2011 - %3, June

And in His 84th Year, the Pope Tweet-eth

| Wed Jun. 29, 2011 9:45 PM EDT

On Tuesday, June 28, 2011 AD at 6:07 PM Vatican time—12:07 PM Eastern Standard Time—Pope Benedict XVI tweeted. The inaugural papal tweet, announcing a new online information portal, came from the Vatican's account, @news_va_en, and was sent by the 84-year-old pontiff via iPad! It reads: "Dear Friends, I just launched News.va Praised be our Lord Jesus Christ! With my prayers and blessings, Benedictus XVI."



Okay, so it's not the most barnstorming entry onto the social media scene ever, but props for the effort. I think I speak for all avid papal observers when I say I await His Holiness' next tweet with barely contained anticipation. In honor of the historic occasion, here's a brief survey of some other venerable institutions and figures' belated first steps into the brave new world of modern technology.

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Village Voice Staffers Threaten Strike, Create Alternate Website

| Wed Jun. 29, 2011 7:11 PM EDT

In New York, unionized staffers at the Village Voice say they will strike if management doesn't address their demands for better health and retirement plans by tomorrow, when their current contract expires.

The Voice—the nation's oldest and largest alt-weekly newspaper—is among a handful of media outlets left with union representation. The paper renegotiates its contract with the United Auto Workers (which also reps Mother Jones) every three years, but while staffers have a history of threatening strikes they have never actually gone on one.

Since the last negotiation, a joint press release from the UAW and Pulitzer-finalist Voice reporter Graham Rayman says, "staff has been cut by an estimated 60%, and average annual salaries have markedly diminished." The statement is published on TheRealVoice.org, where staffers say they plan to continue writing in the event of a strike.

Another Round with F. Scott Fitzgerald

| Tue Jun. 28, 2011 3:14 PM EDT

For Proust, it was madeleines. For Thoreau, a bean patch. For F. Scott Fitzgerald, literary inspiration came from—or after—a stiff drink. We've all read the drunken exploits of Nick Carraway and Gatsby's legion of vacuous partiers, and it's no secret that Fitzgerald himself was more than a casual imbiber. But what did the great American author make of his own drinking problem? On Booze, released this week by New Directions, is a collection of Fitzgerald's writings on drinks, drinking, and life as an alcoholic.

Like the wavering temperament of a gin-soaked booze hound, the book moves quickly between the hilarious and the tragic. In highlights from Fitzgerald's notebooks, we see the extent to which alcohol informed his observations of the world. "Debut" is defined as "the first time a young girl is seen drunk in public"; a favorite Thanksgiving recipe is Turkey Cocktail, prepared by adding "one gallon of vermouth and a demijohn of angostura bitters" to a turkey (shaken, not stirred). But the joyous buzz starts to wear off when Fitzgerald turns to a deep and disturbing analysis of the years he spent as an alcoholic, a period he refers to as "the crack-up."

Mormon Band Shuns Tobacco, Except in Indonesia

| Tue Jun. 28, 2011 1:49 PM EDT

Neon Trees, a Mormon pop rock band, catapulted into the hearts and ears of earnest rockers with its #1 Billboard single, "Animal." To fend off the show biz temptations that accompany hordes of screaming fans and nationwide tours, all of its members have stuck to their Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints roots. The group won the 2008 Real Noise anti-tobacco contest, and have spoken out about being good role models for their fans. Drummer Elaine Bradley told the Mormon Women Project: "I definitely think about how my actions represent Mormonism—I think it would be irresponsible and sloppy of me to assume that I don't have an effect on people." Singer Tyler Glenn was even more explicit: "Things we didn't want to be a part of were alcohol and tobacco campaigns...we're starting to attract fans of all kinds of ages, and so it's something we've decided to not support."

But now the group is on the line-up for the Java Rockin'Land festival in Jakarta, Indonesia, a popular music event that's projected to draw a crowd of 60,000 and is currently backed by one of the largest producers of clove cigarettes, Gudang Garam. Last time we checked, cigarettes don't fly in the house of Mormon, so what are Neon Trees doing there?

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week [21]

| Mon Jun. 27, 2011 8:32 PM EDT

Mother Jones guest blogger Mark Armstrong is the founder of Longreads, a site devoted to uncovering the best long-form nonfiction articles available online. And what better time to curl up with a great read than over the weekend? Below, a hand-picked bouquet of five interesting stories, including word count and approximate reading time. (Readers can also subscribe to The Top 5 Longreads of the Week by clicking here.)

The Top Media Policy Stories of the Week: FCC Decries Lack of Media Diversity, Stymies Low Power TV

| Mon Jun. 27, 2011 8:03 PM EDT

Local coverage and diversity are in short supply in today's media landscape—especially when it comes to broadcast and cable TV. But there is hope. In markets like the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles, Low Power TV (LPTV) has emerged as a viable alternative to network and cable TV, offering 24-hour programming and locally-produced news shows for ethnic communities in their own languages.

