Author Interview: Lisa Bloom

Interview by Adam Shepard featured on


Lisa Bloom author of Suspicion Nation, took time out of her busy schedule to give insight on her book and speaking engagements for Books In Common.

What are some of the “teachable” moments in your book that make it work well for a speaking engagement?

Racial bias: No one thinks she is racist in twenty-first century America, and yet racially disparate outcomes are all around us. Blacks are four times as likely as whites to be arrested and incarcerated for marijuana possession, for example, though the two groups use at the same rates. White men with felony convictions are more like to get the job than black men with clean records, when both have identical resumes. And on and on. How is this possible? The answer: implicit racial bias, the field of study that administers cheat-proof tests for hidden racial bias. It turns out that 80% of whites and 50% of blacks test for moderate or severe racial bias against African Americans. The good news: once we’re aware of our subconscious biases, we can eradicate them.

I cover this topic extensively in my book, Suspicion Nation, because racial profiling was at the heart of the Trayvon Martin case, as it is in so many cases.

Pretending we live in colorblind America, ignoring evidence of racial bias, is not helping us advance. It is holding us back. The “teachable moment” is the mountain of evidence that racial bias still plagues us, but also the fixes that can help us overcome it. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “All we say to America is be true to what you said on paper.”

Would you share some notable experiences you’ve had at speaking events that you’ve participated in? 

Very enthusiastic! I’ve been bowled over by hugs from strangers, standing ovations, sold out events, and every time, far more hands up in Q and A sessions than I could answer in the time allotted.

What inspired you to write this story?

I covered the George Zimmerman trial gavel to gavel for NBC News and MSNBC, and as I did, I saw a grave injustice unfolding right before our eyes. I saw a prosecution team that wasn’t arguing its strongest evidence, was putting on unprepared witnesses, and gave such a weak closing argument that both sides seemed to be arguing reasonable doubt, assuring an acquittal. When the case was over, I had to know what happened, what we weren’t seeing on TV. So I did my own investigation, and the results were shocking, and became my book,Suspicion Nation. My conclusion is that the State of Florida bungled the case from beginning to end, but also, that our culture and laws created the perfect storm that allowed this case — and many others like it — to happen.

Many people felt in their gut that the Trayvon Martin case was an injustice. I did too. But a gut feeling wasn’t good enough. I had to get the facts. Once I had them, I had to expose this injustice for what it was. That’s why I wrote the book.

Your latest book, Suspicion Nation, is a very current look at racial injustice. What do you think are some of the more engaging discussion topics, and why? 

Why are we so uncomfortable talking about race?

Black America largely feels that white America no longer believes that racism is a problem. Are they right?

What can we do to push forward on this issue and truly become an egalitarian society?

What about gun laws? Stand Your Ground laws? How did they contribute to this case? Are they creating a more dangerous, violent country?


This entry was posted in Issue #7 and tagged . The original entry can be read here.

Suspicion Nation Interview with Publishers Weekly, “And Justice For All”

by Wendy Werris

In summer 2013, civil rights attorney and legal analyst Lisa Bloom covered the trial of George Zimmerman—who was accused of murdering 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla.—for NBC. Halfway through the proceedings, Bloom had an “aha” moment that planted the seed for her forthcoming book, Suspicion Nation: The Inside Story of the Trayvon Martin Injustice and Why We Continue to Repeat It (Counterpoint, Feb. 26).

“I started to notice there was a great deal of very powerful evidence in the case that the prosecutors weren’t arguing,” Bloom says. “One of the most important pieces of evidence came from Zimmerman’s videotaped reenactment for the police, where he states that Trayvon saw his gun, holstered behind his right hip, and reached for it during their scuffle, which is why Zimmerman shot him.” But Bloom, who reviewed the evidence and watched each day’s proceedings during the trial, realized that it wasn’t possible for Martin to have seen the gun—because it was holstered behind Zimmerman, who was lying down and also wearing a shirt and a jacket. “I watched this over and over again and thought, how did they miss this? And what else are they missing?” Bloom says.

It turns out they were missing plenty—so much so that when Bloom flew home after Zimmerman’s acquittal, she couldn’t stop thinking about it. “I really couldn’t let it go,” she says. “A lot of people feel this case was an injustice, but they’re told that the jury system played out and the man was acquitted. But I’m here to say it was an injustice, and from a lawyer’s view inside the courtroom, I can show you what happened—how, by the last week of the trial, the evidence went in one direction, and the prosecution in another.”

