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Behind the Book Burning: A Troy Librarian Speaks

This interview is a companion to Behind the Book Burning, a closer look at the public affairs marketing around the 2011 Troy Library Millage. For the whole story, check out the main post.

Very soon after I began looking for the facts behind the Book Burning Party awards case study, Phillip Kwick‘s name stood out. Kwick was one of the loudest voices speaking about the library’s role in the Book Burning campaign, and has been an active participant in community issues in Troy, where he works as the library’s assistant director. When library advocacy blog Books for Walls Project posted about the campaign, Kwick’s comment cut to the heart of the matter:

You, the Book Burners, claim you wanted to ”turn the rational conversation into an emotional one.” Clearly, you have not followed this issue as closely as you claim. This is not an emotional issue?

Then you have never spoken to one member of the Friends of the Troy Library who poured heart, soul, and donations into trying to win the November millage. Nor to the current Save Troy organizers, who have gone door-to-door with tireless zeal, explaining to their neighbors the importance of a library to the community.

You have never read the Books for Walls Project blog, whose writers – though they live 250 miles away – have championed the cause of the Troy Library, not only to the State but in Europe and beyond. You have never read any of the posts on the Letters to the Children of Troy on blogs around the world. You have never read one of the hundreds of comments on the Library’s website.

You have never stepped foot into the Troy Library to see children streaming in, with their parents unable to catch up. Or the lines of unemployed waiting to register for computer classes.

And certainly, you have never talked to a Library staff member who has spent the past two years listening to this outpouring of emotion for the Library from the public, while riding her own emotional roller coaster.

And now your comment seems to be taking credit for some “new” emotional response you have imagined you created: “Today, people are talking. They’re talking online, talking on the phone, and talking over their fence. They’re talking about books and what it means to lose a library.” And you think this is because of you?

I am appalled.

You did nothing to help support the Troy Public Library on August 2. All you did was cause confusion that Library supporters have been trying to avoid at all costs, as the previous elections were confused enough. All you did was add more divisiveness and bickering in a community that should be united on its love and need for a library. All you did was violate election laws in pursuit of political satire. And all you did was add no signs on the streets and avenues in Troy where none existed.

You have done nothing to help support the Troy Library. Do not take any credit from the hardworking women and men who have.

Next time, I would suggest you try your political theatre in Royal Oak, where your signs claim your office is. Or in Livonia, where your treasurer works. Or in Detroit, where your committee is registered. That would help support the Troy Public Library more.

Phillip Kwik

P.S. While I am employed by the Troy Library, these comments reflect my own views.

 

Clearly, someone with a bone to pick with the campaign. But it was perplexing to me at the time–wasn’t the library the one who set up this campaign?

So I tracked Kwick down, and he gave me the lowdown on how everything appeared to have happened from where he sat inside the library.

 

How long have you been working with the Troy library?

PK: I’ve been here since January of ’98, this is my 15th year. I grew up in Hamtramck, I still live there.

I started digging around, and found some of your commentary, and it seems like this thing didn’t go down as it’s purported to have. So I’m trying to dig around and see if this was sanctioned by the library.

PK: I think your initial sense is correct, from my point of view. It’s a weird situation in Michigan. We are actually prohibited from taking an official position, yes or no, on the millage. So that’s why there’s no official position, because technically we didn’t play a role in the millage. It was run by the Friends of the Library, a political action committee set up specifically to pass the millage, so the city has to be hands-off and our role is to only to be putting out the information on the millage. “This is what would happen if there was a yes vote, this is what would happen if there was a no vote.” But not any advocacy. So any role that I played, I played as an individual, not on work time, as a supporter of the groups that were doing the millage.

Now, again, I’m an interested party because I work in Troy, but I don’t live in Troy so it didn’t impact me as a member of the public. So in that case I was very aware of my role as a library staff member, but not as somebody who would have to pay the millage.

The City of Troy and the Troy Public Library is listed as the client of the campaign. It implies the ad agency was employed and engaged, on however small a budget, by the city of Troy to develop this Book Burning Campaign. You’re listed as the client in all this work.

PK: That’s absolutely false. We became aware of it because we were driving down the street and the signs appeared in the middle of the boulevard in Troy. It happened fairly late in the game. The first we caught wind of it was July 6th, less than a month before the millage. It was almost two months after the millage date was set, so it was fairly late in the campaign. The millage went on the ballot in mid-May, because we thought we were going to shut down May 1st. The council gave us some reprieve, gave us some bridge funding, and put it on the ballot. That was all wrapped up before May 15. This campaign actually came pretty late in the game, in terms of organizing for the millage.

We had no knowledge of it. I used to be on city council in my community, so I’m pretty familiar with local election laws, and I tried to find out exactly who was behind it. The paperwork they filed with the county, their election paperwork, and the disclaimer on the material they were putting out had different addresses on it, which is a violation of campaign law. I tried to investigate some of the addresses that were on there, and the treasurer, who’s the only person you need to have on your campaign finance documents, had a Detroit address, so I had several people try to call him, to figure out who he was. He was listed as a realtor, not as a member of this ad agency. I drove by the Detroit house [the group was registered to], it looked like it was unoccupied, it could very well have been a house he was prepping for sale. The address that was actually on the printed material was a Royal Oak address, again, odd because it’s a Troy campaign. I drove by it, it’s a Mailboxes, Etc. type thing, they were renting a box.