While LPTV offers incredible opportunities for ethnic communities, as I reported here and here for New America Media, these stations face considerable challenges, including an unfriendly regulatory landscape and the weighty influence of the big-bucks telecommunications industry, which just wants LPTV to go away so it can claim the full digital spectrum.

Moreover, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) considers LPTV a secondary service with no legal protection from interference or displacement by broadcasters—which makes it difficult, if not impossible, for LPTV to thrive, since its future is uncertain.

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Bill Callahan's Love Song to America

| Mon Jun. 27, 2011 6:30 AM EDT

Four hours before Bill Callahan is set to perform at the Independent, a small San Francisco nightclub, he fiddles with his shoelaces and pokes the tips through a grommet in his navy sneakers. Though his singing voice is unwavering as oak, Callahan is actually a bit shy. In person, his cowboy baritone often decrescendos to a whisper. Still, his eyes flicker with passion when he talks about things like the difference between songwriting and prose, or how genetically modified meat wrecks our bodies.

Callahan recently released his 13th studio album, Apocalypse. It sounds so intimately pressed to his half-singing-half-speaking voice that the microphone could be inside Callahan's mind. His sound wasn't always so focused. A Maryland native, Callahan performed under the name Smog from the early 1990s to mid 2000s. Then, he moved to Austin, Texas, and started performing under his own name. Over the course of those two decades, his style drifted from more abstract and instrumental to what it is today: grounded in lyrics. His songs are casual, unhurried, and delivered over minimalist guitar fingerpicking with a dash of distortion. His voice, a soothing low drawl, is reminiscient of Johnny Cash. On his lastest album, we hear tales about cattle drivers and crops, US soldiers and talk shows. It's part nostalgia, part American apocalypse. In our backstage chat, Callahan reflected on everything from the flavor of bison meat to weird babies and our elected leaders' secret underground garden plot.

William Shakespeare: Toker?

| Sat Jun. 25, 2011 6:15 AM EDT

If he were alive today, would Shakespeare have really, really liked listening to the Grateful Dead?

That's the question a group of scientists, led by anthropologist Francis Thackeray, is attempting to answer. Thackeray, director of the Institute for Human Evolution in Johannesburg, South Africa, told Fox News he has formally asked the Church of England to green light his exhumation of the Bard of Avon's remains to determine the cause of his death and, among other things, if the playwright had traces of pot pumping through his system. This comes over a decade after Thackeray and the South African Police Services Forensic Science Laboratory both uncovered "suggestive evidence of cannabis" and "signs of what looks like cocaine" on clay pipes found in the garden of Shakespeare’s old house.

The Man Who Outed Hollywood

| Sat Jun. 25, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

"Well, it's about fuckin' time!" This was the late playwright Doric Wilson's reaction when he was approached by Michael Schiavi to be interviewed for The Celluloid Activist: The Life and Times of Vito Russo, just published by the University of Wisconsin Press last month.

A serious study of Russo's life was long overdue. In 1981, he wrote The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies, a groundbreaking look at how Hollywood had long depicted gay characters as either sex-crazed predators or helpless victims. (It was later made into a documentary featuring stars such as Lily Tomlin and Tom Hanks.) He also co-founded ACT UP and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation; GLAAD now presents an annual award named after Russo (this year’s recipient was Ricky Martin).

Russo died in 1990 at the age of 44. I had known him for only four or five years, but I was referred to Schiavi by a mutual friend. I sent him an email with my reminiscences of Vito, which I’ve included below, slightly edited. Some of these episodes were expanded in Vito’s biography. (I thoroughly recommend that you read it!) Though this doesn't begin to enumerate Vito's accomplishments or his charms—and he had plenty of both— I'm presenting it here as a brief personal footnote to a very big public life.

Nikka Costa: The "Funky White Bitch" is Back

| Sat Jun. 25, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

Nikka Costa is a rare breed. With roots in Frank Sinatra's rat pack—her father, Dan Costa, produced and arranged songs for the famed crooner—Costa traveled the world as a child singer and performed on the White House lawn with Sinatra himself, all before the age of nine. Since then, she has churned out four retro-soul albums with hits like "Everybody's Got Their Something" and "Stuck to You." Think of her sound as a reincarnation of Betty Davis, but swap the fro with wild red hair and add some of Janis Joplin's emotive howl to the mix.

For Costa's new release, Pro Whoa, the self-proclaimed "funky white bitch" hung up her hang-ups and whipped up a new sound, swapping her previous blues-and-funk signature for beat-heavy dance tracks. (You can download it here.) In a phone chat prior to her San Francisco tour stop, Costa let loose about signing fans' body parts, finding inspiration in Annie Leonard's The Story of Stuff, and why you simply must see her perform.

Mother Jones: Let's talk about the new album. It's got more of a modern, futuristic feel than your funkier prior releases, what brought on the change?

Nikka Costa: I wanted to do something different than my last album, Pebble to a Pearl. I loved that record, it had a very vintage, old-school feel and we recorded it all in one room. I wasn't in the funk mode this time around. So I started working around with MPCs [Akai's music production centers]. I wanted a harder, more beat-driven sound.