Alicia Rebensdorf

The Animal Kingdom Storms Reality TV and the Documentary Industry

Earlier this month, black and white billboard portraits of the family don were erected throughout New York City. They advertised a popular mob drama known for its sex, murder and conflicted loyalties. The caption: Tony's Out. Flowers' In. The third season of Animal Planet's Meerkat Manor was officially here.

But Flowers isn't the only furry film star that's in. Lapping at the success of movies March of the Penguins and Winged Migration, a wave of feature-length nature documentaries is coming soon to a theater near you. August saw the release of Arctic Tale, a touching story of a baby walrus' and polar bears' first year. It will be followed by The Elephants of the Okavango, the touching story of an eight-week-old elephant calf's journey through the desert. And there's also Turtle's Song, a touching story of a loggerhead turtle's journey from egg to ocean and Earth, which follows four migrating animals and their broods.

The upright, big-eyed Meerkats will have a big year. Following the success of the Meerkat Manor, both the BBC and the Discovery Network have feature-length Meerkat films in production. The cinematographer of Winged Migration is also at work on Les Animaux Amoreux. The subtle anthropomorphism of the French title is a bludgeon in its English translation: Animals in Love.

The cuddliness of these protagonists has inspired Desson Thomson of the Washington Post to name the trend the rise of the "fuzzumentary."

The name is equally descriptive, however, of the genre's blurring of traditional documentaries with Hollywoodized narratives. Arctic Tale used composite animals to create a fictional story of a polar cub it named Nanu and a walrus pup Seela. The Elephants of the Okavango publicity promotes the emotional range of its infant star, Jani, and Queen of the Kalahari, which is structured as a prequel to the Meerkat Manor series, is sure to follow the show's soap format with named cast members and telenova narration: "Finally, young Daisy tries to join the group unnoticed, but it's not going to work. She reeks of Carlos' aftershave. Despite her attempts to apologize, the group is confused and angry."

Though more overt than the TV documentaries from the Mutual of Omaha-sponsored Wild Kingdom series on Animal Planet, this is not an entirely new phenomenon. As Watching Wildlife author Cynthia Chris points out, while we tend to think of nature programming as unmediated, historically "wildlife film narration has ascribed to a fairly conservative set of ideological values." They portray the nuclear family as a firm social unit and cast those outside this unit as antagonists. Their girl-meets-boy narratives suggest universality on uniquely human social constructions. They also tend to favors species whose looks we can relate to and whose behavior can seem to match our own.

But this new genre, critics say, pushes that sort of moralizing even further. As Thomson writes, "Nature does not exist purely to entertain children. And these bears and walruses -- which would devour us if given half a chance -- are not fuzzy toys soft-shoe shuffling across a rapidly melting snow stage." Also, as exhibited in the fuss around the March of the Penguins, when some on the right lauded the bird's conservative values and progressives shot back with evidence of their one-season matrimony, these quasidocumentaries can manipulate animals' inherently apolitical behavior into powerful political agendas.

I was recently watching an episode of Meerkat Manor in which one of the females (they called her Tosca) had given birth to a litter of pups. The narrator, Sean Astin, who played one of the hobbits in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, called her "the wayward daughter," and said the baby-daddy was likely from a rival Meerkat gang. According to his script, Tosca was kicked out of the den for reproducing without "her mother's permission." Never mind the question of just how a meerkat green lights a pregnancy, it seemed he stopped just short of calling her a slut. It might have been a little hypocritical to accuse others of anthropomorphism while I talked back to the TV, telling a certain hobbit he was a condescending prude. Still, I cared to remind: She's a meerkat. Getting knocked up is her primary purpose in life.

The difference this go around, however, is that the conservatives who often benefit from these documentaries are no longer on the winning side of the storyline. Directors following the classic nature narrative -- a year in the life of a particular animal -- are increasingly including commentary on how those seasons have been affected by climate change. The New York Post 's Kyle Smith wrote of Arctic Tale: "The film warns that the animals are at dire risk because of the shrinking ice cap, but the message is stamped in with editorializing: When a polar bear tries to find a hunk of ice to stand on, Latifah says, 'This is not like any winter mother bear has seen before.' (Really? In what interview did she tell you that?)"

One can argue that a creature needn't be cognizant of a narrative for it to be true. Climate change is affecting many habitats, whether or not we recognize it. Heck, other animals should be so lucky to be anthropomorphized. Coral reefs are in dire shape -- if only they had eyes. Plankton levels are dropping, threatening the ocean's entire ecosystem. I don't see them being a part of a Happy Meal tie-in anytime soon.

But even if the science of global warming is irrefutable, Smith still has a point. As far as we've has come in studying animal behavior, we still have little idea of an animal's emotional cognizance. When it comes to media representation, animals -- maddening inarticulate as they are -- are entirely at our whim. By adding a couple baby animals, a dramatic soundtrack, and a few key closeups, directors structure emotional motivations where there is little proof such feelings even exist.

''In the scene where a mother polar bear has to cast off the baby because she can't fend for the both of them anymore, it's got sort of that tough-love feel. But you see that emotion in the footage," Adam Ravetch, one of the filmmakers of Arctic Tale, told the New York Times. But try fitting the infanticide that figures in many animal colonies to a jazzy soundtrack. Critics on both sides are right to be wary of the sort of cherry-picked scenes and narrative leaps that dominate these fuzzumentaries.

After reality television got big, some producers made an active push to rename the genre. Their alternatives -- docusoap or unscripted drama -- never gained much ground, but their resistance to the "reality" moniker was effective in dampening accusations against them. Over time, we've come to accept the manipulations they make for dramatic effect: the out-of-context eye rolling, the reductive good vs. evil story arcs. Just because it is made from sugar, it doesn't taste like sugar. Most viewers are well aware of the splendafication of reality television and consume it accordingly.

Nature filmmakers are now responding similarly. They suggest their films aren't so over-reaching as our expectations are staid. Adam Leipzig, president of National Geographic Films has tried to do the same with this genre: "I don't call it a documentary. I call it a 'wildlife adventure,' because this is a movie you go to because it's fun and entertaining, not because it's good for you." Animal Planet's website pitches Meerkat Manor as "All My Children meets Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom."

But for as much as Meerkat Manor sounds like Laguna Beach and Arctic Tale looks like Survivor, such word play might not be enough. Roger Scruton, a research professor at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences who writes widely on animal rights issues suggests we need a new framework for our animal-human relationships. He argues that "negotiation, compromise and agreement" are the foundation of all human communities and that, rather than assigning animals rights based on a moral framework, we should give them rights based on how we use them: as pets, food or scientific study.

It only seems fair that, as movie stars, they deserve the same.

How Big Pharma Learned To Seduce You

Ten years after the FDA first approved pharmaceutical direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising, the Senate has finally resolved to step up DTC regulation. Sponsored by the bi-partisan coalition of Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), the bill passed by a resounding 93-1. The House has a similar bill on its calendar and a full vote is expected in July.

Problem is, although the legislation has been touted as a victory over the big, bad drug companies, the success is actually Big Pharma's.

At first glance, drug company influence on the recent legislation can be hard to see. The bill raises fees on pharmaceutical patents to beef up FDA staff and speed review. It also gives the FDA power to fine companies for ads that fail to list risks in a "clear and conspicuous neutral manner."

However, compared to the recommendations made by the Institute of Medicine back in September, this bill replaces a steak knife with a spoon. The Senate bill ignores their suggested two-year moratorium on advertising new medication. It fails to require FDA approval before ads go on air and allows the FDA to assess fines only after the fact.

