Category: popular entertainment

“The real CSI”: Forensic science in the courtroom

If you tune into any popular television crime drama these days, you are likely to find a familiar formula — a murder occurs, an investigation ensues, the perpetrator is identified using some forensic evidence, and justice is served.  In the end, everything is wrapped up in a neat little bow.  

Although this popular plot format may make for good ratings, it isn’t rooted in reality.  In the real world, most cases aren’t clean-cut, investigations can drag on for years, and forensic science tools can be unreliable.  In some cases, questionable forensic evidence can lead to wrongful convictions, leaving innocent people behind bars.

In “The Real CSI,” which airs Tuesday, April 17, 2012, at 10 P.M. ET on PBS (check your local listings), FRONTLINE and ProPublica take an in-depth look at the use of forensic science in the courtroom.  Check out the press release below for more information.  MWN


Tuesday, April 17, 2012, at 10 P.M. ET on PBS
Twitter: @frontlinepbs

Evidence collected at crime scenes—everything from fingerprints to bite marks—is routinely called upon in the courtroom to prosecute the most difficult crimes and put the guilty behind bars. And though glamorized on commercial television, in the real world, it’s not so cut-and-dried. A joint investigation by FRONTLINE, ProPublica and the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley examines the reliability of the science behind forensics in “The Real CSI,” airing Tuesday, April 17, 2012, at 10 P.M. ET on PBS (check local listings).

FRONTLINE correspondent Lowell Bergman finds serious flaws in some of the best known tools of forensic science and wide inconsistencies in how forensic evidence is presented in the courtroom. From the sensational murder trial of Casey Anthony to the credentialing of forensic experts, Bergman documents how a field with few uniform standards and unproven science can undermine the search for justice.  (more…)

Anything that smells of race and civil rights . . .

Viola Davis (left) appears in a scene from the motion picture The Help.By Alan

Jerry Mitchell, a columnist with the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, writes that The Help has been a financial boon for the Delta town of Greenwood (where most of the movie was filmed) and for the entire state of Mississippi.  But a comment from Fred Zollo, the producer of Mississippi Burning and Ghosts of Mississippi, grabbed my attention. “[The Help] is hardly a civil rights film,” Zollo said. “If you do anything that smells of race and civil rights, very few people will want to see it.”

Zollo is right.  American audiences can deal with Jim Crow racism and the civil rights movement as subplots, but we aren’t ready to face these realities head on.  

This isn’t just about popular entertainment.  The mere mention of racial injustice hooks an immediate “Oh please!” (with exaggerated eye-rolling) from most white Americans. 

Thus it has ever been.  In his excellent Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to Its Protestant Promise, Kevin M. Schultz show how three faith communities transformed America from a Protestant hegemon into a Judeo-Christian nation.  In the 1930s, in response to the renewed KKK bigotry of the post WW1 era and the rise of Hitler’s Nazis in Germany, thousands of “trialogues” featuring a Protestant pastor, a Roman Catholic priest and a Jewish Rabbi were held all across America.  During the Second World War, the three faiths teamed up with the USO to tell millions of soldiers that the Judeo-Christian tradition made American democracy possible.

One soldier was so moved by this demonstration of unity that he approached the speakers after the meeting. 

The soldier was of Greek origin ad was born Greek Orthodox but had not attended church “for a long time” and had grown cynical, thinking “there was too much that was farce” in religion.  He had been persecuted for his faith too and he had, in turn, “persecuted the colored race and looked down upon other groups.”  But at one of the Camp Meetigs, “a miracle happened to me there . . . As Rabbi Goldstein was speaking I was standing beside a colored soldier.  All at once a new feeling came over me.  I looked up to the heavens and thought that in spite of the inequalities of life and all the troubles of the world there was something great and good worth fighting for and dying for, if need be.  Chaplain, the young man said, “my religion is going to mean something to me from now on.”

If Protestants, Catholics and Jews could dramatize their unity, bridging the color line was the natural next step.  But the National Conference of Christians and Jews made a conscious decision to avoid the race issue.  Hollywood followed suit.  Although eager to address the issue of “intolerance” in a generic way, race was off the table. 

Frank Sinatra and the executives at RKO studios made a similar decision in 1944.  Throughout the war, Sinatra had added an epilogue to nearly every one of his weekly performances on CBS’s Old Gold show.  He gave a brief lecture on a “very, very important subject known as tolerance.”  Sinatra would describe a situation where some form of “intolerance” was on display in America, usually through a fictional scenario involving a child being persecuted because of his or her race or religion.  Sinatra concluded his lectures explaining why this kind of intolerance was wrong.

Wishing to capitalize on the success of Sinatra’s “tolerance” segments, RKO pictures decided to film a fictional radio program. 

There was, however, one adaptation made by RKO executives when it brought Sinatra’s tolerance story to the silver screen: race was excised . . . The film featured no black kids and, most remarkably, it even discussed the generosity of the tormented Jewish boy’s father, who gave blood to the Red Cross without regard to whether a Catholic or Protestant or Jew received it.  This was an odd statement considering there was never any consideration of dividing blood by religion, while the Red Cross famously segregated blood from black donors.

