Springtime for Hitler—and the History Channel
Most historians agree that the bombing of Dresden on February 13, 1945, was one of the darkest chapters in the Allied struggle to liberate Europe from Nazism. On that day, as many as 135,000 civilians may have been killed, and a city with an irreplaceable architectural heritage was utterly destroyed—all at a point so late in the war that the justification for the carnage seemed painfully lacking. Certainly any documentary that would seek to make sense of the tale would need the guidance of a historian who could convey both the cruelties of war and the horrors of Nazism.
Somehow, though, the History Channel came up a bit short when it chose David Irving, the pre-eminent Nazi apologist of the last quarter of the twentieth century, to provide the historical commentary for its recently aired documentary Inferno: The True Story of Dresden. Irving, whom the documentary identifies merely as a "controversial" historian, has denied that Auschwitz was a death camp and that Anne Frank's diary is a "historical document of any value." He penned the introduction to the "Leuchter Report," Fred Leuchter's infamous statement of Holocaust denial. The most telling judgment on Irving's intellectual pedigree is the fact that he is no longer allowed even to set foot in Australia or Germany because of his long history of Holocaust revisionism.
The History Channel, it seems, applies a looser standard. And they can't even plead that they didn't know who Irving was when they signed him up. "We thought twice about it," said Charlie Maday, the show's executive producer. "Obviously we were aware that he had this past. . . . We discussed it and made the decision to go ahead and do it." The Los Angeles production company that got the contract for the job, Termite Art Productions, convinced Maday that as long as they didn't ask Irving about the Holocaust itself, he would make a fine expert.
But then again, Termite Art doesn't have impeccable credentials either. They're best known for reality programs like Busted on the Job, which included surveillance camera footage of a woman taking revenge on her boss by urinating on his office furniture. The documentary they created for the History Channel is equally sketchy, if more subtle. Low points include Irving describing Sir Arthur Harris, head of RAF Bomber Command, as "a born killer" and likening pictures of the Dresden dead to photos of Dachau—and all against a backdrop of eerily familiar-looking black-and-white images of emaciated corpses and refugee children, and a mournful violin tune straight out of Schindler's List.
Cable-television documentaries are famously ill-equipped to provide the historical context for the topics they confront, but in choosing a Holocaust aesthetic to tell the story of ordinary Germans, the producers at Termite Art didn't do themselves any favors. In a culture such as ours, obsessed with victimology but lacking the political understanding to put these stories into proper perspective, this was TV drama at the expense of good history—and good sense.
Most Web sites have keywords tucked away, invisible to Web surfers but easily read by search engines. Dan Quayle's campaign 2000 Web site vanished days after he bowed out of the presidential contest September 27. But the site's keywords augured its early demise.
The former vice president's site had all the standard keywords like president, campaign, Republican, and so forth. But the first word on this site's list was Qualye (no, that's not a misprint), followed by Quail, Quale, Quaile, Potato, Potatoe, Dan Quail, Dan Quale, Dan Quaile, Dan Quail for President 2000, Dan Quale for President 2000, and Dan Quaile for President 2000.
Guess Quayle finally figured out who his core constituency was: bad spellers. Too bad he discovered them too late to energize his voter bass.
Al Gore, Man of the People?
Press reports often cast George W. Bush in almost Reaganesque terms: a widely popular candidate boasting apparently deep tendrils of grass-roots support. But like most candidates for high office, Bush pulls in most of his fund raising dollars from a well-milked network of big donors—starting, in his case, with the 130 "Pioneers" who have pledged to collect $100,000 each on Bush's behalf. And while it's true that nearly all the serious candidates have picked up most of their dollar totals from wealthy donors, the latest fundraising statistics nevertheless reveal telling differences.
According to the latest Federal Election Commission filings, as of September 30, 136,423 individuals had contributed to Bush, 70,124 (51.4 percent) of whom gave $200 or less. By the same date, the Gore campaign reported 155,652 contributors of whom roughly 131,689 (84.6 percent) contributed $200 or less. By way of comparison, out of the rest of the Republican field, only the angry populist Patrick Buchanan, who recently bolted the GOP altogether, could boast a higher percentage of small contributors.
The biggest surprise of all may be Bill Bradley, like John McCain a self-styled champion of campaign finance reform. Bradley is for going political action committee money in his bid for the presidency. But despite a surge of small-donor support in the third quarter, he could still barely boast a higher percentage than Bush: only 31,667 donors out of 56,000, or 56.5 percent, gave $200 or less to his campaign.
