he was right.
     The pitch was a bit abstract for Gene, even when he was high. Which wasn’t all that often. Speaking of drugs, it offended me, reading a GQ interview after the announcement of Gene’s presidential run, that he now claimed to be “the only person who didn’t get high during the hippie era.” It was an obvious attempt to erase his past and any association with the counterculture. 
     The remark was so Clintonesque that I couldn’t avoid the conclusion that he actually thought he could win the presidency. Very sad, considering how things worked out.
     The day we caught up at his campaign office I was feeling a bit nostalgic. Maybe it was because, on the way over, I had stopped at Lafayette Park to hear an anti-war presser and was somehow reminded of our original connection, the days when we were one for all and all for fighting elites. 
     Gene was getting closer by the day to the center of national power, and I was taking the reins of a media group with the potential to reach millions. So, maybe Lucas had it right, I thought. Our actions had spiraled out, and brought us here, and now presented the possibility of changing society. 
    Spokesmen for Veterans against the War, Grassroots America, and Act Now to End War and Racism – widely known as the Progressive Coalition – were talking about the failure of our latest imperial adventure, the domestic repression it had spawned, and, specifically, $40,000 in illegal postering fines. In the process, they decided to demonstrate the proper way to put up posters in a public place. Before they got far, the National Park Service sent in mounted police and a SWAT team to stop the demonstration and arrest the organizers. 
     As he was dragged away, the PC spokesperson shouted, “Now using wheat paste to put up posters is against the law. They’re criminalizing dissent!" 
     When I talked with Gene, the protest – and particularly the over-the-top response – was still on my mind. But Gene had no apparent interest in the travails of the anti-war movement. “It’s a sideshow,” he concluded dismissively. “Sure, I’m against the war. But you won’t change foreign policy or our role in the world with wheat paste.” 
     He looked like a candidate now – ramrod straight, perfect skin, immaculate suit, custom haircut – a very long way from his old self, a rumpled rebel with no fashion sense. Still, one of the first things I noticed on entering the office was his smile, broad yet not convincing, as if there was something going on just below the surface. Whatever it was, in our salad days he never would have bothered to hide it. Only the message was important then, that and The Movement. Any surrender to Form, any sort of slickness, was artificial, inherently bourgeois. 
     The first time we met we argued over precisely that point. My own view was that how you presented yourself, in other words the package, often determined whether people would even hear your message. Dark and defiant, with shaggy hair, worn out sneakers and torn jeans that road low on his hips, Gene dismissed the idea with a withering contempt.
     This was 1974, when Nixon was only months from resigning, and a group of us were invited to a meeting of students, campus leaders about to graduate from colleges and universities in California. The common thread was an interest in radically changing politics and the media. Of all the participants, convened by Wild Bill Masterson, a one-eyed independent filmmaker who had managed to sell most of us on his dream of establishing a new media empire in northern New Mexico, Gene seemed the least likely prospect. He was studying journalism but felt mostly contempt for its practitioners. His true obsession was monopoly control by huge corporations, a critique that sounded a bit too simple to me and hardly explained what to do about it. 
     But Wild Bill had something Gene wanted – people willing to buy into his vision, and Gene had something Bill needed – knowledge of the local terrain and plenty of contacts. He even had a site in mind for the project – a ghost town near Taos. 
     “You want to start an empire in a ghost town?” I was incredulous. “Does it even have electricity?”
     Gene didn’t hesitate to pounce. “That’s a racist statement. But what really bothers me is how uninformed you are for someone from one of the best schools in the country. It may be the boondocks for someone living in La-La Land, but there’s something going on there that isn’t happening in the rest of the country.”
     “What’s that?”
     “A people’s movement, amigo, a challenge to everything that’s wrong with the country.”
     “In a ghost town?”
     Bill tried to intercede. “Not there, Carlo, but in the general area. It’s being led by farmers and locals fighting a huge construction project.” 
      Gene finished the thought. “The Indian Camp Dam,” he explained. “It’s being pushed by a group of corporate fascists who operate through a front group, the Rancho del Rio Conservancy District. Stopping the dam, that's my priority.”
      It was the same way he sounded that day in his campaign office, spouting off about PIA and the other private military interests that were manipulating foreign affairs at the behest of corporate conspirators. As always, absolutely convinced about the righteousness of his stand, as well as the inevitability of victory in whatever struggle he took on. Yet blind to unintended consequences. This time he had seriously miscalculated. 
     As any investigative journalist ought to know, a good theory explains the available facts and cannot easily be contradicted. That’s why I was immediately skeptical about the announcement that my old friend Gene had committed suicide by poisoning himself with dioxin. The same toxin used on Viktor Yushchenko, the Ukrainian President who was leading his country's opposition at the time of his exposure and discovered 1,000 times the normal amount of dioxin in his blood. Although his face was disfigured with chloracne Yushchenko survived and eventually became president anyway. 