Even then, many critics doubt the fines will be much a deterrent. As Bill Vaughan, a policy analyst at Consumers Union, points out points out, "When a company can make more than a million dollars a day in drug sales, a $150,000 fine for running a misleading advertisement won't have much impact."

In fact, the bill is so soft that even Billy Tauzin, former Republican congressmen and current president of the powerful drug group, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), praised the bill, saying it "will no doubt make a good system even better."

Tauzin should be so congratulatory. In many ways, the bill is his success. When he took the reigns of PhRMA after the Vioxx debacle in 2004, he spearheaded an aggressive campaign to improve Big Pharma's image.

The campaign's formula: Lobby hard behind the scenes. Play very nice in public. And promise any changes that need to happen. We can regulate ourselves, thank you very much.

By the time the Democrats took Congress and made it clear they were gunning for stricter DTC regulation, Tauzin and his industry had several year's worth of marketing practice to perfect their defense.

The drug companies' effort to recast themselves as friends of the FDA and champions of patient rights is not in itself surprising. Nor is their PR campaign -- lobbying, playing friendly, self-regulating -- particularly novel.

But considering how this campaign affects public debate, and how images of their products influence our ideas about health and the promises of modern medicine, it's a campaign deserving scrutiny.

It all began 10 years ago with a preternaturally green field and blue sky. Details were vague: We were told to ask our doctor. But never fear, Claritin was here. And soon that drug was not alone. Our airwaves slowly filled with more commercials of cloudless skies and the people who enjoyed them -- happy people who swung on rope tires and performed slow motion somersaults. Over those first early years, the active people's afflictions gradually multiplied. They suffered hair loss and got herpes. The guy couldn't always perform up to par. Through it all though, the people seemed to genuinely like holding hands, and they aged really well. Their seven-day forecasts were never short of spectacular.

Those first few antinasal drop ads have since exploded into a $4.5 billio-a-year industry, encompassing almost every imaginable ailment: depression, arthritis, cholesterol, PMS, HPV, restless legs, irritable bowels, toenail fungus and what, as the ads told it, seems to be an insomnia epidemic.

As the popularity of these ads grew, so did the media debate about their ethical and medical implications. Op-ed columnists, doctors and consumer watch groups all weighed in, with many arguing that DTC ads exploit consumers by "selling sickness" and emphasizing drugs' benefits while downplaying their risks.

But it wasn't until six years later, when drug giant Merck withdrew Vioxx from the market, that the issue came to a head.

Determined to keep its customers -- and its ad spots -- the drug industry responded with a makeover. In the spring of 2005, PhRMA launched a 15-point guideline for reforming DTC advertising. Along with submitting ads to the FDA for review and "more directness," the guide called for an end to reminder ads: short spots that name a product but not its purpose or risks. Some critics pointed out that most of the bulleted points duplicated laws already on the books. Others noted that the rules were voluntary, vague and unenforceable. Republican Senate majority Bill Frist, who was pushing for a two-year moratorium at the time, limited his praise to "a good first step," but talk of a moratorium soon after stalled. PhRMA's token gesture ensured their ads were -- if only for profit's sake -- safe.

Around this time, the commercials themselves also began to shift. The shock of those first DTC ads had since grown cliché. SNL skits and comedy writers regularly parodied their disclaimers and ad execs needed fresher ways to promote their products. One of the more effective methods the drug industry developed was animation, and soon it was everywhere. Bees started selling allergy medicine, water balloons suffered bladder control and balls couldn't bounce because of their depression. When those active people did sleep, they were aided by glowing butterflies and talking beavers. The human body, usually played by actors or represented by artery diagrams, also became more imaginative: a fun house of germs and a play yard of leaking pipes.

There are many reasons for this Disney-like shift in imagery. Cartoon mascots have long been an effective marketing tool. Their lack of gender and racial characteristics give them a wider appeal. Stylistic graphics tend to be more memorable than the acted-out ads, and consumers, perhaps jaded by all those perfect people, are often just more responsive to animated ads. Also, considering the anatomy involved, cartoon mucus and monster toe fungus can be a cute way to straddle the ick factor. They're currently making a sitcom out of the Geico cavemen. It would not be much of a reach if 'Meet the Mucinex's' were next.

But whether intentional on the pharmaceutical industry's part or not, the ads also serve a larger purpose of softening their drug's image. It's hard to imagine an anthropomorphized ball suffering kidney problems. A pastel butterfly wouldn't hurt a fly. Bambi's friends are also especially effective at obfuscating the drugs' side effects.

Professor Ruth Day, director of the Medical Cognition Laboratory at Duke studied how Flonase's British bee floats placidly during most of the ad. When it comes to the risks portion of the anti-allergen, however, his wings flap distractingly fast. Combine this with 10 years of DTC-perfected risk disclosures -- using a different, more monotone narrator (especially in celebrity endorsements), longer vocabulary (while most drug ads use 6th grade vocab, the side-effects usually use 9th) and accompanied by positive imagery (think lots of recreational activity) -- and the cartoon drug's side effects can be awfully hard to hear.

The tactics of self-regulating, using animation and downplaying side effects are, in themselves, hard to rail against. Pharmaceutical companies are following the letter of the law. When the FDA has sent out unenforceable "notices of violation" to the more over-stated and deceptive ads, the drug makers have been quick to respond. Plus, it could be argued, this is not a conspiracy campaign, just good selling. Consumers ultimately bear responsibility for finding out if the medication is "right for them."

There are, however, larger repercussions to consider. The fact is that while public opinion polls rank the drug companies as one of least trusted industries, nurses and pharmacists routinely place as the top two most honest and ethical professions. As skeptical as the public may be of the pharmaceutical industry, we believe in the power of their medicine. DTC ads and drug company PR take advantage of this faith in a way we consumers need to be more alert to.

Consider for a second the shows these ads are sandwiched between: ER, House, CSI, Grey's Anatomy. As our drug ads grow more infantile, our medical dramas are increasingly graphic. We see the blood. We're in the operation rooms. We're in the bodies. In some ways, illness and anatomy have never been so demystified in media.

At the same time, however, the magic surrounding medicine is as great as ever. Most of these shows are a medical who-dunnit. House and his assistants track symptoms to come up with a cause. Grey's interns take breaks from flirting to figure out a mysterious disease. Occasionally a medicine won't work but it's almost always because the hero-doctor misdiagnosed the problem, and by the end of the hour, the real cause is found and the magic pill is administered. These hyper-real shows tap deep into our culture of medical trust and encourage our wonder-drug optimism. The pharmaceutical ads aired beside them benefit by association.

And this is why the questions of responsible advertising and well-articulated risks are so important. Many drugs are great. They are life-saving. But others are not. Many are marginal improvements on cheaper medicines, often with greater risks that disclaimers make easy to tune out. Many are dubious re-dressings for older medications whose patents are running out. This is why the Institute of Medicine came back with such stronger language in 2006, calling for a two-year moratorium on new drug ads and a stronger FDA. This is why the pharmaceutical industry's efforts to avoid DTC regulation require such diligent monitoring -- especially when it looks like they need it the least.

Which brings us back to the recent drug bill. An interesting ad came out just before the senate took up FDA reforms. And, on its surface, it seemed to address all that is wrong with most DTC ads. The ad was for Celebrex, and it debuted during a Pfizer-sponsored edition of World News Tonight. Celebrex, an arthritis reliever and relative of the vilified Vioxx, had been taken off the airwaves in 2004 and the new ad was its long (in more ways than one) awaited return.