Bloom has been a civil rights lawyer since 1986, and she has covered trials for CNN, the Today Show, and MSNBC for nearly 20 years, in addition to having her own show on Court TV. She says she wrote the Suspicion Nation in less than four months, working around the clock. “I wanted to do it right away, while this issue is still very much pressing in people’s minds.” Bloom’s book includes a great deal of new information, which she uncovered after interviewing Martin’s friend Rachel Jeantell, who testified during the trial, as well as one of the jurors on the case, who told her about what went on in the jury room. “My book has a lot of behind-the-scenes information, and it’s going to surprise a lot of people about the evidence that was there and that the prosecution missed,” Bloom says. “The state of Florida bungled the case from prosecutor to closing arguments to judge.”

It was natural for Bloom to take up civil rights law when she graduated from Yale law school. Her mother, attorney Gloria Allred, is a lawyer known for representing celebrity clients and taking on women’s discrimination cases. Her father, Peyton Bray, was “a hippie radical until his last days—a great, fierce independent thinker and the smartest guy I ever knew,” Bloom says. “He would give me books about anarchy inscribed, ‘To Lisa, Smash the state! Love, Dad,’ when I was 12 years old.” Bloom’s law practice in Los Angeles focuses on domestic violence, sexual harassment, and racial discrimination cases. The Bloom Firm includes four attorneys—“all of them women,” she says with a smile.

The corporate law route never appealed to Bloom. “There are plenty of lawyers happy to do that who are well paid,” she says. “I wanted to do something I believed in and cared about. I wake up every morning and I’m excited. We go up against fleets of lawyers with their investigators and publicists, so we have to be smarter and more nimble. But we can beat them, and we do.”

Suspicion Nation also delves into the issue of racial profiling in the U.S. “It runs rampant in our system,” Bloom says. “Also, our lax gun laws mean there are too many people like Zimmerman who have guns and use them with little accountability.” As part of her research, she visited the scene of the Martin shooting, in Sanford. While there, she began to question another aspect of Zimmerman’s defense: he said that Martin banged his head repeatedly on the concrete, prompting him to shoot the teenager in self-defense. “Trayvon’s body was found on the lawn, a substantial distance from the concrete. That negates part of the self-defense story. Zimmerman’s head injuries were not consistent with his head repeatedly hitting concrete.”

In her book, Bloom recounts several incidents similar to the Martin shooting that have occurred since then. “And those are just the ones that have gotten publicity,” she notes. “Racial profiling is everywhere. It doesn’t just happen in Sanford, but also in Michigan and Wisconsin and New York City. A lot of this is reminiscent of trials from the civil rights era in small towns in the South, where a white person kills a black person and walks.”

Bloom is passionate about finding ways to prevent more crimes—and trials—like Zimmerman’s. “We need more black prosecutors, for one thing,” she says. “Only about 5% of them are black. Prosecutors are more powerful than judges: they decide whether to charge a person or not, what to charge the defendant with, which plea bargains will be offered, and how sentencing is determined.”

Suspicion Nation also suggests that judges should reconsider how they give jurors instructions before each trial. “For instance, a judge could say, ‘Most of us, including myself, are [racially] biased in one way or another. Set aside these biases while you’re serving on this jury. Change the race of the person on trial in your mind and see how that affects your judgment.’ ”

Suspicion Nation is set to be published on the second anniversary of Martin’s death, and it will be the first book about the Zimmerman trial. “The Trayvon Martin case is iconic, one that people will be studying 30 years from now,” Bloom says. “And as I discuss in the book, [the verdict] was almost preordained. I wanted there to be something on record that explains what happened and why it went wrong. This was different from a lot of cases I’ve covered—much bigger than just these two guys on that dark night in Sanford, Fla. It really had struck a nerve.”

Ban Children From Violent Media

Children under 14 should be barred from access to violent films and video games, online content, and music, period.  Right now, kids can download music or shows that celebrate rape and murder, adults can bring toddlers in to R-rated movies depicting people getting shot in the face, and kids can play violent slasher video games online at will, damaging our kids (especially our boys) and perpetuating our thug culture.  It’s got to stop.  And the way to stop it is by keeping kids away from this stuff.  We can do it if we decide we want to do it.