     The amount ingested by Gene wasn't publicly revealed but it had to be considerably more. 
      Even harder to accept was that he ended his own life in the midst of a last-minute surge toward the presidency, and decided to do it with a chemical compound more likely to cause cancer, diabetes or long-term damage to the immune system. In other words, he couldn’t even be certain it would work. 
    The theory made no sense, as opposed to the idea that he was targeted, at the very least to be brought low by an attack that would prevent him from appearing in public during the rest of the campaign. 
     As for why, that was the easy part: he had become a threat to the wrong people. 
     Nevertheless, within 24 hours discussion of a possible assassination, accidental or otherwise, was ruled out and suicide became the consensus story, endlessly echoed on major media outlets, along with the suggestion that he had struggled with episodes of deep depression for many years. I found it about as convincing as the official story about the 9/11 attacks.
     Whatever you think about that, my point is that the official line didn't adequately explain all the available facts and was, to say the least, open to interpretation and challenge. Yet not even the Rose group’s talking heads wanted to go there.
     Lucas didn’t reject my analysis. But he was worried about my state of mind. I had arrived at his studio close to hysterics, more out of it than he had ever seen me, even after my break up with Miranda. Then I was young and overwrought, disillusioned about a failed marriage and a pointless job. This time I was a supposedly well-balanced, middle-aged and responsible executive. Yet I believed that some latter-day illuminati wanted me dead. 
     He listened patiently as I recapped the last few days, starting with Gene’s call shortly before he died, excited about his prospects for winning the race and eager to discuss his decision to publicly call for a halt to private military contracts. The issue was catching fire and the timing looked right, Gene said. The next day he was gone. 
     The day after that, as the first coat of whitewash was being applied to his untimely demise, I had to fly to Texas for the annual Rose Board of Directors meeting. That night I stopped at KLAP to appear on Against the Grain, a weekly show, and talked about my departed friend. 
     Just before going on the air, my mobile phone rang. The display showed a restricted number so I ignored it. During the interview I mentioned that Gene and I had talked at times, without saying how recently, and mentioned his concern about mercenary armies - without revealing his latest plan. 
     As I left the studio, I turned the phone back on to check for messages. The first voice, officious, cryptic, said that the Secret Service was sending a car and wanted to interview me as soon as possible. I never heard the next message. It was drowned out by the explosion, the sound of shattering glass and the screams of terrified volunteers. 
     “You think the two are connected,” asked Lucas after I finally reached his studio in a panic, “Gene’s death, the bombing at the station?” 
    “Are you high? He was going after guys with the best death squads in the world, not to mention the ability to monitor calls and figure out where we are. And I may be the last person who talked to him. Definitely not a coincidence.” 
    "So, are we safe here?"
    "Good question."

To be continued (when I know more..)

Sounds from the street 

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Land of the Blind: Getting to Roseland

A Carlo Kostner Mystery
: Chapter Two :

THE THING ABOUT being a rescuer is that you tend to see problems as challenges rather than threats. You think, how bad could it be? After all, Rose Broadcasting was a revered institution, a national voice for peace and nonviolence populated with dedicated, sometimes gifted people. It was an honor to have an opportunity to lead, even if it felt a little tentative. The Board was rife with intrigue, and there were queasy rumors about the hiring process.
     Now I think: How bad could it get and where can I hide?
     Known as The Rose, it had taken the name of its late beloved founder Leonard Rose, and as a reference to what roses often represent – love and beauty. Anyway, it made for an enticing logo.
     There was irony in the symbol. Rose is also the national flower of both the US and England. Long before that, early Christians adopted it as the symbol for their martyrs. The association with socialism and the left developed centuries later, linked to the British and Irish Labour parties, not to mention assorted left-wing political groups across Europe during the 20th Century.
      In May 1968, it became a badge of honor for street protesters in Paris.
      But the name also worked as a handle label for conservatives, for whom it served as just more evidence that The Rose was pink, maybe even Red, a dangerous, subversive blot on the media landscape, a network of left-wing stations that “blamed America” for everything wrong in the world and supported disloyal, decadent elements in our society.
     Obviously that wasn’t how Leonard Rose had defined the mission, or how loyal Rose watchers saw it. For them it was the voice of truth and justice, a source of hope for a better world.
     Officially, it was the Rose Broadcasting System, a worker-managed, listener-supported multi-media company, owner of operations in half a dozen large markets, and frequent site of internecine political warfare. Over the decades it had grown from a single Los Angeles TV station into a network with billions in assets, millions of listeners, and a structure so Byzantine that even ardent defenders considered it dangerously dysfunctional.