Rather than the traditional 30-second spot, the new Celebrex ad runs a full two and a half minutes. Where most companies bookend their commercials with the drug's healing properties, the Celebrex starts on a very cautious note and repeats risks throughout the entirety of the ad. Side effects are not only stated in relatively clear language, phrases related to stomach ulcers and kidney problems are written in text on the screen. Twice, it goes so far as saying side effects "can cause death." And while, yes, the ad's protagonist follows all the DTC clichés (he paints, bikes, fishes, plays with his dog and dances with his wife), the graphics -- white lines of script on a blue background -- actually seem to convey the disclaimers rather distracting from them. The closing slogan nails the message home: "Understand the Risks; See the Benefits."

It's unclear whether the timing of the ad -- released just prior to the senate bill -- was planned or mere coincidence. But one thing is certain: Viewed in light of the Institute of Medicine's recommendations, Pfizer seems to be advertising self-regulation as much as it is its medication. "Let's dive deeper," the narrator tells us at one well-executed point. Just under the ambient soundtrack, you can hear the ad patting itself on its back. The watchdog group Public Citizen has garnered some negative press for Celebrex by accusing the ad of overstating its similarities to less dangerous medications like ibuprofen. But judging by the ad's frequent airplay and, some would say, the recent weakened Senate bill, the ad is a drug industry success.

Realistically, the Senate bill owes more to PhRMA's massive lobbying efforts than to a clever drug ad, but that doesn't mean we should dismiss the power of the ads themselves. Direct-to-consumer advertising is exploding online, an area the FDA regulations haven't begun to truly address, and DTC television spending is not declining as some analysts once predicted. Since on-air DTC advertisements are the most visible part of the Big Pharma's campaign, the way drug companies manipulate these ads to sway public opinion is of particular importance. Right now, consumers are relatively skeptical. This is good. Considering our trust in medicine and the way pharmaceutical advertising takes advantage of it, it's up to us to take their cartoons seriously.

Has Product Placement Made Our Television Viewing Experience Worse?

It's not news that, in a world of Tivo and Youtube, remote control and cable radio, the traditional commercial is something passe. As standard ads shrink from 30-second slots to 10-second reminders, TV cameras increasingly linger over Survivors eating Doritos and Jack Bauer driving his Ford on the car company's favorite station FOX. A study last year discovered that nearly 11 percent of all network minutes include a branded reference and the Philly Inquirer recently started carrying a Citizens Bank-sponsored column. Last month, a Dallas radio station decided to do one better. It pulled ads altogether, replacing them with sponsored segments and product-plugged banter:

"You know, the best way to get down to Austin for South by Southwest is Southwest Airlines. They have tons of flights. It's the way I travel."

Yes, this so-called "product integration" is all the rage. But by replacing 15 minutes of commercial airtime with two minutes of branded chat, the Clear Channel station, KZPS, did more than prove that what works for American Idol can work for radio. It also paraded its announcement as a consumer victory. They claimed their new format both cut down on commercial clutter and marked a return to the golden years of American radio.

"In a sense, we're recapturing the early days of FM," said programmer Duane Doherty, "when your jock was a trusted guide through what was new and important."

Never mind, for a minute, the use of the terms "trusted" and "important." Doherty has a point. Because direct advertising was not allowed, early radio was always brought to us by our favorite corporate sponsor. Amos and Andy made Pepsodent toothpaste a household name, and the first TV shows followed the model with Kraft Hours and Camel Newsreels. But let's not confuse nostalgia for progress. Just because sponsored programming is in some sense a return of an old formula doesn't mean it's unworthy of scrutiny.

I'll be honest: I hesitate here. To continue this line of reasoning, to champion the separation of branding and broadcasting feels equally idealistic and hopeless. Product integration -- a marketing euphemism that oddly equates advertising techniques with schools in Little Rock -- is already too far gone. Most of our sporting venues are now named after beers and banks, and the trend is spreading to schools. News shows' health segments are often bookended by medicinal brand logos, and that Philly newspaper column is most likely just the first. If we are talking radio, on-air personalities have been voicing over car insurance and weight loss plans for years. As evidenced by last year's study of record companies and radio, even the content of most commercial airtime is bought. How do you argue with ads being inserted into commercial programming?

Plus, it's not like Ryan Seacrest is any Edward Murrow. Or that media consumers are naive victims. Most people tuning into FOX generally do so with the understanding that what they are watching a certain point of view. And if the stars of their prime time dramas on that same station all happen to drive the same car make, what real harm is done? We always, after all, have the choice not to watch. Our decision not to opt out of commercial media can be understood as an implicit acceptance of whatever advertising is embedded within.

In response, the standard social critique against product integration -- that ad creep feeds a culture of consumption, that it compromises artistic freedom and erodes consumer choice -- can seem vague and, considering much of this integrated advertising looks a lot like it did in the '50s, ironically old-fashioned. To argue against other product placement feels like fighting back the climate crisis tide. It feels like preaching abstinence to a couple already in the act.

In fact, the best arguments against product integration seem to be on aesthetic terms. That Trump's plugs on "The Apprentice" simply lack finesse. That, compared to say E.T.'s Reese's Pieces, a product that received an 80 percent boom after it was in Spielberg's movie, the Cover Girl banter on America's Next Top Model is just plain awkward. Product placement done well can add realism to a scene -- it might seems strange if Tony Soprano were drinking no-name soda rather than Coke -- whereas product integration usually makes the entire show seem fake.

But let's now go back to the words "trusted" and "important." Not in reference to the Dallas disc jockeys or Jeff Probst or any of the other hosts who shill with such skill, but in respect to the other "trusted" and "important" sources that have given them such a pass. When KZPS made its late April announcement, there wasn't much fuss. Most articles tempered the news by mentioning it had been unsuccessfully tried by three Long Island stations before. Some even likened the Clear Channel move to the kind of sponsorship used in public radio, noting that Kelly Kibler, the sales director behind the Dallas station format change, used to work for NPR's "Car Talk."

But having a sponsor and chatting up about said sponsor are fundamentally different. Even if the hosts, like "Car Talk's" Tom and Ray who, unlike most NPR shows, announce the underwriters themselves, they don't go as far as to say they both have Allstate Insurance and, boy, they sure as heck feel like they are in good hands. Their shameless commerce division is still pretty divided. By paralleling the two stations, mainstream media reduces Clear Channel's move to more of the same. It permits that this latest version of branded content as inevitable and insures similar corporate ventures go even less noticed.

After all, once something "just is," it's easy for us to forget it could be any other way. As with reality television, the more pervasive this sort of integration becomes, the less press it gets, the more normal it seems, the less critical we media consumers become.

This wasn't the case. In 2005, the Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild staged a protest, urging a "code of conduct" on the use of product integration in TV . Among their demands for a limit of product placement in children's advertising they also called for "full and clear disclosure for both the visual and aural disclosure of product integration deals at the beginning of each program so the program's audience knows ahead of time that it will be subject to hidden or stealth advertising." The FCC, however, decided it was much ado about nothing, and the story quickly slipped off the news cycle.

As with integration, decrying the media's short attention span seems like a futile fight. Except that it's a story the media might be less and less tempted to return to. It's hard, after all, for the Philly Inquirer to protest branded content when its business section is being visibly funded by Citizens Bank. CBS's 60 minutes might hesitate after Philips sponsored one of its episodes; or any other media outlet faced with online and cable competition when it realizes how much it can make if it gets into the game itself. Spending on product placement alone is projected to top 3.7 billion in America this year. So Clear Channel keeps shilling. Sitcom storylines increasingly involve products. The plugs grow more aggressive. The ads creep on.

But here is also where it gets interesting. The internet and cable, so often fingered as reasons why product integration has become necessary, are also providing some interesting advertising alternatives. Because as old media looks at ways of disbanding traditional ads, new media is increasingly fitting them in. Most news websites preface their videos with short, separate and clearly defined commercials. YouTube recently announced that, starting next year, it will begin playing pre-roll ads to most of their videos. Qtrax, a music sharing site, is offering free music as long as one watches a short commercial first. A broadcasting executive has been floating the idea of a pay per system cable: The more ads you watch, the lower your bill.