The whole thing was very suspect to me. And I couldn’t understand why. Nobody really understood it. We assumed it wasn’t an actual no campaign, it wasn’t an actual book burning campaign, but it was completely unclear what it was. It caused mass confusion. They were filming, they were going outside the library after the library was closed, filming the books, posting them on YouTube, saying things like “These look like a good place to start the fires,” so much so that the police got involved in it, and were investigating, and looking at it, because it was unclear what was going on.

What were initial reactions around the library when they saw this Book Burning Party stuff? What were your peers saying?

PK: Mostly it was confusion. There was some outrage, by the people working on the campaign. The initial reaction by people who were working on the campaign was “Is this another No campaign?” I think the initial language was “Vote No on August 5th, then join the Book Burning Party” or something, so any appearance of a No sign created initial anger on the part of people working on the campaign. Within the library, and people I talked to a little more closely, there was a lot of confusion.

We couldn’t believe that somebody on the No side would actually undertake a campaign like this, although it’s been a vicious couple of years here. There was a lot of Tea Party involvement. We didn’t believe it could actually be a campaign like that, and that it must have been some kind of bizarre psychological thing that was completely unclear. There was either anger or confusion about it. And that persisted for a long time. We tried to contact those people, we tried to figure out who it was, but every time we did it seemed like there was some kind of a front thrown up. The treasurer wouldn’t return our calls.

So we started to go onto this guys website, post comments, things like that, trying to “out” him. This is the treasurer of the committee, we had his name, so we’d go on the Book Burning Facebook page, and on the Book Burning Twitter feed, and we’d try and ask these guys questions, and name him by name, and all of our comments were being taken down. Whenever we said “is this real? What’s your point? What are you doing with this?” They’d take them down, they’d remove our comments immediately from the social media pages.

 

From reading the Facebook comments, it sounded like a college sociology experiment.

 

My initial thoughts, from reading the Facebook comments, it sounded like a college sociology experiment. Because lots of the comments were coming from younger people who did not live in the city, so I’m thinking maybe these people used to live here, and maybe they went to school, and this is a fun experiment, or something. But it caused a ton of confusion.

The worst part was that the previous two campaigns on the library millage were very dirty, and full of dirty tricks, basically, on the part of the No vote. It was really very nasty. They put competing ballots on the ballot to cause confusion. It was just a mess. In fact, in the previous election, in July of ’10, the Friends put a ballot issue on, and then those voting No put on four different ballot issues, with all slightly different millage amounts. And you only need 50 signatures, so they all got on the ballot. And so it caused a ton of confusion. That millage only lost by 300 votes, out of 18,000.

So you guys were already running uphill essentially at this point, against actual political operatives.

PK: There was already confusion, the previous year and a half had been very nasty, the library had taken a lot of shots, the city manager had taken a lot of shots, the Tea Party folk, the No folk, were very aggressive. So when this campaign popped on the scene, the Yes people started blaming the Tea Partiers, saying “Look how nutty the Tea Partiers are.” The Tea Partiers were saying “we had nothing to do with this, this is the Yes people trying to drum up support.” It even muddied the waters further, it created a more negative campaign in an environment where the Yes vote was trying to create a positive one. I think that was the most damaging part.

When did you realize a big ad agency was behind this?

PK: It was near the end. I was watching the financial reports very closely. In Michigan you have to file a campaign committee report ten days before the election. I think at that point they filed one that said there was a donation from Leo Burnett, like $7,500, a ton of money for a one-person donation. At that point we realized ‘This is an ad agency, what’s going on?’ It was quite late in the game, and it was about that time that they came clean, through a letter posted on a website called Books Without Walls.

But at that point, they guy sort of came clean, he said “Oh, we’re running this campaign to show how absurd it is to close the library,” but at that point they never mentioned  mentioned they were from Leo Burnett. So it was very late in coming out.

The Books for Walls project, booksforwallsproject.org, these were supporters of the library, that’s the first place where they sort of came clean, and at that point it was “Well, we’re just library supporters who want to make sure this passed.” They said nothing about a tie to an ad agency.

So what was the reaction then?

PK: Well, again, I think it was really late in the game. When people felt they were duped was a couple of months later was when we saw the YouTube video they put up. The case study.

On July 14th, the millage was August 5th, they posted on this website, basically, coming clean, and at that point they signed themselves Safeguarding American Families, which was the name of their committee. They didn’t say anything about it being an ad-funded campaign, nor funded by the city, certainly, because that’s not true. They basically said it would lead you to believe it was a group of people who put this together thinking that this was  a cool thing, they were just well-meaning. That was the way it came out. There was no mention of them being tied to Leo Burnett. Then we found that out within a week, six or eight days before the election, when they had to file their first report. We thought, “Wait a minute, what’s going on here?”

I don’t think we pieced it all together until we saw the video, a while after the campaign, and thought “these people are taking credit for this.” It came out quite a bit, several months afterwards.

 

They were taking credit for saving the library.

 

They were taking credit for saving the library. People then had a level of annoyance, the campaign was over, and people weren’t quite as angry as they might have been if it failed, or if it was still in the middle of it. People were, after the fact, angry about it. I posted some comments on the Leo Burnett YouTube page, basically, what I’m telling you. This didn’t save the library. This caused more harm than good. This potentially jeopardized the library.

And the city manager’s office here got a call from Leo Burnett, saying “we’re really a good corporate citizen here, you should probably take down those comments.” I’ll say I was asked to take those down. When your boss asks you to do something, you do it. So those comments lasted about a day on their site, and then I was asked to take them down, so I removed them from the YouTube site. They didn’t want anyone to have a negative opinion of this campaign. I didn’t realize at that point they were going after awards, that pissed me off even more.

So that was the only time the agency tried to contact you, was to ask you to take down negative comments?