     Before I became its chief executive, a colleague from the Pine Tree State dubbed it “the dream job from hell.” I found the description amusing at the time. Nor was I dissuaded when one Rose GM explained why he wasn’t interested in the job despite ample qualifications and political connections. “I want to survive,” he said. ”Professionally, and otherwise.”
     I followed up. “What the f--k does that mean?”
     “It means,” he said, “that people who get there also tend to get bloody. Rumors, media vultures, that kind of thing. It’s tough to find a home afterward.”
     He didn’t mention being assassinated or framed for murder. But obviously I should have taken the advice more seriously.
     A month later, I was on my way to Rose headquarters in New York, located behind an unmarked door in the same building as WARP, one of the oldest operations. But first, that stopover in Washington, DC to meet with Gene Montoya, American success story and the next big thing.
     Most people know the basics about Gene, or you might say, the “approved script.” Starting out the son of a poor Mexican immigrant and an Irish beauty queen, Gene Montoya had managed through hard work and political genius to become mayor, then congressman and most recently governor. At the time of my invitation, he was something even more exciting, a well-funded independent candidate for President. Less widely known was the fact that we were friends at one time, although I hadn’t heard from him since his star began to rise.
     In the spirit of full disclosure, I should mention the last time we saw each other, about eight years before our reunion. He was standing in the third floor window of New Mexico’s state capitol, known as The Roundhouse and designed to represent the Zuni symbol for the sun – the only round state capitol in the country – watching dozens of anti-war protesters get dragged away roughly by the police for committing civil disobedience. I don’t know whether Gene personally issued the order, or even noticed me sitting cross-legged on the ground with the rest of an affinity group.
     For a while I held it against him anyway.
     This was definitely not the same dude I remember from our days with the Magic Coyote commune. Clearly people can change in twenty five years. In any case, about a year ago he asked to meet. Despite the hand-written invite – probably penned by a sycophantic intern – I didn’t believe that the reason was a sudden urge to reminisce about the good old days.
     That sun-fried afternoon in Santa Fe, when dozens of us were manhandled for demanding an end to bombing and lies – What else is new? – wasn’t the only time I was arrested for a good cause. About two years later it happened again, this time by accident while I visiting a campsite established to “Save the Rose.” There were earlier encounters with the fuzz, of course. All the Magic Coyote communards, myself and Gene Montoya included, were shackled and booked back in the day. It was the thing to do, a social obligation, a mark of honor.
     Saving The Rose had a similar allure. After all, it had been "hijacked" by corporate hacks and “We the People” would do whatever was needed to “take it back.” In other words, by any means necessary. Sartre coined the phrase but Malcolm X made it an article of faith and the Internet turned it into an acronym – BAMN.
      I use "we" somewhat loosely, since I wasn’t a member of the inner circle. But I did visit Ground Zero – a scruffy park near the business office on the outskirts of the capitol – just in time to be rounded up by the cops.
     The tension had been building up for months, and finally reached a boiling point when armed guards tried to arrest Gail Sahara, not yet the media celebrity she became but already popular as host of “Open Forum.” Then she charged on the air that the Board of Directors was scheming to sell the Los Angeles station. Her arrest was stopped by then CEO Carter Larkin (one of my discredited predecessors), yet Gail joined others on a growing list of the “fired and banned.” Within a week, thousands were committing not-so-civil disobedience outside Larkin’s office.
     All this may not seem especially relevant to the untimely demise of Gene Montoya. But it helps to explain the Rose as a born-again democracy, and why I could end up in charge.
     The"revolution" that created the “New Rose” began when the Board of Directors, chaired by former Under-Secretary of Education Rebecca Alice Lemon, voted to change the governing structure. There had been internal fights for years, but this time Board members claimed they were being forced to comply with government rules.
     The problem, claimed Lemon and her allies, was the Community Involvement Panels that “advised” management at the stations. The Corporation for Public Media had allegedly informed Rose executives that the Board would have to sever official ties with the CIPs to remain eligible for public funding. Even though Rose was financed mainly by listeners and underwriters, an increasing proportion of its revenue was being provided by the Feds. Cutting out the CIPs meant a bylaws amendment that would essentially make the Board self-perpetuating. Whether the CIPs ever had any binding control over the stations – and whether the change was actually what the CPM had in mind – are both fair questions.
     The first person to challenge the Board publicly was a producer, Hardy Berman, the professional curmudgeon who urged Gail Sahara to talk about the crisis on her show. Berman, an irascible, astute pro who found a home at the Rose during the sixties, was promptly suspended for violating a so-called "non-disclosure" rule. He later claimed that the trouble began when Larkin refused to renew Capital Bureau Chief Sandra Black’s contract.
     Black was a recent hire and popular with staff. Soon after that Larkin issued a statement intended "to clear the air." But his explanation included harsh words for both Berman and Sahara. The feisty host, probably egged on by the Berman, fired back by reading Larkin’s statement on her show, then proceeding to discuss internal network business. This violated a so-called "no dirty laundry" policy.