Granted, a lot of cable today is as product-plugged as the main networks. And obviously, with blogs-for-hire and corporately produced viral videos, the internet is hardly immune to stealth advertising. But what's important to note here is that opposed to mainstream media, a lot of these new media advertising models emphasize consumer awareness. If you want the video, the music or the show for free, you accept the commercial fee. If you prefer not to be exposed to the sales pitch, you pay for Sirius or HBO or a website's premium membership. It may come with a cost, but at least the choice is yours.

The changing media landscape begs many questions: questions about consumer choice and corporate disclosure; questions that in the best circumstances leave it to viewers to decide the cost/benefit ratio of our advertising consumption and that, in the worst, subvert any choice we have at all.

Unfortunately, these are not questions mainstream media is likely to ask. A call against advertising creep is often marginalized as extreme or anti-American. But the opposite of product integration is not communism, it's consent. And if we can't always have the freedom of such choice, it's important that as media consumers, we at least force the conversation.

When Tourists Meet an Open Grave

There are many reasons we say we come. To pay respects. To understand. If we are from out of state, to support New York.

It is said that it's not real until you see it for yourself. Congressmen, Manhattanites and random celebrities exclaim that its full magnitude and terror can't be known unless you see it first-hand. That, unlike popular mythology, the camera doesn't make it larger than life.

I was hoping they were right. I never bought the other common saying that it was like a movie. It wasn't a movie at all. Not at all. The soundtrack was too dead still and the aesthetics were all wrong. But neither did it feel real.

Like most people in this country, I watched that crumbling tower obsessively; again and again until its images took on pornographic dimensions: the shock value numbed me like the nudity of escort ads. I watched and watched until everything about it seemed as cheap as Hollywood gimmick. Flags waved from antennas, networks and Burger Kings like the latest fad, the new Macarena. Violins played to two minute stories of unimaginable tragedy and I gagged. I shut my mouth, disgusted by own apathy and thought: Soon, New York. I was on the road and would be there in two weeks. I may be emotionally distant, media-saturated and jaded, but wait 'till I see it for real.

Two weeks later, and here I am. Walking down the length of the island, I feel too weird to ask the best way to get there. Hell, I don't know what to call it. Ground Zero? Too much network dramatism. Saying the Trade Center feels kinda cruel. So far, "Down There" seems the most popular. It makes reference to both its Manhattan location and its Hades-like imagery. Though even in its subtlety, "there" is said like a whisper, like the superstitious whisper of "cancer." So I don't say it at all. I just go where I think is south and follow those who are bold enough to pull out the maps. There are many on this pilgrimage less shamed by their voyeurism than I.

From uptown, things really didn't seem that slow. After the small towns I've been in on the road, NYC looks pretty damn happening. As I walk south, I find occasional ghost streets between where the traffic is cut off and the people have filled in. Once I arrive at the closest open subway stop, however, the sidewalks writhe with movement. Lines like ants wind around barricades and mass congested at red lights. Stands of flags, ribbons and commemorative WTC postcards wait in even paces from the next. New York's yellow taxis are replaced with the NYPD's blue-lined cop cars, their drivers standing behind barricades in starched navies.

Unlike its images on TV, the actual object of my pilgrimage is not much to see. A brown smog. A distant pile of dust. A piece of equipment that rises up like a mast. An emergency vehicle and space in the skyline. Instead, the crowd stares at an absence; an absence where so many of us were never even familiar with a presence.

Yes, there are many reasons we say we come, but it doesn't feel that complex when I'm here, standing in a chorus of snapping cameras. It feels like I am at a tourist site. Plain and simple. And like most roadside attractions, it is impossible to divorce the experience of seeing the thing with the experience of being surrounded by a hundred other people seeing the thing. You can angle in and take a picture that does not show the mass of other cameras, but that shot will not show what it is like to actually be there.

I did not bring a camera. I thought about it. I had it in my hand my when I first went out the door, but the same self-consciousness that refused a map went back and left it behind. So without a shot to frame, I stand staring. Waiting for something -- just what I can't say. I stand with others paused in this gaping limbo: the crack of lightening seen, we wait here to feel the thunder.

One of the others is a professional photographer from 15 blocks up. He has been here many times, and has yet to take a single shot of the wreckage. He claims a purity in this; of taking photos of those on the margins rather than the nucleus they circle. I agree, I guess. But I also wonder if it's because the shots accessible are still two blocks away.

So while its true that it's nothing like it is on TV, it's not in the way I expected. There the screen was only as far as the living room's width. Even from the southern side, where instead of a mass of beige, you can see floors and twists of metal, it seems so remote. That's horrible to say, I know. This is an open grave and wanting to get closer is sick and selfish and disrespectful.

But here we are, all of us circling the barricades in search of a vista that will show it best. One of us has the gall to ask a cop if this is the closest she can get, and I watch a nearby man cringe. Shortly thereafter, he lifts up a camera with a telephoto lens a full foot long. I wonder, does it make him feel closer? Is the impact I'm looking for magnified at all through that long lens? And why does it feel like he is cheating?

It was not always so distant. I had my moment where it felt real. I heard the news in Livingston, Montana -- Big Sky Country -- and it seemed the whole lot of it was falling down. My chest got trapped, my mouth fell open and my throat closed. Tears surprised me. I spent several hours at a stranger's house watching the networks stammer for info and spent the rest of the day driving through Yellowstone, listening to the radio buzz between tidbits of shock and the white noise of no reception. I even visited a church that night; my first time on a non-holiday. But that seems like a different event than this.

A laugh draws my attention. It sounds less harsh than you might expect. There are three people in suits standing outside their building smoking cigarettes which, with air still ashy and grimy, has the appeal of crowding a space heater in the middle of the Serengeti. One guy steps on his cigarette and scoffs, "I don't care. This is obscene. They are out here with their telephotos and shit. If I had my wife in there, I'd be pissed."

The people with him concur. "I mean, I asked a cop yesterday why he lets them do it. He told me, 'It's a free country isn't it?'"

I suppose there is some kind of irony in that, but I find more in the fact that the moment someone articulates what I am feeling, I recoil from it. Cause, yeah, it's gross, and it's human too. My reaction to his disgust triggers the thought that perhaps not that much has changed after all. Like most Americans, I am keener on New Yorkers than before. He reminds me that some can still be arrogant fucks. Like he didn't stare. Like his voyeurism is all the more evolved than ours.

Plus, though I'm still mostly glad I didn't bring my camera, I'll admit there are some shots that I might hate to take, but I would love to have. The high rises with their film of ash, a cop and a flag in the foreground. A window's dust marked with slogans, one with three unmistakable waving lines. A woman's gold hoop snagged on her facemask's rubber band. A shot to show I was there and this is what it was more or less like.

Instead I'm left looking at photos of what is not. The black and white photos of the towers peddled by enterprising salesmen. Photos of human absences taped on walls and mailboxes, all labeled with the euphemistic title "Missing." I read the love stories and the spontaneous poetry I'm still too cynical to appreciate. Their sentiments may be true, but all this tragic pain doesn't necessarily make the poetry good. Yeah, I'm an arrogant fuck too.

I see a woman cry and I can't be alone in being impressed. In this mass, she is the only one I've seen. She must know someone, I say, because I can't just be a cold-hearted monster, too jaded to let even the most wrenching tragedy hit me.