        Under our current ridiculously lax movie rating system, “PG-13” means parents are advised that the film may not be appropriate for kids.  Yet a ten year old sees the rating as enticing and can legally walk right in.  “R” means a kid is supposed to get in only with a parent or “adult guardian” so a twelve year old can entreat his eighteen year old cousin — if the theater is even enforcing the rating to begin with — and in he goes.  Most of us are used to attending adult-themed movies with scores of kids seated around us cheering for knife fights and beheadings.  Am I the only one squirming and thinking, Why are kids in here?

        Germany is considering restricting access to adult-themed films to children under 12, and we too should keep our kids out. According to one study, 2.5 million children aged 10-14 watch R rated movies in America yearly, more than 12% of kids.  Some gruesome horror movies, such as Blade, Hollow Man and Bride of Chucky have had child audiences up to eight million.
Can anyone tell me what is gained from ten year olds watching acts of butchery and slaughter (other than million of dollars in profits for the giant media companies that produce these films)?  By the time the average American kid starts kindergarten he’s watched eight thousand murders and one hundred thousand acts of on screen violence.  Is there anything good about that?
Because here’s what’s lost:

  • On screen carnage scares the crap out of normal, emotionally healthy kids, giving them nightmares, confusing and traumatizing them.
  • Many studies show that violent images desensitize children, meaning that they lose their natural aversion to mayhem and come to accept people punching and shooting each other as a normal, even “cool” reaction to anger.
  • Children who watch R rated movies are more likely to be fight, drink alcohol, do drugs and be promiscuous.  
  • The United States has 19 times the rate of gun violence of other affluent countries.  We have the highest rate of incarceration in the entire world, or in human history.

        Kids who listen to today’s rap music suffer from the same problems, becoming more accepting of aggression, bloodshed, and misogyny.  As I show in my book Swagger, two out of three of the top-selling rap songs today celebrate violence (especially gun violence and beating up or murdering gay men), rape (including rape of little girls), and illegal drug use.  The parental advisories on CD packaging have become meaningless as most music is purchased online.
But it’s up to the parents, you may say.  If only all our kids were blessed with moms and dads who carefully monitored their video games, who listened to the lyrics in their music and led thoughtful discussions about them, who shielded them from age-inappropriate gory films.  We live in the real world, though, and millions of our kids are watching and listening to this stuff, absorbing the message that manhood equals thugdom, and that shooting your rival is a satisfying solution to conflict.

        Movie ratings should ban kids under 14 from entering films with violent scenes.  Theaters should be required to check ID and to enforce the ban.  Online providers of movies, TV shows, or music with offensive lyrics should require age verification before they make a sale, as porn sites are required to do.  Will some wily kids still sneak in to movies, and get past online verifications?  Sure.  But this would keep many kids away from age-inappropriate violent images, and would be an enormous improvement over the current system.

         We don’t let parents decide that it’s okay to let their kids watch pornography.  Why not?  Because we’ve correctly decided as a culture that sexually explicit films are harmful to children’s development.  And sex (ideally) is a normal, healthy human activity.  A bazooka to the face is not.  Why do we ban our kids from the former but not the latter?

         We must take seriously that we live in the most violent culture in the developed world, and stop desensitizing our kids to it.  Let’s let them believe that violence is scary and awful for as long as possible.  Because it is.

When will the U.S. stop mass incarceration? (CNN)

The United States leads the world in the rate of incarcerating its own citizens. We imprison more of our own people than any other country on earth, including China which has four times our population, or in human history. And now, a new Pew report announces that we are keeping even nonviolent inmates behind bars for increasingly longer terms.

This comes at a time when soaring costs of prisons are wreaking havoc on federal, state and local budgets, as schools, libraries, parks and social programs are slashed. When I graduated from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1983, my state spent more on higher education than prisons, a lot more. That equation is now reversed. Money that could have gone into reducing skyrocketing tuition and cuts to education has instead gone to prisons and inmates.

Over the past 23 years, California constructed roughly one new prison per year, at a cost of $100 million each, while it built only one new public college during the same period. Nationwide, spending on prisons has risen six times faster than spending on higher education.

As I protest education cuts, I’m so often told, “We just don’t have the money.” It’s a lie. We do have the money. We just choose to spend it on prisons.

Why is this not a front and center issue in the presidential campaign?

Largely casualties of our misguided “war on drugs,” and vigorously promoted at the federal level by the “drug czar” and a $15 billion annual budget, the number of incarcerated Americans has quadrupled since 1980.