     There was a policy for almost any occasion, yet apparently never the right one.
     In her own defense, Sahara said her comments focused on “how concerned I was, as someone who has been with the Rose a long time, about what I considered authoritarian power plays and a wasteful bureaucracy." A few days later Berman was fired for letting her express that opinion. Sahara, an effective fundraiser, was spared but warned to shut up.
     In another version of the same story, Berman wanted to be fired in order to become a martyr and light a match under the activist base, and Larkin didn’t renew Black’s contract because she was too friendly with Sahara and Berman, who felt they could control her and thus the network’s political agenda. Still another version had the Rad Couple, as they were known, embezzling funds and writing themselves checks. Larkin never claimed that happened. But he did say an investigation of spending for “Open Forum” was being pursued. This was more than enough to rile the rumor mill.
     Anyway, a key moment was Berman’s removal – in handcuffs -- from the DC studio after an altercation with Larkin and the security staff. The story goes that Carolina Cruz – about whom more later– had just been selected to replace Black as head of the Capitol Bureau and asked Berman to come over for an orientation. That much was verified. Beyond this it becomes “she said, he said."
     Berman later claimed that Cruz threw her cell phone at him. She charged that Hardy was “belligerent” and "knocked over stuff," then falsely claimed that he had been assaulted. Whatever the truth, Hardy’s supporters were milling around outside the door, heard the ruckus, and were ready to believe him. But their presence also fueled suspicion that a subsequent public shouting match between Berman and Larkin in the hallway, complete with finger poking and enough contact for the alpha males to exchange spittle, may have been staged.
     What’s indisputable is this: Larkin called in security and they dragged Berman out of the building.
     But that was child’s play compared to what came next, As Sandra Black told the story, she had visited the office that same day to pick up her severance check. Although sensing that someone was following her home, she didn’t respect her intuition. When she stopped at a traffic light, a non-descript car – “like one of those unmarked government vehicles,” she told the police – sped past.
     A gunshot smashed through her windshield, missing her by less than a foot.
     The police couldn’t find a suspect, so no one was arrested or charged. Within Rose circles, however, the spin was that the attack was a warning – in response to the story being developed by the network, with Black’s support, about phony terrorist scares designed to gin up paranoia and justify just about anything in the name of national security. For some Roseniks, a government plot is the first and easiest explanation for any unexplained (aka suspicious) occurrence.
     How this relates to my working for the network has several angles. First of all, I knew the stories and, like other believers in the promise of progressive media, I wanted to help save the Rose.
     The Board and management had banned discussion of the crisis on the air. More staff was being fired, and as the protests grew Lemon asked the police to crack down on the demonstrators. With wartime logic in effect, the feds and cops had the tools and were ready to punch. But persistent protests forced the police to investigate the attempted shooting of Sandra Black.
     Over the next weeks, Lemon accused the opposition of violence and racism, the staff union filed unfair labor practices charges, federal mediation was launched, and a cadre of listeners filed a lawsuit demanding repeal of the “self-perpetuation” amendment and removal of the entire Board. Just when everyone thought the tension couldn’t get any worse, a confidential e-mail was circulated. It revealed a secret plan to sell off stations, a charge Sahara had leveled on the air before being threatened with arrest and banishment.
     By then I was on a cross-country road trip to the protest site, which had become a semi-permanent encampment surrounded by riot police and renamed Roseland. Less than two days after I arrived, cops invaded in the dead of night and made hundreds of arrests. I spent hours in a DC holding cell. But the next day Roseland was back in action.
     For me it served as a baptism. You might say I was born again as a part of Rose Nation. From that point on, I felt that I had a direct stake in the outcome of this revolution.
     It was also an effective, especially apropos distraction from grief, since that same weekend was the last time I saw Renny, the love of my life and the bane of my existence. After a bizarre courtship – she was considered an enemy of the state when we first met – we had lived and traveled together, driven each other nuts, and broken up on two continents.
     I am not over her yet.
     Second, I began to investigate questionable “terrorist” incidents, particularly the possibility that some of them might be hoaxes, and that line of inquiry led to “Outsourcing War,” which put our small production company on the map. The movie, which won some festival prizes, reached art houses, and was ultimately sold to Netflix. It exposed and tracked the creeping privatization of war, which has proceeded for decades but escalated sharply in recent times.
     Finally, and perhaps most crucially, I became General Manager and CEO largely because some people never forgave the other leading candidate for her ambiguous role in the network struggle. Carolina Cruz had survived the Rose Revolution – not surprising for someone who overcame an abusive father and death squads in Central America. She remained a muscular gatekeeper in the network. But neither her connections nor award-winning productions were enough to counter the charge that she was a power-hungry predator who could not be trusted.
     As insiders often said, “Welcome to Roseland. Feel the love.”

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