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Mike Dang
Editor-in-chief, Longreads | Editorial, Automattic and WordPress.com

Longreads Best of 2017: Investigative Reporting on Sexual Misconduct

Photo treatment by Kjell Reigstad, Photos by Jeff Christensen (AP) and Joel Ryan (AP)

It was a year in which investigations loomed over us as we woke up each day and absorbed the news. Former FBI director Robert Mueller began investigating whether Donald Trump’s presidential campaign had any links to the Russian government and its efforts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election. The opioid crisis was covered by a few outlets wondering who, exactly, is profiting while countless people are dying. But it is the investigations into sexual misconduct perpetrated by powerful men across several industries that has had the most significant impact in 2017. And much of the reporting has been led by The New York Times. Read more…

For the Love of Sturgill Simpson, Country Rocker Ignored by Country Music

Sturgill Simpson performs onstage during the Boston Calling Music Festival (Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)

Oxford American’s winter issue is dedicated to music, and Leesa Cross-Smith writes lovingly about her appreciation of Sturgill Simpson, who won a 2017 Grammy award for Best Country Album despite being largely ignored by country radio and the country music establishment (Simpson was not invited to the Country Music Association awards and spent the evening outside the event busking for donations for the ACLU).

I’m also a huge fan of Sturgill Simpson’s music and the way it seems to defy all genres while still maintaining a clear country sound. Cross-Smith describes it perfectly:

I liked him from the jump but got super-attached to Sturgill when I was editing and trying to sell my novel. That anxious in-between. I listened to A Sailor’s Guide to Earth on repeat, absorbing it. First listen felt a bit like solving a complicated word problem. I couldn’t process it. It feels from another time—the seventies. It’s tense and dramatic one moment, the next, languid and dreamy. It’s awash with blue, a country concept album—earnest letters to his wife and son, sea-moonlighting as songs. He sings common-sense dad lines like “Motor oil is motor oil, just keep the engine clean” and “Don’t let them try to upsell you, there’s a reason they make chocolate and vanilla, too.” He makes “stay in school, stay off of the drugs and keep it between the lines” sound fetching and profound when backed by his army of snap-punchy brass. He offers up his grunge-country version of Nirvana’s “In Bloom” and changes the “don’t know what it means and I say yeah” lyric to “don’t know what it means to love someone.” According to an interview with the New York Times, he misremembered the lyrics and inadvertently changed them, literally adding extra love to the song. The second track, “Breakers Roar,” defies its title and is instead a placid prayerlike lullaby. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is a pristine, indefectible album that’s hard to categorize, although Sturgill’s voice is clearly country, clearly Kentucky—as Kentucky as Chris Stapleton’s voice, as country as Loretta Lynn’s.

Feast your eyes on what many consider to be a musical-taste unicorn: me, a black woman who knows and loves country music.

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Thank You For Making the 2017 Longreads Member Drive a Success

A month ago, we launched the 2017 Longreads Member Drive with the goal of raising $25,000 from readers by November 16 for our story fund. Thanks to the incredible amount of support and generosity from readers during our drive, we received $35,190 in contributions and membership subscriptions.

For every dollar given, WordPress.com matches with $3, which means we raised a grand total of $140,760 — all of which will go directly into a story fund to pay writers, photographers, illustrators, and many others who spend months working on stories for Longreads (speaking of which, have an idea for a story? Pitch us here!).

If you weren’t able to contribute during our drive and would still like to, you can always do so here.

Thank you again to all of the support you’ve given us over the years. We’ve got a lot of exciting projects coming up, including our annual year-end “best of” collection. Stay tuned!

Mike Dang, Longreads Editor-in-chief

The Town Where Trump Can Do No Wrong

Donald Trump arrives to speak at a campaign rally in Johnstown, Pa. in October 2016. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

It’s been one year since Donald Trump was elected president and he hasn’t fulfilled many of his campaign promises, like building a wall or repealing Obamacare. For Politico, Michael Kruse visited a town in western Pennsylvania where voters helped win Trump the presidency and learned that many of them don’t care about what he has or hasn’t been able to achieve in office — they will support him no matter what. Here’s Kruse talking with Maggie Frear, a retired nurse:

He said he was going to bring back the steel mills.