More than two million of our people are now locked up, with another nearly five million under an increasingly restrictive system of correctional control in lieu of or after incarceration. Criminalizing human behavior like never before, our judges are required by law to mete out increasingly punitive, long sentences, even for children. Even after inmates are released, they remain under the heavy-handed and pricey control of the criminal justice system for years or for life, often legally barred from voting, receiving public housing, food stamps or student loans.

Forced to “check the box” on job applications that they are convicted criminals, even those who have had simple convictions like marijuana possession are often legally discriminated against by employers.

An unemployed young man recently wrote to me about being shut out of his dream job, nursing, because of a decade-old marijuana offense. In fact, no one at all will hire him. As he languishes on a friend’s couch, he is hopeless, depressed and suicidal.

In the United States, one man out of eighteen is incarcerated or on probation or parole, and more are locked up every day. We are the last developed country on the planet to lock up juveniles, overwhelmingly boys, for life-without-parole sentences for crimes committed when they were minors. (Though the Supreme Court banned mandatory life-without-parole sentences for minors in June, judges may still impose the sentence as a discretionary matter.)

Here’s one stark way to understand our new normal of mass incarceration: If we wanted to return to 1970s level of incarceration, we’d have to release four out of five people behind bars today.

Nonviolent offenders are 60% of our prison population. Releasing half of them would free up nearly $17 billion per year for schools or other worthy programs, with no appreciable effect on the crime rate. In fact, many studies conclude that mass incarceration is crimogenic, i.e., locking up people for minor offenses increases crime because they become hardened behind bars. Since few prisons offer therapy or vocational programs and children left behind in fatherless homes are more likely to grow up to become offenders themselves, the problem just gets worse.

But we cannot keep going down the road of locking up more people for longer amounts of time. According to Pew, prisoners released in 2009 served an average of nine additional months in custody, or 36% longer, than offenders released in 1990. Annually we now spend $68 billion and growing on local, state and federal corrections.

The American public strongly supports reducing time served for nonviolent offenders. But candidates appear afraid to touch this touchy third rail issue, for fear they appear less than “tough on crime.”

Why does the right not consider our multibillion-dollar prison system to be the type of bloated government program ripe for cost-cutting?

Why is the left so rarely concerned about the warehoused young lives and the destruction of inner city families from our culture of mass incarceration?

Why do both sides accept the framing of this question, so often parroted: In these tough economic times, should we cut more social services or raise taxes? It’s a false dichotomy. The third alternative is to stop warehousing our own people.



How to Talk to Little Boys

My friend Oliver is 12 years old. I give his single mom a break every now and then, and he comes over to hang out. He’s a whiz on a skateboard, has some killer dance moves, and radiates angelic sweetness. “You’re a good person,” he said to me once, apropos of nothing, getting me all choked up. He sees the best in everyone, though his own life has included years in a homeless shelter and an abusive dad. Recently, I saw Oliver on a sunny California day. We were outside at the pool, eating watermelon and relaxing. He loves to talk about his Xbox or Weird Al YouTube videos. Instead of going there, I asked Oliver, “Read any good books lately?” In response, he mumbled, “I guess.” Books aren’t Oliver’s thing. I know he’d rather talk about basketball, or sneakers, but I wouldn’t, and I was on a mission.

“What’s your favorite book?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said, staring off into the distance.

Oliver reads only when absolutely required to. You’d never find Oliver sneaking a book under the blankets with a flashlight, as I did growing up. (The midnight glow from his bed would be an iPhone app.)

When I had this moment with him, I was in the midst of writing, “Swagger: 10 Urgent Rules for Raising Boys in an Era of Failing Schools, Mass Joblessness and Thug Culture.” I had been researching all the cultural forces that are dumbing down our boys. So I needed to drill down to the root of the issue.

“Do you like reading, Oliver?” I asked him.

“Sure,” he said, unconvincingly, in that way kids tell you the answer they know you want to hear.


“Well, like, if there’s nothing else to do, it’s okay,” he allowed. “Like if you can’t play sports or watch video games or play with your friends.”

There’s a ringing endorsement.