Have those movies so desensitized me? Or is it maybe natural that not having this skyline mark my world, not having my circle of friends and family be touched, not having my job be in danger, not being a celebrity who meets the people working around the death, only seeing the ethereal ashes to ashes and not the bloody terror, that my emotional distance is, dare I say, normal? That maybe I had my moment, under that Big Sky of shock, and that I won't feel it again? That it is natural to numb it out and that even this journey here to stab the wound could fail?

Is it more real to me? I guess. But is it real to me? I don't think so.

A man comes up to me. He asks, is it possible to get closer? I'm not sure. But it's not a bad question. Not at all.

Alicia Rebensdorf is a freelance writer who is working on a travel book.

John Cusack in 2004?

While Bush's reign stumbles along, leftist activists have been scrambling for an adequate candidate to grace the 2004 games. Gore has re-emerged from hiding, his chin hairy and his hair less coifed, but not necessarily any more appealing. Kerry's gone thorough the Vietnam snafu and few think that, even if she did go for it, Hillary has a chance.

Thus, a recent grassroots effort by two ex-Clinton consultants has proposed John Cusack as the Dem's best chance to regain the real West Wing. Citing his stand against corruption in "Eight Men Out," his tough decisions in "Grosse Point Blank," and the fact that he's, well, "America's Sweetheart," the Cusack campaign has taken off like a grassfire in the Hollywood hills. So far, over 3,500 block captains have signed up at the campaign's electronic headquarters,, and the little-campaign-that-could has been covered everywhere from the New York Times to the BBC.

Plus, as the Cusack in 2004 people are quick to point out, there is a chance for a Cusack double billing. His sister Joan, after all, would make a fine VP. She's strong, forceful, tall and has those tough girl smarts. She could look Trent Lott right in the eyes and give one of those great emotional rants she does so well.

Cusack for Prez. Its a nice summer story. Light and Fluffy. But it also seems to be more than that. Thirty five hundred block captains: Think about it. That's more than Joseph Lieberman had. And this campaign has only been public for a couple weeks.

But what does the story's popularity say about our national undercurrent? What does this say about our expectations of our presidents? If this is the face of leftist grass-roots efforts, it certainly looks like they've started cutting from glossier pastures.

In a millennium where a WWF star is governor and a vice president is criticized for playing too "stiff," the public wants their politicians affable and their actors political. People are tired of the over-polished �80s TV spots and are looking for those stars who can pull off more of a reality television model. Polished enough not to be repulsive but scruffy enough to seem sincere. Smart enough to last but not too cunning that it interferes with their likeability.

In this environment, Cusack seems like just the kind of guy to win. He's cute, but not in an obvious way. He likes girls, but he�s not necessarily very good with them. He plays friendly under-achievers and we are charmed to pieces. Kinda reality, kinda not. And though he may not be brilliant, he certainly has more going on upstairs that our current commander in chief.

Capitalizing on the Anti-Capitalist Movement

An angry mob gathered around a train station, passing out photocopied flyers and shouting protests against an unjust company. Scrappy stickers were slapped on billboards, directing passers-by to a crudely designed website. The company they were railing against was a frequent target of grassroots activism: Nike. And the group running this guerilla-style anti-advertising campaign? None other than Nike itself.

It's been over a decade since Nike's beloved swoosh first came under attack by labor activists. Organizations like Adbusters, Global Exchange and NikeWatch have waged high profile campaigns to make that curving icon associated with slave labor as firmly as with Michael Jordon. Activists have manipulated logos, performed street theater and marred billboards in order to "jam" the Nike brand.

Nike's recent soccer ads in Australia, however, have appropriated both the techniques and the language used against them. The campaign involved posting billboards that boasted "The Most Offensive Boots We've Ever Made," pseudo-marring them with stickers that read "Not Fair Mr. Technology," and even creating a fake grassroots protest group called Fans Fighting for Fairer Football (F.F.F.F). Although this fuzzy people-power group had "banded together for a single cause that they believed was fair and just," they were not activists fighting for fair working conditions; these were "actorvists" arguing that Nike shoes gave their wearers an unfair advantage.

How clever! How hip! That Nike, they sure can co-opt their critics with irreverent cool!

"It took hard work to link the words 'Nike' and 'sweatshop' in the public mind," says Kalle Lasn, director of Adbusters. But now, he says, "without significantly changing its labor practices, Nike gets a chance to mock its critics, with the public laughing along."

Though Nike may pass their latest stunt off lightly -- like it is, to qoute their other advertising campaign, "just play" (tee-hee, you're it!) -- this is no game of tag. Instead, it's another chapter in the age-old story of corporate marketers co-opting a cultural movement. But this is commodification with a twist -- because, essentially, Nike is trying to capitalize on the anti-capitalism movement.

Anarchy, after all, is sooo in. Black Bloc protesters strut their stuff on the nightly news, with their drums, explosions, and black hoods framing attractive, twenty-something faces -- hell, it's better than MTV and reality television put together! And you couldn't ask for better demographics. Demonstrations in Seattle, Quebec and most recently Genoa have been a hit with the 18 to 35 year olds; the audience the police are shooting at is precisely the one corporate advertisers are shooting for.

While extreme in its co-optation of protesting techniques, Nike is hardly the only company jumping on the anti-corporate bandwagon. Apple, IBM and the Gap have all played with protest-chic. Apple has imposed their "Think Different" slogan onto billboards of Cesar Chavez, Malcolm X, and -- most recently -- young, red-flag waving militants. The Gap has seized on the graffiti aesthetic by dressing their windows in fake black spray paint that reads "Freedom" and "We the People." They've even hung anarchist flags alongside their sweatshop-produced low-riding jeans.

Meanwhile, IBM has made a more literal move to the streets. Their recent Linux campaign involved spraying stencils of Peace, Love and the Linux Penguin logo on city sidewalks. They have gotten flak for their graffiti -- Chicago fined them several thousand dollars and San Francisco officials decried it as vandalism -- but that can only reinforce their hip, anti-establishment image. It's only a matter of time before Old Navy begins peddling gas mask patterned handkerchiefs (you've got to get this look!) and the Home Shopping Network makes the Black Bloc's monochromatic look available to you, 24 hours a day, in your choice of ebony, sable or raven.

An exaggeration? Perhaps, but not without precedent. The corporate machine has proved itself capable of folding the prickliest of cultures into its embrace. Punk. Afro-centricism. Civil Rights. Virginia Slims straddled the Cosmo crowd while it spouted the feminist slogan "You've come a long way, baby." Benetton appropriated anti-racist imagery to hippify its brand and the Pillsbury Dough Boy rapped, proving even biscuits can benefit from hip-hop's trendiness. Companies continuinally pan a movement, commodify its cool, strip its substance and use it to enhance their own logo.

Nike & Co. would like to think the current protest movement's anti-corporate bent is but a pesky inconvenience. But co-opting this dissent may be bit more difficult because, in part, it's a reaction to the very commodification past political movements have fallen victim to. Naomi Klein, author of the anti-corporate manifesto "No Logo," sees this generation of activists as different. "Although this is what companies have always done -- they've sought out the edge, they've marketed it and sold it back, they've done it with feminism and anti-establishment agendas -- I think there's something fundamentally different about an anti-corporate movement that's reacting so strongly against that very impulse to co-opt."

When Nike did run its pseudo-protest, it took no time for the real activists to fight back. Activists jammed the mock-jammed billboards with phrases like "$1.25 per day wages: 'Not Fair' Mr. Nike" and "100% Slave Labour." Rallies were held outside Nike stores and the Melbourne megastore had to be boarded up. Two days after the F.F.F.F. website was mentioned in the mainstream news, it was taken down. claimed victory by saying: "Bad layout and Impact font belong to the activist community again (for now...)"