In The Help, white socialites endorse the construction of separate toilets for black maids.  Nothing in the film gets closer to the spirit of Jim Crow racism.  When we realize that African American males comprise less than 7% of the America population but over 40% of the prison population and 60% of those exonerated by DNA evidence, our lack of progress is evident.  The problem persists because, in majority white settings, it is difficult to even raise the racial justice issue let alone deal with it.

Rachel Tabachnick talks dominionism on Fresh Air (and why you should be paying attention)

By Alan Bean

Are Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann part of a movement determined to forcibly Christianize every aspect of American culture?

If so, why does a blog dedicated to ending mass incarceration care one way or the other?

If Rachel Tabachnick is anything to go by, the answer to the first question is ‘yes’.  Tabachnick knows more about the dominionist strain within contemporary evangelicalism than just about anybody and you simply must check out her recent interview with Terry Gross of Fresh Air.)

I am still thinking through my answer to the “so what” question (and will have more to say on the subject as my thinking clarifies); but the rough outline of an answer came to me yesterday when a reporter asked me why Louisiana (unlike Texas and Mississippi) has done nothing to reform its criminal justice system.

The avuncular visage of Burl Cain sprang to mind.  Cain is slowly transforming the Angola prison plantation into a spiritual rehabilitation center.  Inmates (90% of them in for life) are repeatedly invited to get right with Jesus.  Life becomes a whole lot easier if they take the offer.

Then I thought of Ann Richards, the progressive Texas Governor who, during her ill-fated re-election campaign against George W. Bush, told the voters that she wanted to build more prisons so folks with addiction issues could get rehabilitated.

Burl Cain and his Louisiana fan club want to lock up more people every year so earnest evangelists can have a captive audience.

Friends of Justice works in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, three states that are gradually backing away from the punitive consensus that has controlled the American judicial system for more than three decades.  Texas was embarrassed into rethinking mass incarceration through a series of scandals: Tulia (the bizarre drug bust that gave birth to Friends of Justice), Hearne (the American Violet story), the Dallas Sheetrock scandal, the Houston crime lab, the Texas Youth Commission fiasco, an incredible string of DNA exonerations in Dallas County and Governor Perry’s botched attempt to silence the Texas Forensic Science Commission.  Thanks to a series of modest reforms, the Texas prison population has now plateaued in the 160,000 range (it was 40,000 in 1980) and will likely stay there for the foreseeable future.

Mississippi experienced a 3.5% drop in its prison population in a single year by deciding that inmates must only serve 25% of sentences before being eligible for parole (it had been 85%).

The old “lock ’em up” mentality is beginning to soften even in the state that boasts the highest incarceration rate in the free world.  Folks in Louisiana want to lock up as many people as possible out of a misdirected sense of compassion.  After all, isn’t it better to find Jesus in jail than to live an unregenerate life in the free world?  We don’t hate criminals in Louisiana; we just want what’s best for them.

This is precisely the kind of theocratic logic that politicians like Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann have embraced.  They want to Christianize the nation (by force if necessary) the way Burl Cain has Christianized the Angola plantation.  And if the liberals presently controlling Hollywood, the recording industry, the public school system, the evening news and the political life of the nation don’t want to be Christianized, that’s just too bad.  Michelle, Sarah, Rick et al are God’s anointed apostles.  At Angola, to oppose Burl Cain is to oppose God; the New Apostolic Reformation wants to extend this kind of thinking to every aspect of our national life.

Do the politicians currently feeding at the trough of radical religion really believe that the eclectic vitality of a diverse nation can be homogenized by the blood of the Lamb?  Maybe not.  But they want to push the political envelope as far in that direction as the public will allow.  In these strange times, it’s smart politics.

If you think I’m overstating the case, please read Ms. Tabachnick’s conversation with Terry Gross.

The Evangelicals Engaged In Spiritual Warfare

August 24, 2011 – TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. (more…)

Burl Cain and the Trans-Mississippi God

By Alan Bean

Liliana Segura’s article on Louisiana’s Angola prison provides a guided tour of the punitive consensus that, with states like Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas leading the way, now controls America.  Consider this:

“Lifers in Louisiana were once eligible for parole in as little as five years. In 1926 the state legislature installed the “10-6 rule”: prisoners sentenced to life were eligible for release after 10 years and six months. This held true until the 1970s, which saw a precipitous decline in parole recommendations and the rise of “tough on crime” reforms that would soon dominate nationwide.

After the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1972 ruling in Furman v. Georgia, which briefly suspended the death penalty, Louisiana abolished parole for a range of violent crimes. “Within less than a decade Louisiana went from turning all lifers loose in ten-and-a-half years or less to keeping virtually all of them in prison for their natural lives,” writes historian Burk Foster. As former head of the Louisiana Department of Corrections C. Paul Phelps once warned, “the State of Louisiana is posturing itself to run probably the largest male old-folks home in the country.”