“Do you think reading is girlie?” I asked — an appalling attitude I’d found in my research — keeping my face as flat as possible. I’d first read that in Peg Tyre’s “The Trouble With Boys,” and I’d found this attitude in many boys I interviewed. Last year, I wrote “How to Talk to Little Girls,” and I was thrilled when it went viral, being read and shared by millions around the world. Parents were passionate about encouraging girls to embrace their intelligence and love reading. What I didn’t realize was that getting parents to instill the same love of literacy in boys was much harder, due to our cultural stereotype that boys are better for more active activities, like sports.

“No,” Oliver said he didn’t think reading is girlie, possibly giving me the answer he believed I wanted. But then, he blurted out, “A lot of my friends do!”

“Why do you suppose they think that?”

“Because we’d rather do stuff,” he said, gaining steam now on behalf of his “friends.” “When you’re reading you’re just sitting there. Girls don’t mind sitting around, but we’d rather be skateboarding or something where we’re doing something.”

I didn’t get sidetracked and tell him that, hello, we do mind just sitting there. Instead, I pressed on and asked what books he has enjoyed. Oliver could name only one book series he likes, “39 Clues.”

“Did you know that reading used to be considered more of a boy thing?” I continued. He looked out at the horizon, enduring my questions. “No. Can we go swimming now?”


The implications of the news that girls have surpassed boys in reading — at every grade level, in all 50 states — and that girls are graduating high school and college with better grades and in larger numbers have not been fully absorbed by parents of boys. Show me a valedictorian, and odds are she’s a she. Top 10 percent of your kid’s class? Probably crowded with girls. Bottom 10 percent? Where the boys are.

Some parents, even teachers, have a fatalistic attitude about this, and reduce expectations for boys. The new cultural trope is that girls naturally mature faster, that they have better innate verbal skills, and so pushing young boys to read is unrealistic and vaguely unfair to their boyness. (Then how do we explain that all three winners of the last Google science fair were girls? Do we now believe that girls are just better at everything?) Let ’em be boys! Let ’em play!

No. We cannot accept diminished prospects for our sons, because the implications for their lives are so dire. There’s nothing innately male about illiteracy. Boys today do worse on national reading tests compared to their own gender a generation ago. There’s no mystery as to why boys have slipped. Boys read significantly less than girls, and less than their dads did when they were kids. Nine out of 10 boys today do not read for pleasure — at all. As one boy put it: “I’d rather be BURNED AT THE STAKE than read a book!”

Where do boys get this new, crazy idea that reading is “girlie”?

From us. After all, Mom is usually the one who reads for pleasure at home, not Dad. (Women read almost twice as many books as men.) Typically, Mom reads the kids their bedtime story. Mom takes the children to the library or the bookstore. Dad throws a ball with them. At school they are read to or encouraged to read on their own by their (usually) female teachers, while their team coaches are (generally) male. Children’s books reinforce this by portraying girls more often as readers and boys more often in action roles in illustrations in children’s books. (Think Hermione Granger, the prodigious bookworm, in the Harry Potter books.) For birthdays, holidays, or “just because,” we give books as gifts more often to girls and sporting equipment to boys. Kids get the message early, despite our best intentions: Girls read, boys do not.

Time to turn that ship around. Because the path for our nonreading boys is perilous, truly. Poor readers – mostly boys — struggle to read textbooks and tests in all subjects. They get suspended, expelled, flunk out and drop out at alarming rates – the majority of our African-American and Latino boys (who have the lowest reading proficiency of all) drop out of high school, with white boys faring only slightly better — why isn’t this the lead story on every newscast?

While writing “Swagger,” I looked closely at the soul-crushing forces that pound our boys: popular music that celebrates punching your girlfriend, gunning down your rival, attacking gay men, popping pills. Education cuts that leave teachers out in the cold, literally — teaching classes outside — or begging for books for their overcrowded first-grade classrooms on charity websites. Uneven law enforcement sweeps in working-class neighborhoods that can land a minor in adult prison for years on a first-time drug-possession offense.

New prisons are being built every day, waiting to house the next generation of American boys.

Oliver’s not going there. Not on my watch.

The good news is that the research offers clear, cheap, doable solutions, starting with raising expectations, rewarding values of humility and effort, and minimizing his “screen” time (TV, video games, computers). After combing through the studies, interviewing parents, teachers, and experts, I came up with 10 rules for raising smart, strong, ready-for-the-real-world boys. Parents, I hope you’ll read them all in “Swagger,” but here’s an important one right now:

Make your home a reading mecca. Model for your boy that reading is your default pleasure activity, one you take up eagerly and put down reluctantly.