Could activists of generations past have claimed such a swift victory? The added advantage protesters have in today's game is that both parties know the rules. Activists are more media savvy and will fight just as fiercely to hold on to their own signature methods as they do to attack their enemies' tactics. They also know the power of the brand -- the sancitity of the almighty icon -- and how to hit back where it hurts. While Genoa protestors might not be effective in overturning the World Bank and the G-8, they are having a real effect on many youths' perceptions of corporate conglomerates as less than cool. For all of Nike's attempts to laugh it off, there is a rising mass of people who think of the swoosh like animal rights activists think of fur: it's garnered at the expense of others.

This, of course, makes the corporate efforts to co-opt them all the more desperate. Anti-brand chic may be more difficult to appropriate, but that does not mean Nike and the Gap and Apple and IBM will stop trying. Not simply because its cool and hip and their models look good in black. They will try because this movement poses a genuine threat to their omnipotent brand imaging. They simply can't afford to have their shoes, clothing and computers associated with the truth of cheap labor, false advertising and economic injustice.

So instead, they'll continue to try to belittle the movement, mock it, copy it, appropriate it and spit it out in a way so people cannot recognize -- or forget -- the underlying critique. The activists, in turn, will continue to adapt because the clock keeps running, even if the game changes form. Adbusters goes glossy, Nike goes grunge. A corporation appropriates, a subculture morphs and a new critique arises.

The truth is, Nike was well aware that their "Offensive" campaign would offend. As Lasn points out, "They were counting on it. And now they're back in the spotlight on their own terms." But the protestors were already set to grab it back. Because they know this is more than a game of tag; it's a tug of war. So when it does come down to branding, jamming and name calling, the activists will try to hit the bullies with slams that stick.

The Network Brown-Out

It was on January 1st, 1954, at the Pasadena Rose parade. After years of televisions flickering in a range of gray, a Technicolor TV broadcast in color for the first time. Gone were the monochromatic images that were not true to the world they portrayed. Instead, those parade watchers saw the roses in full rainbow and the costumes in a range of colors. All the tints and hues reflected just like the real world. It's been more than 47 years since that first color television. Color TV's now exist in 99 percent of American homes. But look at today's TV's more closely, and it seems they are still airing in black and white. Compare it to the colors in the real world, and you'll see they've left out the brown.

When the latest U.S. Census released its figures, there was great media coverage on the boom in the Latino population. At over 35 million strong, Latinos now make up over 12.5 percent of the American population. But with the exception of a couple of bar graphs and political voting analyses, that's where the media ended. American media may cover Latinos, but it rarely includes them.

A recent report by advocacy group Children Now showed that, despite making up over 12.5 percent of the general populous, only 2 percent of characters in prime time television are Latino. Compare this with the statistics on America's other racial minorities -- African-Americans at 12.3 percent of the population and 17 percent of primetime characters and Asian Americans at 3.6 percent of the population and 3 percent of characters -- and Latino representation is glaringly absent. Out of prime time's 2,251 actors, only 47 are Latino and of those 3 dozen actors, most play minor roles or non-Latino characters. When not counting Latino actors playing gringos, like The West Wing's Martin Sheen (nee Ramon Estévez), that 2 percent is even smaller.

The reasons given for this brownout are dubious at best. When questioned on the dearth of Latino representation, the major networks most popular response is that they are, in the words of CBS Senior vice president Josie Thomas, "working on it." After the fall schedules were unveiled in May, Thomas justified the white wash by saying: "There are opportunities for guest stars, recurring roles are still open. This isn't the end of the story."

When a multi-ethnic coalition graded ABC a 'D-minus' on their effort to increase the number of minorities, ABC spokesman Zenia Munch reiterated CBS's reasons, "We anticipate that characters in (this fall's) programs will be recast prior to the beginning of the season, There will be improvement and additional changes in the diversity of the cast."

Networks also use the fact that 35 percent of the Latino audience watches the Spanish-speaking stations Telemundo and Univision. They pass off responsibility for Latino representation by pointing to the language barrier, though some advocates say Spanish is not the language in question. Money talks, and the perception that recent Latino immigrants are also lower-income keeps many television executives and advertisers from listening to those with a Spanish accent.

Of course, efforts to prioritize diversity in American media should be about more than money. But even if it were solely about markets, by ignoring the Latino audience, networks are also ignoring a large consumer base. Not only do Latino households watch an average of 4 hours more television a week than non-Latino households, but more than half of the Hispanic population is in the network's coveted under 25 range. According to respected research firm Teenage Research Unlimited, Latino youth also continually outspend their white counterparts from higher-income brackets.

And what about the other 90 percent of the American television-watching public? The Cosby show was watched by more than just African Americans. The Nielson ratings don't dip when ER's black characters speak. Look at other popular culture, and the networks' skepticism about Latinos' cross-over potential is groundless.

Mainstream prime time may give a cold shoulder to Latino characters, but other outlets realize that Latin culture is hot. With Ricky Martin recently crowned the number one dance artist by VH1, Christine Aguilera topping the charts and Jennifer Lopez lounging half-clad on magazine covers across the country, it's evident Latinos aren't an American turn-off.

But herein lies another problem. Though every minority is subjected to stereotypes, when you only have 2 percent representation, the roles that do exist have that much more impact. Take for instance WB's Popstar, which is a statistical rarity in that three out of five central characters are Latina. The girl-group reality show revolves around five girls of color (the other two have parents from the Pacific Islands) as they vie to be sex-pot rock stars. In between interviews where Ana Marie, Rosanna and Ivette ponder the benefits of being a role model, the cameras follow the girls as they swivel their belly-baring hips and preen for photo-shoots. Latinas may not be a turn-off, but they are also more than a mere turn-on.

If not the temptress or latin lover, Latino parts are reminiscent of pre-civil rights black portrayals: the entertainer, the maid, the criminal or the victim. Children Now found Latinos most often cast in secondary roles with non-professional jobs. More than half of all reoccurring Latina characters have roles in service. "When you see yourself portrayed as victim or suspect, or subservient to an Anglo society, we lose the idea that there are options out there for us," said Latino producer Dennis Leoni.

There are a few notable exceptions like NYPD Blue's new lieutenant Esai Morales, but most shows, even those that take place in Latino-concentrated cities, rely on Latinos more for colored backdrops and cardboard cutouts than full flesh characters. The percentage of Latino characters in LA-based shows was 8.6 percent compared to the cities actual 44 percent Latino population. Out of 36 primary characters in New York-based shows only two were Latino. This in a city that's over 27 percent Latino. The major networks can't even be accused of tokenism because they have too few token efforts to show.

Outside of the major networks, however, people are mobilizing around more complex Latino characters and series. TV's first Latino drama, Resurrection Blvd., aired on Showtime last season and is returning in the fall. It is a series about a family of boxers; creator Leoni says the story is a "perfect metaphor of Latinos trying to fight, literally and figuratively, for a piece of the American Dream." PBS has also recently picked up CBS-rejected American Family. Starring Edward James Olmos, Sonya Braga and Raquel Welch, American Family stretches the standard stereotype by telling the story of middle class Latino family.

Interestingly, the other notable exception to this scarcity in Latino media has been in children's programming. Nickelodeon has had significant success with Latino shows. They air two Latino family sitcoms, the Brothers Garcia and Taina, as well as a cartoon, Dora the Explorer, where the Latina lead's frequent Spanglish flaunts the English-only rule. Add the fact that most of the few mainstream Latino leads are in teen shows (i.e Dark Angel, That 70's Show and Popstars) and it seems Latino representation is improving for the next generation.