 Like most journalists who write about Angola, Segura is fascinated, perplexed, and a little creeped-out by warden Burl Cain, a man with a gift for baptizing the brutal.  On the one hand, Angola inmates were much less likely to die a violent death before Mr. Cain assumed the reins.  But America’s most famous warden presides over one of the least forgiving corrections regimes in the world.  His easy willingness to identify American meanness with the immutable will of God is disturbing.  (more…)

The Help: as good as Hollywood gets on race

By Alan Bean

I wanted to like The Help, Hollywood’s adaptation Kathryn Stockett’s popular  novel.

Having read the reviews, I was pretty sure what I was getting myself into.  I did like the movie–as a movie.  Given the limitations of Hollywood storytelling, The Help was an enjoyable slice of popular entertainment.

Reviewers often refer to the movie as a “surprise success;” which is odd when you consider that the book was a big hit, especially with women, and the movie appears to be a faithful adaptation.  The middle-aged black woman standing in line next to us assured us that the movie got it right–she was seeing the film for the second time.

The Help is a chick flick.  There are few male characters (none of any consequence) and the audience was at least two-thirds women, most of them middle-aged or older.  The movie reminded me of Fried Green Tomatoes, a film about women in the South that centers on a particularly shocking image that is funny because it is shocking (humor is rooted in surprise).  I won’t spoil the story by telling you about the shocking image in The Help, but it definitely made the story go. (more…)

Tina Dupuy: We Get the Media we Want

Tina Dupuy

By Alan Bean

Tina Dupuy is a Los Angeles-based comedian and freelance writer.  She thinks we get the kind of media we want.

“If we wanted a somber and serious Edward R. Murrow to deliver the important news of the day – we’d all tune in and the ratings would be gangbusters. But we don’t. Most media criticism comes from the assumption that we want Murrow but we get TMZ – instead of the empirical (and slightly embarrassing) fact: We want TMZ.”

The rest of her column is pasted below. (more…)

The Problem with Pornography

By Alan Bean

This site has had little to say on the subject of pornography.  Our primary agenda is shutting down the machinery of mass incarceration; a subject far removed, one would think, from a discussion of popular culture.  But if Robert Jensen is right, pornography is fundamentally about patriarchy, and patriarchy is about hierarchy: the powerful maintaining a dominant position over the powerless.  So maybe there is a connection, and not just because, as Jensen suggests, there may be a link between the explostion of internet pornography and sex crimes.

As Michelle Alexander suggests, we can’t reform the criminal justice system until we move away from the cruel and punitive public consensus driving the prison boom.  How do we move from a society built on a foundation of hierarchy, control and domination, to a society rooted in equality, love and conversation. 

The piece pasted below is a conversation between Robert Jensen, a fifty-two year-old journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and a twenty-four year-old writer for UT’s F-Bomb blog who keeps trying to argue for a kinder-gentler form of pornography.  Jensen argues that the social impact of the porn industry has changed radically in recent years and doesn’t think that’s a good thing for women or for men.  Jensen, by the way, is the author of Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity, so he’s given this matter a great deal of thought. 

The Problem with pornography?

FBOMB: If you could briefly describe, what is the problem with pornography?

Robert Jensen: Well, let me first sort of step back. There has long been a conservative, typically religious critique of pornography that poses the problem of pornography as being in conflict with what is traditional family values, which is sexuality confined to a heterosexual marriage. That’s the critique you’ll hear most often in the culture is that conservative, typically religious critique. The feminist critique of pornography approaches it from a very different perspective and says that, in patriarchy, in a society structured around male dominance, one of the ways that dominance is reinforced and perpetuated is in men’s sexual use and abuse of women. One way to say this is, in patriarchy women are routinely presented to men as objectified bodies for male sexual pleasure. One of the vehicles for the routine presentation of women to men as objectified bodies for male sexual pleasure is what I would call the sexual exploitation industries: prostitution, pornography, stripping. These are ways that men buy and sell primarily women’s bodies. Pornography, like prostitution and stripping, is one of those methods of buying and selling women’s bodies. So from a feminist critique, the problem is the way in which those sexual exploitation industries reinforces male dominance, and leads to predictable consequences, primarily for women and children. (more…)

Adapting reality to the white viewer

The New York Times recently ran an article lamenting the all-white list of nominees for this year’s Oscars.  Randy Shaw (see below) points out that it ain’t just the movies; television offers few characters or programs aimed at the non-white audience. 

Shaw references David Simon’s The Wire as a blessed exception to the rule and wonders why such a critical success hasn’t been emulated (except by HBO’s Treme, and that show is also produced by David Simon).

It’s simple; The Wire was always more popular with critics than with viewers.  It held its own; but Simon’s programs received only a fraction of the audience that followed The Sopranos, for instance.  Why is that?  

The answer isn’t pleasant.  White audiences don’t relate well to non-white protagonists.

Early on in the Tulia fight, several producers showed a tentative interest in bringing the story to the silver screen.  I didn’t pay much attention to the let’s-make-a-movie phenomenon because we were years away from resolution.  Secondly, I figured the story was too morally ambiguous for Hollywood.  I remember being asked if my family would be interested in playing the starring role in a film.  When I protested that the affected community should be at the center of the movie I was assured that the American viewing public would have little interest in poor black people living in an isolated Texas town. (more…)