PK: Yep. The tie to Leo Burnett didn’t make a lot of sense to any of us. Why did they fund this? What happened to these individuals who seemed to be taking credit for this? Why was it funded by this agency? It was only after the fact that we started to piece things together.

Not only was it impossible for them to be Troy Library’s ad agency…

PK: Legally, it was not possible.

Not only that, but also they didn’t even consult you, they didn’t say “Hey, we want to do this thing,” they didn’t ask for permission?

PK: As a local community activist in my own community, aside from the confusion that the campaign created, and the bad feelings it created, and the negative vibe, my personal feeling when it was going on, especially when I realized one address was Detroit and one address was Royal Oak in a campaign that has to deal with Troy, my personal reaction was “this is a lousy way to do politics…”

You don’t just move in and think that you know better than a community does in how to run a campaign, and move in without asking anybody, and working with the players. Even if you want to be anonymous and do a cute idea, you come in and you work with people, you don’t come in and try to take over a campaign. That’s what I felt. Why is this group coming in, and pretending to know better than us, and running this campaign that may or may not be helping the issue itself. What arrogance, what chutzpah, what bad politics, to think you know better than the community does in how to reach its members, how to reach the community.

What arrogance, what chutzpah, what bad politics, to think you know better than the community does in how to reach its members, how to reach the community.

 

So, what happens now? When will the next millage take place?

PK: Our millage is for five years. City government thought that they couldn’t sell anything longer than five years. So we’re going to be gearing up for it soon, it’s been a year, so we’re going to be gearing up for it in another three years. So we have a bit of a reprieve, but unfortunately we thought some of the nuttiness was going to die down, but the council has a majority-Tea Party presence over the last few years, and it’s gotten even crazier. Even though the library has not been the focus of the attack over the last year, the public workers and city services have been.

We have a bit of a respite, but if the political situation doesn’t change with the next election or two, who knows what it’s going to be like in the next few years before we have to go back before the voters.

Every one of these advertising awards shows is listing the Troy Public Library for the client of this work, and based on what you’ve told me that seems patently false.

PK: It is. There may very well be some library supporters who are kinder to them, because it’s after the fact, who will say “Well, they tried to help out, they were well-meaning,”1 but what I can definitively say is that this hit us out of the blue, and unless someone did it very secretly, nobody authorized it, not the city, not the Friends, not the Yes voters. I can say that very definitively, because nobody knew what was going on.

  1. This was a sentiment several library supporters shared, almost glad that the whole thing was over, noting how especially irritated Kwick was over the whole thing. They all kind of echoed the ironically frequently misquoted aphorism “It’s amazing what you can get done if you don’t care who gets the credit.” []

Written by Nick

January 20th, 2013 at 9:24 am

Behind the Book Burning: The Agency’s Side of the Story

 

This interview is a companion to Behind the Book Burning, a closer look at the public affairs marketing around the 2011 Troy Library Millage. For the whole story, check out the main post.

After I had heard a lot from city employees, library workers and members of the various community organizations around Troy, I got a chance to talk to Rick Bennington, the director of operations at Leo Burnett Detroit. I wanted to try to figure out how the agency felt about entering the campaign into awards shows as the work of the Troy Library itself, rather than as the work of their separate group. And maybe Bennington would know who Tom Ball, the founder of Safeguarding American Families, is, and what his relationship to the agency is.

Bennington was clear that the effort was devised out of kindness and concern for the community, but explains the issues of authorship, accountability and representation as just semantics.

So how did all this happen?

RB: When the campaign came about there was a lot of contention. There’s a lot of political unrest in Troy where we work, and where our people live, over the Tea Party, and the city manager or supervisor, and all the budget fights. And this was going on last year, and  there was a lot of contention around their library. The first time it came on my radar, one of my creatives came to me and said ‘Hey, there’s these people, they wanted to help in saving the library, how can we take up this cause and do something?’ We, at Publicis, by code are not to get involved in partisan politics. And it was more of a civic issue, in terms of saving the library. Which, I agreed with.

 

I thought, wow, this could be a really good fit for Humankind, and maybe we can make a difference in saving an institution that we all fundamentally believe enriches the community itself, and the people that live in it.

And what I pointed out was, somebody put together a political action committee, we can support that, if their intention is saving a civic institution. That’s the way it was posed to me. This group that they put together, Safeguarding American Families, they positioned it as such, and the next thing I knew they asked me for a go-ahead, because it was going to be a benevolence project, they don’t have any money at all. Can they donate their time. Of course, in Troy, this office is here solely for the purpose of servicing GM, these guys wanted to get involved in our Humankind mandate. It was more of a thing where I have some of my employees that come forward, there was a civic issue to it, a lot of my people, my direct reports live right here in the city of Troy. So from the support outside I thought, wow, this could be a really good fit for Humankind, and maybe we can make a difference in saving an institution that we all fundamentally believe enriches the community itself, and the people that live in it. To me personally, the library goes hand in hand with police, education, etc.

That’s how it all started. For me personally, how I manage the operation, is if I can help people where they live and work, and it gets us connected more with this community, this was a key opportunity for us to get involved with this community.

Central to what makes this interesting to me is the fact that the library never knew about it. And the stuff you guys did, while arguably effective, was never made clear to the people that worked at the library, or the Friends of the Library, who had worked years and years to get this millage passed. Did the creatives say why they didn’t work with the Friends or the City of Troy or any of the community groups to get this stuff going, and why they kept them in the dark?

RB: Honestly, on that side, I don’t know. I didn’t know what that group was doing on the outside at all, and whether they were working with those groups at all. I had no knowledge of that.