Kids with parents who read for pleasure are six times more likely to do so themselves — and their grades shoot up. Which is why I talk about the books I love, and ask kids about their favorites, every chance I get. I’m intentionally role modeling for them that books and ideas are something adults value.

Before I let him jump in the pool, I told Oliver that I’d just read the entire unsettling Hunger Games trilogy, recommended to me by my daughter. “This may be too violent for you,” I said, calculatingly. “Hm, I don’t know, you’re probably too young for it.”

I wasn’t born yesterday.

Oliver’s eyes shone. “I heard about that one! I heard there are games and kids fight to the death!” Then, “I’m not too young for it!”

I’m not above manipulating a 12-year-old to get him to read, and you shouldn’t be either. Check out my lengthy “Books Boys Love” reading list at the end of “Swagger,” ask his teacher or school librarian what’s hot with boys right now, get him to read the book before seeing the movie. Take him to the library, the bookstore, book festivals. Bring him to lectures at your local college and author events in your town or online. (I call on kids first at my events.) Program all his favorite grown-ups to enthuse about their favorite books in his presence. Put up bookshelves in every room in your house, yes, even in that favorite male reading venue, the bathroom. Read to him, read with him, read side-by-side nightly. Listen to audio books together in the car. When you’re called to dinner, beg to finish your chapter, and let him finish his.

Push reading as if his life depends on it.

Because, just about, it does.



How to Talk to Little Girls

I went to a dinner party at a friend’s home last weekend, and met her five-year-old daughter for the first time.

Little Maya was all curly brown hair, doe-like dark eyes, and adorable in her shiny pink nightgown.  I wanted to squeal, “Maya, you’re so cute!  Look at you!  Turn around and model that pretty ruffled gown, you gorgeous thing!”

But I didn’t.  I squelched myself.  As I always bite my tongue when I meet little girls, restraining myself from my first impulse, which is to tell them how darn cute/ pretty/ beautiful/ well-dressed/ well-manicured/ well-coiffed they are.

What’s wrong with that?  It’s our culture’s standard talking-to-little-girls icebreaker, isn’t it?  And why not give them a sincere complement to boost their self-esteem?  Because they are so darling I just want to burst when I meet them, honestly. Hold that thought for just a moment.

This week ABC news reported that nearly half of all three- to six-year-old girls worry about being fat.  In my book, ThinkStraight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World, I reveal that fifteen to eighteen percent of girls under twelve now wear mascara, eyeliner and lipstick regularly; eating disorders are up and self-esteem is down; and twenty-five percent of young American women would rather win America’s next top model than the Nobel Peace Prize.  Even bright, successful college women say they’d rather be hot than smart.  A Miami mom just died from cosmetic surgery, leaving behind two teenagers.  This keeps happening, and it breaks my heart.

Teaching girls that their appearance is the first thing you notice tells them that looks are more important than anything.  It sets them up for dieting at age 5 and foundation at age 11 and boob jobs at 17 and Botox at 23.  As our cultural imperative for girls to be hot 24/7 has become the new normal, American women have become increasingly unhappy.  What’s missing?  A life of meaning, a life of ideas and reading books and being valued for our thoughts and accomplishments.

That’s why I force myself to talk to little girls as follows.

“Maya,” I said, crouching down at her level, looking into her eyes, “very nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you too,” she said, in that trained, polite, talking-to-adults good girl voice.

“Hey, what are you reading?” I asked, a twinkle in my eyes.  I love books.  I’m nuts for them.  I let that show.

Her eyes got bigger, and the practiced, polite facial expression gave way to genuine excitement over this topic.  She paused, though, a little shy of me, a stranger.

“I LOVE books,” I said.  “Do you?”

Most kids do.

“YES,” she said.  “And I can read them all by myself now!”

“Wow, amazing!” I said.  And it is, for a five year old.  You go on with your bad self, Maya.

“What’s your favorite book?” I asked.

“I’ll go get it!  Can I read it to you?”

Purplicious was Maya’s pick and a new one to  me, as Maya snuggled next to me on the sofa and proudly read aloud every word, about our heroine who loves pink but is tormented by a group of girls at school who only wear black.  Alas, it was about girls and what they wore, and how their wardrobe choices defined their identities.  But after Maya closed the final page, I steered the conversation to the deeper issues in the book:  mean girls and peer pressure and not going along with the group.  I told her my favorite color in the world is green, because I love nature, and she was down with that.

