Monday, September 14, 2009

Pete Seeger, Joe McCarthy, & Glenn Beck

Although it was fifty-three years ago, I can still remember the day that the legendary folk singer Pete Seeger came to perform at my grammar school.  It was 1956, and I was in first grade. I can remember sitting cross-legged on the warm concrete playground, squeezed tight between my best friends in the front row, straining to be as close as possible to the amazing sound of Seeger's banjo.  It was years later before it occurred to me that the reason such an incredible musician was playing at my grammar school instead of at Carnegie Hall that year was that he had been blacklisted as part of Joe McCarthy's red scare.

I kept thinking about Pete Seeger and Joe McCarthy this past week as I read about Glenn Beck's attacks on various Obama administration officials. Like Joe McCarthy, Glenn Beck is making wild accusations about people's political beliefs and trying to get them removed from their jobs. Unlike Joe McCarthy, Beck is a talk show host, not a U.S. Senator. Beck is the host of the third most popular talk radio program in the U.S. and in January he launched a Fox News television show.

When Pete Seeger and others refused to testify before Senator McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee, they were indicted for contempt of Congress and faced legal sanctions. Fortunately, Beck does not have that kind of legal power since he was never elected by anyone, but his radio show reaches over 8 million listeners a week and his new television show has over 2 million viewers.  His programs give him a strong financial incentive to make outrageous statements that will continue to boost his ratings. Although he claims to speak for the common man, Beck's income is estimated at $18 million a year, far more than the salaries of the government employees he is picking on.

Glenn Beck is finding signs of communism everywhere these days - even on the walls of New York's venerable Rockefeller Center. This past month Beck attacked environmental activist Van Jones in 14 episodes of his show. Jones decided to resign from his position as Special Advisor on Green Jobs at the White House Council on Environmental Quality rather than become a lightning rod for controversy. Beck has also been attacking the National Endowment for the Arts and in particular, publicist Yosi Sergant, who was serving as its Director of Communications. Sergant has been removed from his position as Director of Communications but it appears he will continue at the National Endowment for the Arts in some other role. Beck has also targeted Mark Lloyd at the Federal Communications Commission and several other Obama appointees.

It is important to understand that one of the main reasons that conservative talk shows like Beck's have proliferated in recent years is that so many broadcast regulations have been removed.  Money is driving the programming decisions instead of the public interest, and that is not good for women or other groups that tend to have less money to buy stations or air time.  A recent study of commercial broadcast TV stations by Free Press found that women are 51% of the U.S. population, but own less than 5% of all stations, and minorities are 33 percent of the U.S. population, but own only 3.26% of all stations. A study by the Center for American Progress showed that 91% of weekday talk radio is conservative.

Earlier in the year, Glenn Beck accused President Obama of being "a racist" with a "hatred of white people." As a  response to this false and divisive statement, a group called Color of Change has been asking people to write letters of complaint to his advertisers.  As a result of their efforts 57 advertisers have withdrawn support for his show, but in spite of the boycott, Beck's audiences continue to grow.

What Can We Do?

It's frightening that Beck and other right-wing television and radio personalities are allowed to monopolize so much air time with mean-spirited and unsupported allegations. How can we respond?

First, we need to work for more regulation of broadcasters so that they will be required to serve the whole public, not just the few who can afford to buy the stations.  There has been an unprecedented consolidation of corporate ownership of the media in recent years, and six giant conglomerates now control the majority of U.S. television networks, cable channels, and Hollywood studios. Glenn Beck's Fox News show is owned by News Corporation which had revenues of $33 billion in 2008.

We need legislation to keep this handful of multi-national giants from controlling our news and silencing diverse perspectives. If you would like more information about ways to work on this, two organizations that provide excellent information are Free Press and Fairness and Accuracy in the Media.  

Second, we need to remember that although Glenn Beck has millions of listeners, his audiences are still only 3% of the U.S. population.  They are a small but vocal minority. We need to organize other segments of the population to speak out with other perspectives.

Finally, as artists, we need to remember that we have the tools to touch people's hearts and bring out the best in them. We need to focus on creating and supporting art that is powerful enough to cut through all the corporate chatter and spin.

Pete Seeger's life demonstrates this principle. In spite of being blacklisted during the 1950's and '60's, Pete Seeger is now recognized as one of the most influential folk musicians of his generation. He has written songs that have become classics, he helped popularize spirituals like "We Shall Overcome", and he is still performing at age 90. Through thick and thin, he has been steadfast in his support of civil rights, racial equality, labor rights, environmental issues, and peace. 

Joe McCarthy made Pete Seeger's life difficult, but in the long run, he could not silence him. Millions of Americans know Pete Seeger's songs by heart and have taught them to their children. He even performed at President Obama's inaugural celebration.