When I first started looking at it, I was interested in seeing that the library would stand behind this effort. It uses pretty controversial. It’s strange that the library would advocate, even in a satirical way, the burning of its own books. I saw it entered into awards shows as having the Troy Library as a client. But I talked to them and they said, a) as an institution they’re not able to campaign on one side or another, and hire an ad agency to help pass a millage and b), we had no idea this was happening. So how do you guys justify entering the case into all these awards shows with the Troy Public Library as a client?

RB: It’s funny you ask that, because at Cannes, I’ll give you a direct example, because I was involved with that. We put it in, when we entered at Cannes, as the Troy Library with the Safeguarding American Families. They called from France and we had a long conversation about it, about what the setup was with it, and we were talking that the actual client was Safeguarding American Families. The benefactor, the recipient of the benevolence, in terms of the good intentions of saving the institution, was the Troy Library. And that happened with a few of the awards shows, where we explained it to them that we were representing a political action committee in saving the Troy Library. So we had a discussion with them, and they didn’t want them entered as Safeguarding American Families. They wanted it entered as the Troy Library, because that’s what the story was.1 There was no bad intentions on our side to misrepresent it, it was because of the way our political system works. Political action committees are formed to save entities, for or against, or civic institutions that can’t save themselves. That’s how we do it. So there was no bad intentions.

So you’re saying this was changed by the awards shows?

RB: Yeah, we had the discussion with them, and I was directly involved with some of that. In Cannes, it came up that way. They don’t understand what this political action committee is, because we explained it as such. We had to get on and do a conference call with them. In Europe they don’t have these political action committees vis-a-vis the way we do in the United States, so we had to explain it to them.2

Initially when I saw it at the ANDYs it was entered as having Leo Detroit as the client, but that was later changed, is that the same sort of situation?

RB: Yeah, exactly, we didn’t do it for our own good, we always represented the political action committee. I would have never approved it if we were just doing it ourselves. If we were doing it for a political action committee, that’s fine. But we cannot represent it ourselves.

So, all the awards shows require a client contact. Who was the client contact?

RB: It would have been the contact from the political action committee.

Who was that?

RB: I don’t know right off the top of my head.

Well, there’s a guy called Tom Ball that registered the Safeguarding American Families group, I don’t know if he’s an agency employee, or what.

RB: No.

Do you know what Tom’s role in the legal operations are, beyond registering the group?

RB: No, I don’t.

Some people in Troy were upset the agency was taking credit for this whole thing, and seeking awards, based on what they feel is some of their hard work. Do you think that’s fair?

RB: I think, I wouldn’t use the word seeking, I think we’re proud of the work that happened, I don’t think our creatives get recognized enough. They’re here in Detroit, not in a primary ad city. They work their ass off for GM, and do a lot of great quality work. This was one they felt impacted people’s lives. I think we’re most proud of it, and I’m speaking for my creatives, too that the Humankind purpose of it really changed something in the community. I think, saying, are we taking 100% credit? No, I think we’re taking credit for the work we did. I don’t think any intention on our side is to take away from any other group in the city at the time. Seeing the video of the Library project, we stated the fact of what the turnout was, how overwhelmingly it turned over, how it won by a large margin, and I think we’re a piece of that. I don’t think Leo Burnett Detroit is trying to seek any attention for our entity. Our awards shows, yes, they bring a lot of prestige, they bring a lot of credit to the institution. But I think in this office, the psyche of this office is a job well done by our people, and they’re proud they made an impact in the community we live in.

Most of these awards, I didn’t attend Cannes, I attended the Clios, the Effies, the Addys, and everyone I talked to I told the story the same way. They all asked, how did you get involved with a local library, and I told them the story of the political action committee, and everything else, of how we went about it. Part of that, too, the way that campaign went through, for 4-6 weeks, was to stir controversy. Part of that was pretty deep sixed. We were really quiet about it. Everything was legal, and done properly, but it was very below radar, to cause controversy, to get so much attention for the cause, because we couldn’t have afforded it for the political action committee for their budget, which was nothing, and us volunteering, without media support.

I can understand why the library people might be upset, if they feel like we’re taking all the credit, and I don’t agree with that view. At the end of the day, we saved the institution, or, I should say, we contributed to saving the institution. So overall, I don’t know why there could be a lot of contention. We’re arguing over how we saved it, or who’s getting credit for that. The best credit is that it’s still there, and these people still have their jobs, and it’s a vibrant part of the community.

So right at the run-up of the campaign, you guys were responsible for the mobile billboards, yeah? And those didn’t make mention of the book burning, they were just straight slogans?

RB: Yeah, the slogans, I don’t know. I saw a mock-up of what the trucks were going to look like, what was actually done I don’t know right now.

The budget on the Cannes entry was stated as $3,500 but the Free Press reported you guys funded a total of $70,000 in advertising material in addition to that $3,500 in cash to that Safeguarding American Families group. Is that just billable hours, and the media for those mobile billboards and things like that?

RB: Yeah, I think it was in-kind or time donated, and any other things we donated. A lot of times, I think with the media trucks and stuff, that might have been in-kind favors from vendors, we do a lot of one-off things for clients that I pull favors for, Boy Scouts, Cancer Fund dinners, things where we get involved and it’s not necessarily an advertising thing but we’re providing a design of a book or a poster or some kind of a stage backdrop or something.

But that was money declared to the state of Michigan that was used in funding that campaign?

RB: Yeah, cash or cash equivalents. They wanted us to value our time of staff, too. That’s how we did the Detroit Public Schools. We got a small stipend from DPS to do a lot of work

But the difference is that DPS has given you a mandate, where you’re sitting across the table with somebody from the public school system or somebody from a community group.