Not once did we discuss clothes or hair or bodies or who was pretty.  It’s surprising how hard it is to stay away from those topics with little girls, but I’m stubborn.

I told her that I’d just written a book, and that I hoped she’d write one too one day.  She was fairly psyched about that idea.  We were both sad when Maya had to go to bed, but I told her next time to choose another book and we’d read it and talk about it.  Oops.  That got her too amped up to sleep, and she came down from her bedroom a few times, all jazzed up.

So, one tiny bit of opposition to a culture that sends all the wrong messages to our girls.  One tiny nudge towards valuing female brains.  One brief moment of intentional role modeling.  Will my few minutes with Maya change our multibillion dollar beauty industry, reality shows that demean women, our celebrity-manic culture?  No.  But I did change Maya’s perspective for at least that evening.

Try this the next time you meet a little girl.  She may be surprised and unsure at first, because few ask her about her mind, but be patient and stick with it.  Ask her what she’s reading.   What does she like and dislike, and why?  There are no wrong answers.  You’re just generating an intelligent conversation that respects her brain.  For older girls, ask her about current events issues:  pollution, wars, school budgets slashed.  What bothers her out there in the world?  How would she fix it if she had a magic wand?  You may get some intriguing answers.  Tell her about your ideas and accomplishments and your favorite books.   Model for her what a thinking woman says and does.

And let me know the response you get at

Here’s to changing the world, one little girl at a time.




The Un-reality of Reality Shows

Having represented a number of celebrities in reality shows publicly and privately, I am here to tell you the shocking truth: there is nothing reality-based about this genre.

Let’s start with the shows themselves, much more “show” than reality. As with sitcoms or dramas, there are takes, re-takes, re-re-takes, and so on. Eight hours to tape a half hour scene is not uncommon. Hair and makeup artists lurk in the background; producers “suggest” lines to the participants, telling them to be angrier, more excited, have bigger energy. “Talent” – as on air types are known in all television – are given plotlines to work through: catty, petty female spats, lies told to some but not other members of the cast, to create dramatic tension, props placed strategically to provoke emotions or arguments.

If you must watch these shows, at least, please, enjoy them as fictional as Days of Our Lives or Desperate Housewives. Don’t believe cameras are just “catching” real people living their lives. Nothing could be further from the truth. Cameras and klieg lights and hair and makeup and producers and directors do not make for reality. If they were all in your living room, how authentic would you be?

If a reality star complains about any of this, they are referred to the lengthy (often 30, 50 or even 100 pages) contract, which binds them so thoroughly they can hardly sneeze without the express written permission of the network. For example, as an attorney I was shocked to see my clients had signed contracts barring them from ever suing for defamation, no matter how egregiously the show had manufactured a plot line making them look like liars, cheaters, even criminals. The shows get it both ways: they call the show “reality” to hook in viewers, yet absolve themselves of all legal liability even when they falsely destroy someone’s character.

And at least according to the contract, they can’t be sued for it.
(I told one network I couldn’t believe that would be enforceable. Could the show falsely come up with a story line that my client was a child molester, and there would be nothing she could do in response? I didn’t believe any court would stand for that.)
Nor can they even complain. Ironclad confidentiality provisions prevent the talent from talking to anyone about what goes on in the show. From the pages of legalese on this point, one would think reality stars are being given the codes for Fort Knox.
Hey, at least they’re making the big bucks, you say. So isn’t it worth it?

No. Other than the rare breakout star, reality “talent” make so little they all need second jobs. Ten or twenty thousand dollars a season – for, say, six months’ work – is typical. And the thing is, they’re all so replaceable. How many people can play themselves? Just about everyone. How many people can be drunk/obnoxious/loud? Hundreds of millions. So these types of reality stars are replaceable. Here today, gone tomorrow.
The production companies and networks profit, the “talent” often walk away disappointed, and we all get dumbed down from watching these shows.



Young Americans Can Name More Kardashians Than Wars We’re In

Over the last two years, I’ve been researching the disturbing topic of American ignorance for my new book, Think. I learned that one in five Americans think the sun revolves around the earth, that the majority of us can’t name a single branch of government, and that two-thirds of American women don’t know what Roe v. Wade is. In interviews, seemingly normal adults say they can’t venture a guess as to how many sides a triangle has, what the national religion of Israel is, or in what country Mexico City is located.