These efforts are important not only because they give Latino children role models beyond the perp and the porn star, but also because they also shape a larger generation's perceptions of each other. While Bilingual Lations can tune into Telemundo, Univision or an array of Spanish-speaking media, uni-lingual Anglo-Americans have fewer sources. The scarce and disparaging television roles that do exist thus have a disproportionate effect on their view of the larger Latino culture.

We have come far since that first color TV. No longer are we limited to RCA's; we now have VCR's and DVD's. And just as our technology has changed, so has our country. We don't just have the Jone's, we also have Garcia's, Lopez's and Martinez's. Yet, despite all our media-savvy, we still haven't managed to focus our camera on the bigger picture. For as far as we have come, our technicolor televisions are still broadcasting in black and white.

Poisoned Playgrounds

When the Bush administration recently announced its intention to relax arsenic standards in drinking water, the public response was swift and loud. Newspapers nationwide devoted front-page coverage to the controversy, and it was only a number of hours before the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) assured the public it would maintain the current levels.

What wasn't reported about during the drinking water controversy, however, was another, more hazardous source of arsenic -- pressure-treated wood.

A study completed earlier this month by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and the Healthy Building Network (HBN) shows that arsenic in America's pressure-treated outdoor lumber is more dangerous than even the most lax water standards. Decks, fences, docks, picnic tables and playground sets: virtually all are host to high quantities of carcinogenic compounds.

The arsenic found in outdoor lumber is used in a wood treatment called chromated copper arsenate (CCA). The compound, which is 22 percent pure arsenic, is used to preserve wood and kill termites, despite the fact that arsenic has been classified as a carcinogen and is outlawed in all other pesticide use. Indeed, due to the combined lobbying efforts of powerful chemical companies and the equally influential lumber industry, wood treatments are the only arsenic product exempt from federal pesticide law.

"The wood industry accounts for over 50 percent of worldwide arsenic consumption," says EWG California Director Bill Walker, "so the line between the wood industry and the chemical lobbyist is nearly indistinguishable." Together, the two industries have ensured that unregulated, CCA-treated wood dominates the market.

Unfortunately, the arsenic doesn't just stay in the CCA-treated wood to kill termites. Absorbed through skin contact, ingested and leaked into water and soil, it also works its magic to all those who encounter it frequently. From acute poisoning that causes permanent nerve damage to increased cancer risk and serious illness, arsenic has been shown to leach from treated wood and harm both people and animals. The danger is so established that prominent zoos like the San Diego Zoo have prohibited the use of arsenic-treated wood to protect their animals.

Yet, our parks and playgrounds remain untouched. And the children who play on them are the ones most susceptible to arsenic's poison. The statistics are alarming:

- Current law allows less than 10 milligrams of arsenic per liter of drinking water and yet the average 12-foot-long, 2 x 6 piece of CCA-treated wood contains 1 ounce of pure arsenic -- enough to kill 250 adults.

- Children are estimated to ingest almost 630 milligrams per visit to a playground and after five minutes contact with treated wood, often have as much as 1,250 milograms of arsenic on their hands.

- After playing less than two weeks on a CCA-treated playset, an average five-year-old would exceed the lifetime cancer risk acceptable under federal pesticide law.

The wood products industry, however, attests to the safety of its products. They point to a 1990 study by the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC), which waved off CCA-treated wood as safe and rubber-stamped its continued use.

EWG analysis shows this study not only to be outdated, but dangerously inadequate. According to the current EWG report, the 1990 study was based on tests that underestimated arsenic exposure, neglected its connection to internal cancers and ignored the lumber industry's own analysis of unsafe arsenic levels on their products' surfaces. EWG also points out the former study fails to account for more recent studies that have shown children metabolize arsenic less efficiently than adults.

With all this proof, and the life-threatening implications of the poison, it begs the question, are there arsenic-free alternatives? Herein lies the kicker: every manufacturer that creates an arsenic wood treatment also makes one that is arsenic free. In fact, most of those who sell CCA-treated wood in the states also produce safer products for European markets. The lumber industry justifies this discrepancy by saying there is no demand for arsenic-free wood among American consumers.

Thus, the American retail market is precisely where change can be made. By insisting on CCA-free wood -- a product that neither of America's main lumber retailers, Lowes or Home Depot, currently stock -- the public could encourage the use of less dangerous pesticides.

Change is also happening on the policy level. A coalition led by EWG is fighting for an immediate ban on using CCA-treated wood in playground equipment, and is asking Congress to repeal the hazardous waste exemption that currently exists for arsenic-treated wood.

There is already some localized movement away from CCA-treated wood. After several playgrounds were closed due to high arsenic levels in Florida, the EPA announced that it is fast-tracking a review of CCA-treated wood. The Center for Environmental Health has also filed suit against manufacturers of wooden play structures to either cease using arsenic in their products or warn the public of its risks.

Meanwhile, EWG recommends taking immediate steps to insure the safety of children using outdoor wood equipment. These include making sure children wash their hands after contact with CCA-treated wood, especially before eating, and always covering picnic tables with plastic-coated tablecloths. They also recommend annual sealing of CCA-treated wood with polyurethane or other hard lacquers.

Although the prevalence of arsenic in playgrounds is daunting, the prospect for change is good.

"The wood industry has said that if they are forced to change, they will," says Bill Walker.

For more information, or to help get arsenic out of our playgrounds, visit the report on EWG's Web site,

What Really Divides High Schools?

Class DismissedIt's an old American dream. Black kids and white kids eating and playing together. Sharing the same classrooms. Drinking from the same water fountains. But take a look at most public schools today, and it seems Brown v. Board never happened. Schools in the ghettos serve minorities, schools in the suburbs serve whites, and the few that are in between are segregated by academic tracks and white flight to private schools.

Of course, there are a few schools that come closer to the dream than most. One such anomaly is located in the aggressively liberal city of Berkeley, CA: Berkeley High School (BHS), the most racially diverse high school in the nation. At 38 percent African-American, 31 percent white, 14 percent Hispanic, 8 percent Asian and 8 percent multiracial, BHS has actively worked against the national trend of resegregation. They have decided to fight the cultural, economic and social divisions that mark our society, consolidating both their wealthier white students and their poorer black and Latino students into a single, 3,200 strong student body.

But though the campus shows a rich cultural diversity, its achievement statistics shine a glaring light on the spectacle of racial inequality. The average white BHS student boasts a 3.2 grade point average while his black peer posts a 2.1. White BHS kids average in the top 85 percent of students nationwide, while their black classmates average in the below 40 percent. Most of the white students go on to four-year colleges, while most black students fail or drop out.

But statistics can't tell you everything. They can't tell you what those BHS students behind the numbers feel about how race and class move them up or hold them down. For that, you have to turn to the students themselves -- to the Keiths and Autumns and Jordans of BHS. Enter their world for a school year and you'll get a hard, pointed look at the state of today's public education.

Keith, Autumn and Jordan are the central characters of Class Dismissed, the newest book by author Meredith Maran. Maran spent a year researching racial inequities in public high schools -- and putting a face to the numbers -- by following three students from Berkeley High's senior class. She attended their classes, went to their games, spent time with their families, interviewed their teachers, and tracked their challenges in their final year of high school. Through their individual lives, Maran shows how the system helps some and fails other segments of a diverse population.

Keith is an African-American football star with limited literacy. He has several supportive teachers and coaches in the school who help him through school bureaucracy that screws up most student's schedules and offer tutoring support when he teeters on failing. Unfortunately, it is not enough to defeat years of academic neglect. Like many black students with early underachievement, he was placed in special ed classes instead of getting help and since than, his dreams were driven only by the prospect of football. Keith's a popular guy in school, but that's no help when he is arrested DWB (Driving While Black). His frustration at what he sees as an unjust arrest are interpreted by the police as resistance and get his ass kicked and put in jail (on prom night, no less).