RB: Right. On DPS we were employed by the public schools to get an awareness campaign together about increasing enrollment. The political action committee was drawing attention to the referendum. They wanted to to draw attention to the millage to save the library and the operating budget. I think there was a lot of contention, and I’m not an expert on local politics, but that the Tea Party believed there was a lot of money in the budget and a political game was being played. Political chicken, that’s the way it was positioned to me. Our stated intention in supporting a political action committee was to get people out and vote yes on the referendum.

Yeah, it’s a difficult situation. A librarian says that when the case study video emerged, he was pressured, through Leo Burnett, to remove comments from the YouTube page that say the library was not involved in the case, as the video states, and that they were so unaware of who the author of this thing was initially that when there were videos posted saying “here’s where we’re going to go and burn the books” that Troy stepped up policing around that area at the Library, which is maybe an overreaction, but speaks to the cross-purposed that you and the library were working at.

RB: Are you talking about civic employees that were working for the library?

Yeah, a librarian, someone that works inside the library.

RB: I think that would be violating their job if they were doing that.

Doing what?

RB: Cooperating with an outside group trying to sway the referendum. Are they allowed to do that? I don’t even know if that’s legal.

There are all sorts of legal questions.

RB: I wouldn’t even know if it’s legal. I don’t know.

I don’t know if they put themselves in jeopardy doing that. I know we could have talked to them, I guess we could have. Our client was a political action committee. So we’re working at their discretion. We pass the materials through them.

But the political action committee was composed of Leo employees?

RB: No Leo employees were part of the political action committee. This isn’t ours, this is somebody from the outside who put a political action committee together and we represented their intentions. That’s what I’m saying. Are there Leo employees that had a vested interest? Yes. But they didn’t run the PAC.

So Safeguarding American Families was not a creation of the agency?

RB: No, it’s a real PAC by people who have an interest and are interested in the library staying alive, and they came to their neighbor friend, who’s one of the creative directors, and said ‘we want to do something’. Now, is he close to it? Does he have an interest in it? Yes. But he was not the political action committee. Nor one of the members of it.

So why was the donation happening?

RB: When they brought it forward to me, they wanted to get involved in this political action committee to save the library. They posed it to me as a great expression of a Humankind act, it’s where we live and work in the Troy area, our offices are right on here Big Beaver, the creatives that were involved actually lived in Troy, and they asked me, ‘Could we do this?’

So who is running the political action committee? That’s the actual client, right? Who is that?

RB: That’s Tom Ball.

And that’s an actual person?

RB: Right.

Who is he?

RB: I don’t know who he is. I’ve never had direct dealings with him. He’s not a Leo Burnett employee, he’s somebody from the outside.

So Tom Ball is the only name I’ve ever seen, the PAC is registered to an address in Detroit, but the office is a commercial mail drop in Ferndale? It seemed to me this Tom Ball guy was made up, a convenient person who signed a paper and then stepped away. Nobody’s ever been able to really figure out who this dude is.

The biggest question for me is how a library that never hired an ad agency came to be recognized as one of the most innovative, award-winning clients ever, based on something it had nothing to do with. That’s my big question. How did an ad agency take the megaphone from a community group and start blowing it.

RB: We represented a political action committee with a stated purpose of saving the library and turning votes into Yes votes and driving awareness. The number one intention of that campaign, and the way it came off of Book Burning, was to make people aware. It infuriated people to no end, and when people realized what the real intention was, it turned into a positive campaign. It started negatively because that’s how you get people’s attention, sometimes you have to raise their awareness by getting them angry about something so they actually pay attention to things. Here in the community, from what I heard, there was a lot of apathy, and people were taking it as saber-rattling, and it wasn’t actually going to happen. And the stated purpose was to wake people up and get attention.

Did they work with the library? I don’t know how that would come together, I’m on the outside of that. But any political action committee can be formed to support anything, and the entity involved, whether good or bad, doesn’t have to have any input.

But you wouldn’t create a political action committee called Pro Green Cars and then create an ad for an electric car, for the Chevy Volt, and enter it into awards shows as having come from GM or Chevy.

 

The Troy library benefited from the work, and whether it’s stated as the Safeguarding American Families or Troy Library as a client, I don’t think it changes the quality of the work, or the recognition from it.

RB: I don’t see the parallels to that. If you’re trying to get at the client is Troy Library, and the client should have been a political action committee, that’s semantics. Nothing was misrepresented. We talked to the juries and their entry and awards people on how this actually was laid out. If that’s a big story, I’m pretty shocked by it. It’s not going to change anything. The Troy library benefited from the work, and whether it’s stated as the Safeguarding American Families or Troy Library as a client, I don’t think it changes the quality of the work, or the recognition from it.

I’m just talking right off hand. We didn’t put it through as Troy Library, in and of itself, without stating the political action committee, because we talked to the awards juries. I don’t think that would have changed anything. And I’m not the one making the decision on the award committees side of how they want to put it up there.