Lies, Damn Lies, and the NRA
Gun control is one of those curious public-policy issues that defies the normal rules of political gravity. No matter how high the polling numbers in favor of gun control climb—78 percent, according to one post-Littleton poll—little changes but the National Rifle Association's (NRA's) line of attack. Their latest tack runs something like this: Why do we need even more gun control laws when the laws already on the books are barely being used? If the existing laws were strictly enforced, argues a recent series of NRA-sponsored TV ads, we wouldn't have a problem with gun violence. The same argument is now routinely parroted by anti-gun control advocates in the halls of Congress.
The unenforced-law claim seems to have its origin in a recently released NRA "fact sheet," which states that "[Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF)] referrals for prosecution of federal firearms law violations have declined nearly by half during the first six years of the Clinton-Gore-Reno Administration. [ATF] cases sent to federal prosecutors declined by nearly 44% from 1992 to 1998, a drop from 9,885 to 5,510." The numbers come from a reputable source, the Transactional Records Access Clearing house (TRAC), a nonpartisan research organization that collects criminal justice statistics. But the NRA's interpretation of those numbers is both clumsy and misleading—the percentage actually refers to total referrals, not just weapons referrals.
"The statistics cited are solely for federal prosecutions," points out Adam Eisgrau of Handgun Control, Inc., "which ignores that prosecutions have been a cooperative effort between state and federal authorities for some years now." This is especially true for the ATF, which—after a 1994 Office of Management and Budget (OMB) review recommended that certain ATF operations be devolved to state authorities—stopped referring charges for which there existed an equivalent state charge. The ATF began to focus more on illegal gun trafficking, which necessarily yields fewer gun-crime referrals. And the change in approach has led to some significant results: ATF referrals for gun trafficking have jumped, according to TRAC, from 651 in 1994 to 830 in 1998.
Still, weapons prosecutions have dropped significantly, and the overall drop is worthy of explanation. One factor is staff cuts. Between 1992 and 1998, according to TRAC, the ATF underwent a 14-percent reduction in the number of criminal investigators on staff. Those staff cuts, it turns out, were the product of the same 1994 OMB report that to the "re-prioritization" of agency activities. During the same period, ATF personnel were drafted into several operations— including the Oklahoma City bombing, the Atlanta Olympics bombing, and the string of church arsons in the South—that required lots of manpower but yielded few referrals for prosecution.
Basically, the opponents of gun control have locked the ATF into a catch-22. When ever the agency enforces gun laws vigorously, they get walloped with nasty issue ads and harsh congressional criticism. When the ATF tries to nail gun-sellers who break existing gun laws—laws that are intentionally worded to make prosecution difficult—it is accused of over zealously prosecuting upright citizens. And the ATF shies away from vigorous enforcement to avoid controversy; the NRA uses the federal agency's allegedly lax enforcement as a stalking horse to undercut the whole notion of firearms regulation.
But there's another possible explanation for the drop in ATF prosecution referrals. While he acknowledges that staff cuts were one obvious cause, David Burnham—a former crime reporter and co-founder of TRAC, the outfit that came up with the statistics in the first place—believes that ATF may have come down with the equivalent of "blue flu." "One hunch—and this is just a hunch—is that there may be a serious morale problem in the wake of Ruby Ridge and Waco. When police get criticized for writing too many traffic tickets," says Burnham, "they stop writing traffic tickets."
Porn Stars and Conservatives
The National Press Club recently hosted a forum on online pornography that I was eager to attend. I've taken a great interest in the subject ever since reading about a list of the 10 most unsafe libraries for children, compiled by an Oregon-based antipornography group called Filtering Facts. The list includes the New York Public Library (that scourge of the nation!) and nine other institutions that refuse to employ blocking software to prevent, among other things, teenage girls from researching breast cancer on the Web. Besides, the forum sounded like fun, since in addition to the usual cast of lawyers (Carol Clancy of the National Law Center for Children and Families and Jeffrey Douglas of the Free Speech Coalition) and wonks (Solveig Singleton of the Cato Institute), this forum featured a real, live former porn star, Gloria Leonard, as well as Donna Rice Hughes, the woman who got Gary Hart in all that trouble back in 1988.
As the elevator whisked a nondescript woman and me up to the 13th floor of the National Press Building, I wondered whether I would be able to pick the porn star out of the crowd. It turns out the answer was no. I found out later that the woman who shared the elevator with me that morning was none other than Ms. Leonard. As she later explained, in addition to her work as an actress, Leonard also edited High Society magazine for 14 years and virtually invented phone sex. But though we shared intimate quarters for a full 13 floors, there was no heavy breathing, let alone a seductive moan. Her blue suit remained on her body for the entire ride.
Alas, despite her candor and chosen profession, Leonard's presentation was more like a lawyer's or a policy wonk's than an adult entertainer's. And that put her in line with the rest of the speakers on the panel. Clancy made the case for censorship, Singleton for the First Amendment, and Douglas for pornography. And so my hopes for entertainment fell to Donna Rice Hughes.