“You’re never going to get those steel mills back,” she said.

“But he said he was going to,” I said.

“Yeah, but how’s he going to bring them back?”

“I don’t know,” I said, “but it’s what he said, last year, and people voted for him because of it.”

“They always say they want to bring the steel mills back,” Frear said, “but they’re going to have to do a lot of work to bring the steel mills back.”

He hasn’t built the wall yet, either. “I don’t care about his wall,” said Frear, 76. “I mean, if he gets his wall—I don’t give a shit, you know? But he has a good idea: Keep ’em out.”

He also hasn’t repealed Obamacare. “That’s Congress,” she said.

And the drug scourge here continues unabated. “And it’s not going to improve for a long time,” she said, “until people learn, which they won’t.”

“But I like him,” Frear reiterated. “Because he does what he says.”

What might account for this kind of devotion? As Kruse puts it, “his supporters here, it turns out, are energized by his bombast and his animus more than any actual accomplishments.” They feel angry, and identify themselves in Trump’s anger.

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Harvey Weinstein’s Failed Attempt to Hire Private Eyes to Silence His Accusers

(Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

Ronan Farrow has another stunning story about Harvey Weinstein in The New Yorker, this time revealing how the Hollywood mogul hired private investigators, including ex-Mossad agents, to dig up dirt on journalists investigating him and on his accusers in an attempt to quash sexual abuse allegations made against him.

Here’s one example, of an agent from Black Cube (an “enterprise run largely by former officers of Mossad and other Israeli intelligence agencies”), who Weinstein hired to extract information from the actress Rose McGowan:

In May, 2017, McGowan received an e-mail from a literary agency introducing her to a woman who identified herself as Diana Filip, the deputy head of sustainable and responsible investments at Reuben Capital Partners, a London-based wealth-management firm. Filip told McGowan that she was launching an initiative to combat discrimination against women in the workplace, and asked McGowan, a vocal women’s-rights advocate, to speak at a gala kickoff event later that year. Filip offered McGowan a fee of sixty thousand dollars. “I understand that we have a lot in common,” Filip wrote to McGowan before their first meeting, in May, at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills. Filip had a U.K. cell-phone number, and she spoke with what McGowan took to be a German accent. Over the following months, the two women met at least three more times at hotel bars in Los Angeles and New York and other locations. “I took her to the Venice boardwalk and we had ice cream while we strolled,” McGowan told me, adding that Filip was “very kind.” The two talked at length about issues relating to women’s empowerment. Filip also repeatedly told McGowan that she wanted to make a significant investment in McGowan’s production company.

Filip was persistent. In one e-mail, she suggested meeting in Los Angeles and then, when McGowan said she would be in New York, Filip said she could meet there just as easily. She also began pressing McGowan for information. In a conversation in July, McGowan revealed to Filip that she had spoken to me as part of my reporting on Weinstein. A week later, I received an e-mail from Filip asking for a meeting and suggesting that I join her campaign to end professional discrimination against women. “I am very impressed with your work as a male advocate for gender equality, and believe that you would make an invaluable addition to our activities,” she wrote, using her wealth-management firm’s e-mail address. Unsure of who she was, I did not respond.

Filip continued to meet with McGowan. In one meeting in September, Filip was joined by another Black Cube operative, who used the name Paul and claimed to be a colleague at Reuben Capital Partners. The goal, according to two sources with knowledge of the effort, was to pass McGowan to another operative to extract more information. On October 10th, the day The New Yorker published my story about Weinstein, Filip reached out to McGowan in an e-mail. “Hi Love,” she wrote. “How are you feeling? . . . Just wanted to tell you how brave I think you are.” She signed off with an “xx.” Filip e-mailed McGowan as recently as October 23rd.

In fact, “Diana Filip” was an alias for a former officer in the Israeli Defense Forces who originally hailed from Eastern Europe and was working for Black Cube, according to three individuals with knowledge of the situation. When I sent McGowan photos of the Black Cube agent, she recognized her instantly. “Oh my God,” she wrote back. “Reuben Capital. Diana Filip. No fucking way.”