Autumn is a biracial young woman -- her mom's black and her father is white -- who cares for two younger brothers, works after school and strives to be the first in her family to go to college. Autumn works hard for what she wants, and in some respects, gets it. Despite an after-school job and a mother who cannot provide much support, Autumn gets good grades and attends AP classes where she is one of only two students of color. Still, even if she gets into her top colleges, she doubts she will be able to afford tuition, much less room or board.

"With all the other factors in their lives, why should schools rectify the economic disparity, institutionalized racism and social segregation they face? Meredith Maran's response was to flip the question on its head. If our education system is not designed to address these inequalities, she asks, what is?"
But while Autumn works so hard, Jordan makes it look like a breeze. Jordan is a Caucasian, upper-middle class student with a personal college counselor and apathetic outlook. Though he didn't skate through his teens stress-free (his father died a year before), Jordan finds schoolwork easy and should have no problem sliding into the school of his choice. When Berkeley High's bureaucracy accidentally sends colleges his and many other students' wrong set of mid-term grades, Jordan is denied his top schools and spirals into depression. Read in contrast, his frustrations seem in direct resistance to his background -- rather than a product of it, like Keith's.

Reading these profiles of Keith, Autumn and Jordan, you might ask, Why should public school be held accountable for these three students successes? With all the other factors in their lives, why should schools rectify the economic disparity, institutionalized racism and social segregation they face? I asked these questions and others to Meredith Maran when I met her at a coffee shop near Berkeley High's borders.

Maran's response was to flip the question on its head. If our education system is not designed to address these inequalities, she asks, what is? In her book, she quotes UC professor Pedro Noguera: "To the extent change is possible, it is more likely to occur in education than in any other sector." In person, she qualifies that statement: "If not here, where? And if not now, when?"

This is a mantra shared by BHS, and Maran shows that the school has made distinct efforts to interrupt the cycles of poverty and underachievement. BHS has instituted several small schools within the larger one to give more direct attention to at-risk youth, and it has integrated classrooms to break up the social and scholastic segregation so prominent at lunchtime and in college admissions. Keith, the D average student, took part of a Computer Academy that aims to keep students who might otherwise drop out stay in school and get their diploma. Autumn and Jordan both participated in CAS, a Communication Arts and Sciences program that challenges traditional teaching methods and promotes diverse classrooms. The school also supports a student Health Center, a childcare center, a Student Learning Center, The Diversity Project, an African-American, Latino/Chicano and Woman's Studies departments and mandatory Ethnic Studies classes.

The results? You would be hard pressed to find a more socially aware student body. Politics and activism are regularly discussed and encouraged within the school. Although many cliques are made up of similarly skinned friends, there is also an encouraging osmosis outside of racial categories. You attend school-sponsored poetry slams where white girls and Asian boys and Latinas and black teens all root each other on.

And yet, those numbers still sit heavy.

Of the graduating class of 1998, 6 of 10 black males dropped out or flunked before their senior year and only 18 black men, compared to 111 white males, had the grades to attend a four-year college. As Maran points out, tackling this problem is much like trying to lay blame on the chicken or the egg, knowing the only definitive answer is that one begets the others. Our neighborhoods are separate and unequal, as are our elementary schools, our time, our resources, our cultures, our expectations. Too many minority parents have neither the time or the resources, and too many white parents drop their responsibility by dropping their children in private schools -- an action that only helps lay the next egg in the cycle of inequity.

This white flight from public education, if nothing else, is what fueled Maran to write Class Dismissed. Maran sees white parents' commitment to public education and integration as critical to our future.

"Private schools are a prime instrument for maintaining inequities in education and society," she writes. "If we are to fulfill America's yet-unkept promise of democracy, we must first close the hatches through which those with money and privilege escape the common fate."

Some have found this advice radical, wrong and downright un-American. "Ms. Maran's proposal to abolish private schools is anti-democratic, immoral, and only serves as a propaganda tool for her socialist 'progressive' teaching agenda in the public schools, which extols as education such celebrations as International Women's Day and Indigenous Peoples Day," wrote one angry reader in response to Maran's pro-public school editorial in the SF Chronicle. In person, she qualifies her proposal by suggesting that perhaps we should abolish public schools and make all private schools free, giving everyone the advantages of small classes, supplies, and qualified teachers. Either way, the crux of her argument is that we need to rethink what education means.

"'Let's give all of our children the benefit of each other, by educating them in heterogeneous classes where rich kids and poor kids, 'challenged' and advanced kids, native Spanish speakers and fourth-year Latin students learn together and from one another... Let's put all of our children in the same boat, then work together to raise the level of the river.'"
Many people in this society seem to think that education can be graphed at charted through tests and numbers, but Maran sees real education as what we learn from those around us. Interacting with people of different cultures, learning to value their perspective and get along as a community - that, she argues, is the most invaluable skill a young person can learn. Or as she writes in her book: "Let's give all of our children the benefit of each other, by educating them in heterogeneous classes where rich kids and poor kids, 'challenged' and advanced kids, native Spanish speakers and fourth-year Latin students learn together and from one another... Let's put all of our children in the same boat, then work together to raise the level of the river."

It is an appealing metaphor, but on the other hand, we don't all live in Berkeley. Yes, Berkeley High is an interesting case study, but the strength of Maran's approach -- the intense focus on BHS -- also turns into a weakness. Maran never convinced me that what's hardly possible at Berkeley will begin to work elsewhere. She's starting from a very liberal base, one that is relatively receptive to her idea of banning tracking and encouraging integration, but does not make enough of an effort to address the parental fears or bureaucratic logistics that keep this from happening.

Also, at times Maran's descriptions sound like they are perpetrating the very stereotypes her three students are trying to break out of. "African-American and Latino seniors cruise down Milvia in muscle cars with rap music blaring, then hunt for residential parking several blocks away. White seniors pay eight dollars to park their SUV's in the private garage across the street." And though she augments her story of the school with voices from the teachers, parents and administration, sometimes the good guys/bad guys delineations seem too drastic. Maran does not shy from her hearted support of students, parents and teachers nor her anger at police and politicians, but in doing so, seems to hold the former faultless and the latter as The Enemy.

Much of this seems due to the fact that this is a political book. Yes, it is also a biography, an argument, a tale, but Maran tells me she's an "unapologetic socialist" and sometimes her politics weigh too heavily on the stories she is telling. The book was written with a purpose -- to get wealthy white children in public school -- but in doing so, it simplifies or slips by difficult questions. For example, in passing, she writes that the black students "occupy the top rung of the school's social ladder as firmly as they occupy its academic bottom: the other kids emulating their language, their music, their style." It may not count for much when looking at those numbers -- grade points, income and statistics -- but as a teenager, which is the point-of-view she purports to describe, this is huge. When asked, Maran describes how this phenomenon cuts both ways, pressuring the black students to maintain "coolness and machismo" and leaves many white students with feelings of social inferiority and white guilt. How much richer it would be if these psychological side effects were explored within the book. The same goes for gender dramas and cultural differences that play such a massive role in interracial understanding.

Then again, perhaps this is asking too much. Looking at high school, you are looking at a microcosm of all of our problems, and it seems as impossible to have that solved in a book as it is to expect it to be solved in a classroom. Class Dismissed doesn't pretend to deal with it all, but instead focuses on the very pointed problem of a racial achievement gap, how it is manifested in three young adults and how we can possibly address it. To this affect, the book succeeds. It provides both the practical solutions and the passionate reasons why and how we should improve our public schools. Black kids and white kids reading and learning together. Class Dismissed insists it's a dream worth working on.

For more information on Class Dismissed, or to contact Meredith or the students she followed, please email to:
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