What’s going on here?

To double check the astonishing answers I’d been finding, recently I gave local college students a short survey. Among the questions I asked: How many reality shows can you name? How many Kardashians? What issues is Lindsay Lohan dealing with right now? How about Charlie Sheen?

On these questions, the students plunged right in. Their results show a thorough knowledge of the subject matter.

Jersey Shore. Real World. Big Brother. Survivor. Bad Girls Club. Bachelor. Bachelorette. American Idol. Biggest Loser. The Surreal Life. Teen Mom. Real Housewives. 16 & Pregnant. Dancing With The Stars. The Osbornes. The Voice. Giuliana& Bill. Kendra. Khloe& Lamar.

Nearly everyone correctly named at least one Kardashian, and many got all three sisters – Kim, Khloe and Kourtney — without breaking a sweat. And just about everyone correctly answered that Lohan has had alcohol and drug problems and recurring jail stints; that Sheen “lost his TV show” and “may be bipolar.”

The second group of questions asked in which countries the United States was currently engaged in wars, to name our Secretary of State and Vice-President; to name their congressperson, any current member of Congress, their governor, any city council members, and to briefly describe any issues their government is currently dealing with.

Many could not name a single country where we are currently engaged in war. Others guessed (incorrectly) that we are at war now in Iran, Eqypt, Syria, Mexico, North Korea. College students gave me wildly wrong guesses like Japan, China, Russia and Morocco.
Who is our current vice-president? “A lady,” guessed one. Most could not identify Joseph Biden, nor Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. No one could correctly name a city councilperson, and surprisingly, few knew that Jerry Brown is now California’s governor, despite our recently hotly fought election. Few could correctly name a single issue before Congress or city government.
A nagging little voice piped up in many of the students.

“F***,” one wrote on the survey spontaneously, “this makes me feel uninformed.”
A young man who rattled off four quick reality shows and three Kardashians, though he could not name any elected officials, expressed disdain for the shows, saying they were about “rich people dealing with petty drama caused, mainly, by their own childishness.” Yet he continues to watch them.
Our best and brightest are able to correctly name more Kardashians than wars we’re in. They could detail for me the problems in celebrities’ personal lives but not those in their communities or country. They know more about reality shows than reality.

“This is bad,” said another college woman, disturbed by her own ignorance. “Maybe they should have more shows about important stuff on E!”
Yes, it is bad, and it’s not limited to young people. As I outline in Think, the dumbing down of our populace is broader and deeper than I could have imagined, and it has devastating consequences.

Here are two: the Iraq war and climate change.

Just before our 2003 invasion of Iraq, nearly seven in ten Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11, according to a Washington Post poll. By June 2007, when we were deeply mired in Iraq, we knew better: only 41 percent of the American public believed that, according to a Newsweek poll. Last fall, a Pew research Center poll found that a solid majority, 62 percent of Americans, believed that our Iraq invasion was “not worth it.”

The facts never changed; only our awareness of them did.

Over four thousand American troops lost their lives and more than thirty thousand have been injured in the Iraq war. Estimates of Iraqi civilians killed range from one hundred thousand to one million.

Over the last two decades, the greatest convergence of top scientific minds in human history, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has met four times and concluded that climate change is real, it is upon us now, and it could have devastating consequences. The IPCC won the Nobel Peace Prize, and then was endorsed by over 100 countries, including ours. Every major, reputable scientific organization has agreed, as have the national science academies of eleven countries, including ours. Not only did then-presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton confirm that climate change is scientifically real and a major threat to our children and grandchildren, but so did George W. Bush and John McCain.
Yet as the world’s scientists have produced more conclusive evidence of this grave danger to our planet, perversely, Americans have grown less aware. According to Pew, in 2007, the first year it asked Americans whether global warming should be a top domestic priority, 38 percent agreed. In 2008, the number dropped to 35 percent; in 2009, just 30 percent. In its 2010 list only 28 percent ranked it a top priority. It is now dead last on the priority list for each of the last three years.

“Am I stupid?” a UCLA biology major and star athlete asked me. No, we are not dumb. Many of us have just fallen prey to a junk media culture. It’s not too late to reclaim our brains. In Think, I outline clear steps on the road back to using our grey matter. Because — that nagging little voice? It’s our brain, telling us it wants back in the game.


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