 

  1. I’m not entirely sure I understand how this worked. Frequently award shows do change categories or areas campaigns are entered into them, but to assign a completely different entity as a client is something I haven’t heard of happening. As I said in the main story, my research doesn’t square with this. A list of Cannes entries obtained May 15, over a month before the show, lists the Troy Public Library as the client on that entry. The One Show information is the same. []
  2. This is unclear too. The precedent is The Great Schlep, from Droga5, which won a bevy of awards in 2009, including at Cannes. It was entered as the product of a PAC, the Jewish Council for Education and Research, because that was the client standing behind the work. Cannes didn’t have any problem understanding that. If someone from any of the awards shows where the case won wants to step forward explain that change, I’ll gladly note it. []

Written by Nick

January 20th, 2013 at 8:51 am

Sebastian Junger on Writing

This weekend I had the good fortune to attend a writing workshop at the Bronx Documentary Center hosted by bestselling author Sebastian Junger.1

Junger started by telling the 30 or so attendees it was his first time teaching, but he was a natural. The class flowed through the broad topics and touched on standout passages most recent work, WAR, as well as some of his favorite work from other authors.

I’ve never been to a writing workshop before, and have a real aversion to Big J Journalism’s self-important hand wringing, but I didn’t encounter that here. Junger had a lot of practical, simple advice, the sort of stuff a self-taught craftsman can relay after some successes and failures.

For the most part, these are direct quotes. Sebastian’s delivery and my typing speed made for easy transcription. I skipped a lot of the stuff where he read specific passages to illustrate a point, or used anecdotes to underline certain elements. The session was videotaped, and the BDC guys said they’ll post it, so I’ll surely link to it, or embed it, once it’s up, so you can get the whole feel. In the meantime, head up and check the BDC out, they’ve got loads of screenings and exhibitions on tap. So, without further ado: Sebastian Junger on Writing.

 

On Accuracy

Write it down, don’t just record it.
Your intuition is an incredibly valuable tool. In the process of taking notes you’re already filtering out stuff that’s going to be less important to you.

Memoir is journalism.
Our society is filled with a leeway for misrepresenting the truth and getting away with it, and I think that’s infected writing. There’s fiction, there’s nonfiction, and there’s a very bright line.

That bright line is doing you a favor
You have to get that interesting stuff out of reality and into words. That’s the craft of writing. If a writer fictionalizes a little bit in memoir, it’s a petty crime. You steal a ten-dollar watch from the store, and you have a ten dollar watch, but it could cost something a lot more than ten dollars. It’s a bad bargain. It does this thing that jeopardizes the power and veracity of every word, it’s cast into doubt. It’s not worth it.

Truth is when you’re not distorting things intentionally.
Acknowledging that is important. Another truth is people see you in a certain way. No person can actually understand that clearly. It’s too distorted by your own fears. The most important thing is your striving towards truth. It should be the thing you try and head towards.

Style is what gets people to keep reading.
It doesn’t have any inherent value. It’s like clothes. Ultimately it’s not the person, and not the point. It betrays a lack of interesting in the world. Your writing is not more beautiful than the world is. One of the dangers of being a really good writer is you’re more at risk of becoming enamored of what you can do with the words. You don’t want the facts of the world to serve as a platform for your skill. It’s the other way around. Your skill serves the world.

Adopt a mindset of humility.
Say ‘Look, I’m bewildered by this topic, but I’ll spend some time learning about it, and will report back to you what I found out about it.’ Communicate ‘I don’t have an inherent advantage over you, but I want to report back what I found out about. I want to talk to people you didn’t have time to talk to, and I’m going to come back and tell you what I found out.’ You want to look the readers in the eye. You’re discovering secrets of the world that are available to anyone, you just spent the time to talk to the experts. You’re not in a position of special knowledge.

Be open.
The conversation with readers about how subjectivity works is interesting, more so than unobtainable objectivity. Once you’re into first person nonfiction, just go for it. You can kind of do anything as long as you tell the reader about it.

Your intuitions about writing will be really, really accurate.
The first reaction you have is probably the right one.

Reality is your best friend.
It’s not an adversary. You’re never going to outdo it.

Do more research, whatever that research might be.
For me, writer’s block means I don’t have enough information. I don’t have the goods, and I’m trying to make up in words what I don’t have in facts.

You will not get everything right.
You should go back and check with the people you interviewed if it’s anything personal, or political, or charged. Once you go back, ask them, you don’t have to read the quote back, ask if you’re still good with that. Do the decent thing to do and save incredible hassles and hurt feelings later. You’re way better taking it out then living with their anger and your guilt. Public officials don’t matter. But you don’t want to ruin an old lady’s day with an unflattering description of her. People’s feelings are important, particularly people who are the victims of circumstances, not the perpetrators of circumstances.

Deeper truth is often the pretext people use to fictionalize.
There is none. The story is truthful only to the extent that the details are truthful. The story’s not true if the details aren’t.

If you’re going to put someone in a poor light, you’re honor-bound to investigate further.
You’ll know when you’re being unfair.

You are a lens that serves to focus the image for the reader.
You’re not supposed to tell them what to think. You’re supposed to tell them what to think about.

The things that you want to conceal are probably the most interesting things you’ve got.
Figure out how to talk about it in a way that feels beneficial, and illuminates the world.

 

On Content

You can’t describe everything.
What you want to do is pick revealing details to give an illusion of completeness. The weather. The street address. Small details. It doesn’t matter, but it means you were there. Go back as soon as possible and write it down so you can remember. If you’re not sure, you can say you’re not sure. You can say that. That means when you don’t hedge you’re absolutely true and they can trust that. They get a sense that you’re a real human being. You’re not god, and not a robot. Use details in an emblematic way. Pick things out that are revealing in some way. In the essence of things, things get more intuitive and artful. What is the essence of it?

Don’t overload it with poetic essence.
For a sentence or two. More than that it gets cloying.

Edit in every state of mind.
Writing is a weird intuitive act. Editing is a lot more rational. That’s its strength, but it’s also its weakness. Lets say I go running. I’ll run and come back and read the chapter I just wrote. You’re upset? Go edit something. The stuff you don’t like, it comes right out. If you’re reading something, and your mind starts to wander, pull it out. That section is in doubt; it’s in question.