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How Cinnabon Perfected Its Recipe

Perhaps you’re shopping at a mall, or making your way toward your gate at an airport when you’re suddenly greeted by a familiar scent: a swirl of cinnamon, sugar, and cream cheese frosting. It’s a scent that belongs to the “world famous” bakery chain Cinnabon, which opened its first shop in Seattle three decades ago. In Seattle Met, Allecia Vermillion takes us through the bakery’s origins and explains how a businessman named Rich Komen, his son Greg, and a restauranteur named Jerilyn Brusseau (nicknamed “Cinnamom”) came up with their famous cinnamon roll recipe:

The first order of business was perfecting a dough both pillowy and able to hold its shape. When rolls came out of the oven, Rich would descend from his third-floor office and thoughtfully chew one while a roomful of people watched. “I learned to fail exceedingly well,” Jerilyn remembers.

Batch after batch. Rejection after rejection. “I can’t tell you how many times I tried something and said, ‘This is fantastic!’” Greg remembers. “Dad would come in and spit it out.” Always with insightful commentary, of course.

A major breakthrough came courtesy of their spice supplier, who pointed out that cinnamon isn’t just cinnamon. Like wine or coffee, there are different varieties, and cinnamon from different regions, even different elevations, yield their own distinct flavors. Rich asked a rep to school the group on this seemingly innocuous baking spice. They landed on Korintje cinnamon, harvested from the bark of trees that grow at very high elevations in Sumatra. It delivers cinnamon’s familiar punch, but tends toward the sweet and amiable, rather than that devilish bite that punctuates red hots or schnapps.

Here, at last, was Rich Komen’s elusive cinnamon hit.

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Widespread Abuse in Kids’ Sports Shows How Institutions Enable Predators

(Getty Images)

Sexual harassment and abuse existed in our institutions long before recent allegations against men in power like Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly, and Roy Price came to light. How do institutions protect and enable these predators, and say things like, “Honestly, it was not on my radar,” when abuse surfaces? This is the question Alexandra Starr tackles in her Harper’s Magazine story examining how the U.S. Olympic Committee inadequately addressed sexual abuse in youth athletics. Institutions like the U.S.O.C. have often turned a blind eye to allegations of abuse until they’re forced to address them in court:

Marci Hamilton — the head of Child U.S.A., an organization that works to prevent child abuse and neglect — travels the country drafting legislation and testifying in statehouses on behalf of sexual assault survivors. She told me that, beyond money for therapy, window provisions help provide victims with recognition from the state that a wrong has occurred. “It is validating,” she said. “It can quiet the voices in their heads telling them they were somehow at fault.” For others reticent to come forward, watching people publicly hold their perpetrator accountable is key.

Hamilton has observed that child abuse at the Catholic Church has generated the most attention, but she finds youth athletics to be no less hazardous. “We have reports of abuse in every possible sports organization — whether peewee or little league or high school,” she said. “The extreme power imbalance between a coach and an athlete — not just an adult and child but a coach and an athlete — creates conditions for keeping secrets. And so long as secrets are kept, the perpetrators are protected.” Lawsuits, she added, “are the only way to force these institutions to disclose what’s in their files.” When SafeSport launched, she wrote that “the U.S.O.C. has moved at a glacial pace,” grappling with allegations of assault over the past fifteen years; “its actions have more often protected problematic coaches than children.” She told me, “What always comes out in the end is that the institution knew more about abuse than just about anybody else. They are also the ones most dedicated to silence.”

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Fear of a Pence Presidency

(Randy Pench/The Sacramento Bee via AP)

In The New Yorker, Jane Mayer dives deep into Mike Pence’s ascendancy to the office of Vice President of the United States. Critics want Trump out of office, but Mayer points out that a Pence presidency would have its own drawbacks, and she fills her story with accounts of his political missteps before joining the Trump ticket in 2016.

In 2015, Ed Clere, a Republican state legislator who chaired the House Committee on Public Health, became aware of a spike in the number of H.I.V. cases in southern Indiana. The problem appeared to be caused by the sharing of needles among opioid abusers in Scott County, which sits across the Ohio River from Louisville, Kentucky. In a place like Scott County, Clere said, “typically you’d have no cases, or maybe one a year.” Now they were getting up to twenty a week. The area was poor, and woefully unprepared for a health crisis. (Pence’s campaign against Planned Parenthood had contributed to the closure of five clinics in the region; none had performed abortions, but all had offered H.I.V. testing.) That same year, the state health commissioner called Indiana’s H.I.V. outbreak a public-health emergency.