Pete Seeger's banjo carries a slogan that sums up his faith, "This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender."  In these difficult times, Seeger's life-long confidence in the power of creativity is a powerful example for us all.

Friday, September 4, 2009

The Grace Lee Project

I saw a great film over the weekend called The Grace Lee Project. It's a very funny piece about stereotypes of Asian-American women. The filmmaker, Grace Lee, discovers that everyone knows "another Grace Lee", and all of them are described as "quiet," "nice", "very smart" . . . She sets out to find some Grace Lee's who break the mold.

Several of the interviews are very moving. My favorite part is the section on Grace Lee Boggs, the Chinese-American author, anti-racist activist and feminist, who is still going strong at age 94. I had known about Boggs' work with Detroit Summer, a community movement bringing people of all races, cultures, and ages together to rebuild Detroit, but I did not realize the full range of her work.

Grace Lee Boggs with Filmmaker Grace Lee

The Grace Lee Project is available on DVD and Netflix. Visit for more information.

Estelle Parsons is Amazing in August:Osage County

I saw the touring production of "August:Osage County" with Estelle Parsons last night. It was such a treat to see a beautifully written drama where 7 or the 13 characters are women and they do most of the talking. Estelle Parsons, who is best known to TV audiences as "Roseanne's mom," is an amazing stage actress, and at age 80, she is riveting for 3 1/2 hours as the pill-popping matriarch of a deeply dysfunctional family. Shannon Cochran as the oldest daughter Barbara is also fabulous.

If you go to this link, you can read more about the show and watch a wonderful video interview with Estelle Parsons: August In Osage County. The show is at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco until September 6, and it will be touring to Seattle, WA, Tempe, AZ, and Washington, DC between now and December. It's one of the best things I have seen this year - see it if you can!!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Women in Theatre Seek Equality by 2020

Women theatre artists held a conference in New York last week to launch a new initiative called 50/50 in 2020. In response to the fact that women playwrights, directors, and designers still receive fewer than 20% of the professional production opportunities nationwide, our friends at the Women's Project, the League of Professional Theatre Women, and New Perspectives Theatre are organizing this campaign to achieve parity for professional women theater artists by 2020.

You can read a description of the kick-off meeting in Helen Shaw's article for Time Out New York - Parity for Women Theatre Artists - Report from the Working Group Event.

There have been several studies over the years that have documented that women do not have parity in theatre. In 2002 Susan Jonas and Suzanne Bennett did a study for the New York State Council on the Arts, Report on the Status of Women: A Limited Engagement. They found that of the 2000 plays produced by non-profit American theatres in the 2001-2002 season, only 16% had women directors and only 17% had women playwrights.

More recently, Emily Glassberg Sands, a Princeton economics student, did her 173 page senior thesis on the status of women in theatre - Opening the Curtain on Playwright Gender: An Integrated Economic Analysis of Discrimination in American Theater." Among other things, Sands found that women write fewer than 1 in 8 shows on Broadway, and that it is harder to get plays produced if they have female protagonists.

Sands gave a presentation in June which was reported by the The New York Times in an article called, Theatre Has a Gender Bias? Do Tell. The Times reporter, Patricia Cohen, caused a controversy by claiming in the opening paragraphs of her article that Sands' presentation proved that women artistic directors and literary managers are the ones to blame for discrimination against women in the theatre - conveniently ignoring the fact that women artistic directors have not been a large enough group historically to be the cause of centuries of discrimination against female playwrights.

If you would like to find out more about this campaign for parity for women in theatre, please become a fan of the 50/50 in 2020 page on Facebook.

Artists Invited to Participate in Obama's United We Serve Campaign

President Obama's United We Serve program is designed to encourage Americans to do community service as volunteers in order "to help meet growing social needs resulting from the economic downturn." If your group needs volunteers, you can post an announcement at

Last week we received an email from the non-profit arts advocacy group, Americans for the Arts. Inspired by the United We Serve campaign, they are trying to document the impact that artists have on their communities by asking people to upload stories, photos, and videos about volunteer activities in the arts at

Part of the mission of WomenArts is to increase the funding and employment of women artists. Since so many women artists are unpaid or underpaid for their creative work, we are troubled that our federal government and our largest non-profit arts advocacy group are placing so much emphasis on volunteerism.

We want to know what you think. When it is good to volunteer and when should we insist on being paid? What is the best way to tell our stories if we want to persuade people that we deserve more money? Should artists be asking for major bail-outs like the ones the the bankers and auto execs received?

Please leave your comments below.
Additional Reading on this topic:
Arlene Goldbard has written an excellent survey of current national service programs in the arts - "The Long, Hot Summer of Service: Community Artists on The Job," (July 2009).

Americans for the Arts has published a pamphlet with ideas about ways that arts organizations can participate in the United We Serve campaign - United We Serve: An Arts Idea Kit