 

On Style

Words are really precise.
You can’t be sloppy with the words. There’s one for everything you need, it’s like a set of wrenches. There will be a perfect word for what you’re saying. Just think about it. The pleasure of reading is when someone uses a word in a unique way. You want to surprise the reader a little bit.

It’s pleasurable to see things differently, in a non-rational way.
It’s why people take drugs.

Write in a visual style.
You’re setting a visual scene. You can write to some loftier part of the brain that’s not visual, but it will probably engage people less. We go through the world with our eyes open, and you have to write to that.

When you describe characters, think of one thing that describes their face, or body language.

Cinemagraphic writing style appears to our visual understanding.
If this was a film, how would I start the film? What would I want to see?

Shortcuts bleed the power out of words.
People will put your work down and not even know why. Mortars are always ‘slamming’, but after reading that word 20 times you don’t want to hear about mortars slamming ever again.

 

On Rhythm

Give people periods of work and rest when they’re reading.
When you stop a reader, you’re stopping them to think. There’s other sentences where you don’t want to do that.

Rhythm in prose is the primary thing that keeps people reading.
It’s this essential thing that probably shouldn’t call too much attention to itself.

There is no good writing without good rhythm.
Pick those moments where you stop them, but don’t do that too much. You want a rolling, long-distance pace.

Things said with rhythm seem true.
There’s a power to them that seems unassailable, and that you tapped into a higher truth, and that’s coming out in words. IT is flowing through you, and you’re not impeding it.

No one writes in perfect rhythm, but you have to be attuned to it.

In a long sentence you can get into a filmic feeling.
You’re asking the reader not to stop and think, but to go with it. You’re in a situation that’s flowing past you. Long sentences are less about ideas and more about experiences and perception.


On Structure

Expand and contract the pace, but you have to keep with the flow of reality.

At my desk is where I put words together, not ideas.
The conceptual leaps a piece requires will come to me in the oddest places. Places where I’m lightly engaged with something else.

Fictional devices in nonfiction…
…are not an excuse to invent, they’re strictly structural.

End sections on unstable moments, where there’s a lot of unexpressed potential.

If it’s too complicated to remember verbatim, you really should say to the reader how it happened.
‘Even if the words aren’t exact, that’s what he was saying.’ There’s a very specific value to recorded information, and you don’t want to muddy the waters.

Free to use fictional tricks, as long as that trick isn’t invention.

You have a relationship with the reader, you can tell them whatever you want.
As long as you’re honest. You can tell the reader the thing that you’re trying to protect them from.

 

On Beginnings & Endings

Beginnings…
…should be really easy to get into. It should be an easy can to open. But also set you up for something important. You have to give a signpost that says it’s coming.

Start in a way where the person doesn’t want to leave you.

Endings partly feel like endings because of rhythm.
You can tell when a movie’s getting ready to end.

You want a feeling of eminent change, that you’re revealing the truth.
Endings should be a big book, thump it down on the table, there, that’s the end, thunk. It’s a little bit like the end of a relationship. You’re having coffee and you can talk about the details, but you know it’s ended. You know it’s over.

 

 

 

 

 

  1. Junger’s friend Mike Kamber opened the BDC after a highly-awarded career as a photojournalist. One of the writing assignments was to create the lede paragraph of a profile on Mike and the BDC. I won’t share it, but it’s easy to say after a gnarly career around the globe Mike’s doing important work helping transitioning community tell its most interesting stories. []

Written by Nick

November 12th, 2012 at 4:47 pm

Posted in Books,Journalism,NYC

Screen Shutdown

wave to Irvine Good stuff--luckily my email count was below 600 in a week away. I wish Paul only had a pad and pencil in this series. Arguably Jake is more anonymous now.

Written by Nick

September 10th, 2012 at 9:55 pm

Blogging, fast and slow

“To think clearly about the future, we need to clean up the language that we use in labeling the beliefs we had in the past.” — Daniel Kahneman

(More on this when I’m done with it.)

Written by Nick

February 26th, 2012 at 10:00 pm

Posted in Books

Borrowing Plots from J.G. Ballard

From “Thirteen for Centaurus”, from The Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard

Tell me, Abel,” Dr. Francis began, “has it ever occurred to you to ask why the Station is here?”

Abel shrugged. “Well, it’s designed to keep us alive, it’s our home.”

“Yes, that’s true, but obviously it has some other object than just our own survival. Who do you think built the Station in the first place?”

“Our fathers, I suppose, or grandfathers. Or their grandfathers.”

“Fair enough. And where were they before they built it?” Abel struggled with the reductio ad absurdum.

“I don’t know, they must have been floating around in midair!” Dr. Francis joined in the laughter. “Wonderful thought. Actually it’s not that far from the truth. But we can’t accept that as it stands.”

The doctor’s self-contained office gave Abel an idea. “Perhaps they came from another Station? An even bigger one?”

Dr. Francis nodded encouragingly. “Brilliant, Abel. A first-class piece of deduction. All right, then, let’s assume that. Somewhere, away from us, a huge Station exists, perhaps a hundred times bigger than this one, maybe even a thousand. Why not?”

“It’s possible,” Abel admitted, accepting the idea with surprising ease.

“Right. Now you remember your course in advanced mechanics the imaginary planetary system, with the orbiting bodies held together by mutual gravitational attraction? Let’s assume further that such a system actually exists. O.K.?”