She delivered. Hughes now believes that pornography led her down the primrose path toward her ill-fated tryst with then-presidential contender Gary Hart. But as often happens in these sorts of situations, God rescued her from sin to preach the anti pornography gospel. I wondered if Hughes thinks God thought far enough ahead to make pornography lead her to Hart and then to her crusade, or if she thinks God just came upon her when she was a down-on-her-luck sinner ready to mend her and everybody else's ways. In any case, her presentation was chock full of alarming claims about how America's children's "innocence continues to be sacrificed at the altar of the First Amendment," and she was even happy to describe all manner of unseemly things you can find on the Internet to drive home her point.
For all the morning's contentiousness, there was at least one moment when the pro-porn and antiporn camps seemed to edge their way toward agreement. While answering a question about legal jurisdiction over a global medium like the Internet, Leonard told the story of one of her porn star associates who complained unsuccessfully to the FBI because one Web site owner posted a fake picture of her having sex with a dog. This put Clancy, normally an avowed enemy of porn stars, in the unfamiliar position of fighting for porn star rights, if only in a very limited and rather bizarre way. "That's wrong," she said of the fraudulent sex-with-a-dog image. "I don't care what your industry is." I was just glad they could find something to agree on.
After it was all over, I walked over to the D.C. Public Library to finish some research only to find a middle-aged homeless man calling up pornographic images on one of the library's computers. Thinking of Donna Rice Hughes, I got out of there as quick as I could.
The Color of Hope
Ever since Georgia introduced the HOPE Scholarship Program, which gives all in-state high school seniors with at least a B average a full ride at a state college, a number of Southern states have been getting in on the act. But states like South Carolina, Kentucky, and Louisiana want to toughen up standards by adding standardized test scores to the mix.
But that keeps most black students from getting any of the money. South Carolina's Palmetto Fellows Scholarship, for instance, which has a 1200 SAT cutoff, was awarded to 683 whites and only 21 blacks (South Carolina is 30 percent black). The beauty of the Georgia program is that it rewards merit but always in the context of individual schools; thus, a nice cross section of the state's students get a piece of the pie.
Given that every Southern state lawmaker knows about the widely publicized black-white test score gap, it's hard not to be a little suspicious about why these infamously low-education-standard states suddenly got so interested in high educational standards.
The Final Frontier
In late November, the Russian space program is scheduled to launch a proton rocket into orbit from its base in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. The rocket's scientific mission is routine, but the physical appearance of the rocket won't be: Painted across one 30-foot section of the rocket will be the logo for Pizza Hut.
Pizza Hut's advertisement will not actually make it into orbit, however. It's located on a segment of the rocket that will be cast off soon after the launch and will burn up before it reaches space. Pizza Hut will be able to capture the rocket's takeoff on film, though, and images of the company's airborne logo will appear in a series of television commercials sometime next year. Company executives won't disclose the exact price of the deal, saying only that it cost them about half as much as a 30-second TV spot aired during the Super Bowl (probably around $1.25 million).
Does Pizza Hut's launch tell us anything about the future of advertising? As part of an effort to seek new sources of funding, NASA announced in February that it was hiring an engineer named Daniel Tam to be its first commercialization chief. "We want to find a way to get the commercial sector involved as fast as possible and as effectively as possible so that we can . . . move on to explore beyond the solar system," Tam recently told the Associated Press.
The focus of NASA's inquiry will be on dual-use technology and on ways to privatize parts of the station—programs that, if handled properly, could benefit both private industry and the government. There's a risk, though, that commercial prerogatives will trump scientific needs. NASA apparently hasn't ruled out selling ad space on the station's exterior or even carrying merchandise into space and back to increase its value. (How much would Star Wars fans pay for a Boba Fett action figure that had actually been in orbit?)
Even so, critics shouldn't get too worried yet. Federal law bars NASA from placing corporate logos on American spacesuits, and NASA policy won't allow ads on other taxpayer property. And if NASA does permit advertising, it may consist of "public service sponsorships" like those that appear on PBS, not the standard fare of flashiness and glitz we've come to expect.
The greater risk is that private companies will eventually find ways to work around these limited ventures. Tacky as it may be, Pizza Hut's proton-rocket deal was a fallback after a far more ambitious idea fell through: According to the Associated Press, company executives originally wanted to use lasers to inscribe the Pizza Hut logo on the surface of the moon. The idea was abandoned only when it became clear that a lunar logo would require a land area the size of Texas and would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Future advertisers may never try anything quite so brazen as that, but if NASA's restrictions seem too tight, such advertisers could easily work with foreign space programs or private companies instead. With Pizza Hut boldly going where almost no one has gone before, the final frontier of marketing looks to have no outer limit.