Clere came of age during the AIDS crisis, and had read Randy Shilts’s best-selling account, “And the Band Played On.” He tried to get the legislature to study the possibility of legalizing a syringe exchange, which he felt “was a matter of life and death,” and could “save lives quickly and inexpensively.”

But conservatives blocked the idea, and Pence threatened to veto any such legislation. “With Pence, you need to look at the framework, which is abstinence,” Clere said. “It’s the same as with giving teenagers condoms. Conservatives think it promotes the behavior, even though it’s a scientifically proven harm-reduction strategy.” In March, 2015, Clere staged a huge public hearing, in which dozens of experts and sufferers testified about the crisis. Caught flat-footed, Pence scheduled his own event, where he announced that he would pray about the syringe-exchange issue. The next day, he said that he supported allowing an exchange program as an emergency measure, but only on a temporary basis and only in Scott County, with no state funding. Clere told me that he spent “every last dime of my political capital” to get the bill through. After Scott County implemented the syringe exchange, the number of new H.I.V. cases fell. But Republican leaders later stripped Clere of his committee chairmanship, a highly unusual event. “I commend Representative Clere for the efforts to help the state deal with this,” Kevin Burke, the health officer in neighboring Clark County, told me. “But he paid a price for it.”

Clere remains bitter about Pence. “It was all part of his pattern of political expediency,” he said. “He was stridently against it until it became politically expedient to support it.” Clere, a Christian who opposes abortion, told me that he now finds Pence’s piety hypocritical. “He says he’s ‘pro-life,’ ” Clere said. “But people were dying.” When Clere was asked whom he would rather have as President—Trump or Pence—he replied, “I’d take Trump every day of the week, and twice on Sunday.”

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Announcing the 2017 Longreads Member Drive

I’m Mike Dang, editor-in-chief of Longreads.

Today we’re launching the 2017 Longreads Member Drive with the goal of raising $25,000 from readers by November 16. All of this money will go directly into a story fund that’s used to support work from veteran and emerging writers, photographers, and illustrators from all around the world.

In addition, for every dollar you give, WordPress.com will generously match with $3. This means that if we raise $25,000, we have the potential to add $100,000 to our story fund for upcoming writing and investigative projects. This is why your support during our drive is so crucial. Read more…

Eight Calls to the Police Couldn’t Prevent Her Murder

Via San Francisco Chronicle.

From the evening of October 9, 2014 to the early morning of October 10, 35-year-old Cecilia Lam called the police eight times to report that an ex-boyfriend named Cedric Young, Jr. was harassing her. Officers showed up at Lam’s apartment multiple times but ultimately were unable to stop Young from killing Lam and turning the gun on himself. Why? In the San Francisco Chronicle, Vivian Ho investigates what happened during the nine hours that led to Lam’s senseless death:

At 8:37 p.m., Cecilia made her first call to 911.

“My boyfriend and I, we’re pretty much fighting right now and I’m asking him to leave my home,” she told the dispatcher. “And he will not leave. … It’s starting to escalate.”

Young had been drinking all day, she said, then quickly added, “He’s actually leaving now.”

“Do you want me to send the police?” the dispatcher asked.

“No,” Cecilia responded. “I think we’re OK.”

But by 9:14, she was on the phone to 911 again, and then again at 9:33 p.m., describing an “escalating domestic violence issue.” Young was back and ringing the doorbell, over and over again.

“I’m getting more scared,” Cecilia said in the third call. “I don’t know if he’s going to break in.”

Ramirez dialed 911 around the same time. “I’m calling to straight up say this guy is insane and he’s trying to get inside,” he reported.

Dispatchers flagged the incident as a “418 DV,” a domestic violence dispute. As Lam made her third call to 911, Officers Adam Lobsinger and Chhungmeng Tov from Southern Station pulled up to the building. They began talking with Young, who had halted his frenzied attempts to get into the apartment.

Lobsinger would write in his report that Young seemed calm and “in good spirits.” Young told him “it was nothing more than couples arguing.”

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