“Here?” Abel said quickly. “In your cabin?” Then he added, “In your sleeping cylinder?”

Dr. Francis sat back. “Abel, you do come up with some amazing things. An interesting association of ideas. No, it would be too big for that. Try to imagine a planetary system orbiting around a central body of absolutely enormous size, each of the planets a million times larger than the Station.” When Abel nodded, he went on. “And suppose that the big Station, the one a thousand times larger than this, were attached to one of the planets, and that the people in it decided to go to another planet. So they build a smaller station, about the size of this one, and sent it off through the air. Make sense?”

“In a way.” Strangely, the completely abstract concepts were less remote than he would have expected. Deep in his mind dim memories stirred, interlocking with what he had already guessed about the Station. He gazed steadily at Dr. Francis. “You’re saying that’s what the Station is doing? That the planetary system exists?”

Dr. Francis nodded. “You’d more or less guessed before I told you. Unconsciously, you’ve known all about it for several years. A few minutes from now I’m going to remove some of the conditioning blocks, and when you wake up in a couple of hours you’ll understand everything. You’ll know then that in fact the Station is a spaceship, flying from our home planet, Earth, where our grandfathers were born, to another planet millions of miles away, in a distant orbiting system. Our grandfathers always lived on Earth, and we are the first people ever to undertake such a journey. You can be proud that you’re here. Your grandfather, who volunteered to come, was a great man, and we’ve got to do everything to make sure that the Station keeps running.”

Abel nodded quickly. “When do we get there the planet we’re flying to?”

Dr. Francis looked down at his hands, his face growing somber. “We’ll never get there, Abel. The journey takes too long. This is a multi-generation space vehicle, only our children will land and they’ll be old by the time they do. But don’t worry, you’ll go on thinking of the Station as your only home, and that’s deliberate, so that you and your children will be happy here.”

He went over to the TV monitor screen by which he kept in touch with Captain Peterr, his fingers playing across the control tabs. Suddenly the screen lit up, a blaze of fierce points of light flared into the cabin, throwing a brilliant phosphorescent glitter across the walls, dappling Abel’s hands and suit. He gaped at the huge balls of fire, apparently frozen in the middle of a giant explosion, hanging in vast patterns.

BBC News – Simulated Mars mission ‘lands’ back on Earth.

Written by Nick

November 4th, 2011 at 1:09 pm

Posted in Books

Things I Finished #1

In reverence to a tradition embraced by Jesse Schell and supported by Matt Webb, here’s the first of an ongoing series of posts titled ‘Things I Finished’, a kind of catch-all for media bits that took some effort and are worth mentioning.

Stories of Your Life: and Others, by Ted Chiang
I’d read a lot of Chiang’s stuff online, and finally picked this up to get through the last two I hadn’t seen, “Stories of Your Life” and “Understand”. Both didn’t disappoint. Chiang has a way of developing complete, convincing characters and worlds in a very compressed period of time, which makes it feel like he stretches the space of his stories. I’m excited to dig into his novella, The Lifecycle of Software Objects, as soon as the library delivers it to me.

Broker, Trader, Lawyer, Spy: The Secret World of Corporate Espionage, by Eamon Javers
I was hoping this would be a little less mass-market, which sounds kind of stuck-up, but there it is. Javers details how private security and detectives have turned into freelance spooks and ex-Federal agents working in shadowy Washington corridors on behalf of any and all interested customer, securing all sorts of valuable information at whatever price. Very interesting stuff, yes, and a difficult world to get access to, but I was hoping there’d be more nuts and bolts attached, that he’d get into those corridors to figure out how these guys do their jobs.1

True Grit
I’m way behind on Oscars viewing, but wanted to get this one out of the way while it was still in theaters. As always, the Coens know how to write dialogue, but I felt some of the thematic elements were a bit unformed, for instance the snake motifs.

  1. Meanwhile, back in Washington, the Anonymous/HBGary thing has stirred up a whole pot of shit, with the relationships Javers describes in the book exposed. We’ll see what Javers has to say–he seems to be stuck on Wall Street at the moment. []

Written by Nick

February 9th, 2011 at 11:38 pm

Wait, Ebooks Don’t Sell Out? Don’t Tell the NYT.

It’s fairly indicative of the NYT’s own brand of ostrich-in-sand journalism that this story on a massive publishing supply problem focuses entirely on physical books and neglects any interesting data (or at least mention) of ebooks. I guarantee Kindle users aren’t having a difficult time finding this title–or lugging it around.

Mark Twain’s Autobiography Is Flying Off the Shelves – NYTimes.com.

Written by Nick

November 22nd, 2010 at 9:01 am

Posted in Books

David Foster Wallace’s Library: The Harry Ransom Books

I’m kind of a nut for ephemera like this, and think the best way to make connections between artists is to follow what influenced them.

So when I read in this Newsweek article that around 300 ‘heavily annotated’ personal books were part of the David Foster Wallace archive the University of Texas’ at Austin’s Harry Ransom center bought and recently revealed, I felt inclined to make a big list of them to see if there were any things that seemed interesting and unknown.

So here they are, in case you care too. It ain’t pretty, but it’s all in one place rather than having to page through a lot at the library site. (All these are listed as belonging to the ‘Harry Ransom Center David Foster Wallace Library‘)

Oh how I’d love to spend a few weeks in this archive. Maybe when I finally get that comp lit Master’s this’ll sway me to UT.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Nick

November 21st, 2010 at 7:20 pm

Posted in Books

Loving these Houellebecq photos.

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Vincent Ferrané

Written by Nick

November 17th, 2010 at 11:56 am

Posted in Art,Books,Photo