Saturday, September 21, 2013

NEW YORK DIARY | My Night With Jennifer Hudson at the Al Jazeera America Launch Party

Jennifer Hudson rocks Al Jazeera's launch party at Lincoln Center | Photo by RG

NEW YORK CITY | Fine. It was not an entire evening. It was a moment with Jennifer Hudson. It was memorable and spectacular though. Plus, it happened during a private party by Al Jazeera America.

Al Jazeera, one of the world's biggest media companies, started a new 24/7/365 cable  news channel in the U.S. and on Thursday September 19 threw a rockin' party at Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center to celebrate that launch. Out of sheer luck, I got invited to the launch party (at the very same space where I sometimes drop by to have coffee or meet with a colleague).

It was ironic, the thought that I would maybe meet the leaders of the Qatar-financed news organization. At the exact minute that Al Jazeera announced some nine months ago that it had about 104 job openings in New York, I brushed up my resume and applied to any number of positions. The network's site received a stack of 22,000 resumes and eventually hired between 400 and 500 people. Imagine new jobs in journalism! Offering living wages and old-fashioned benefits for grown-ups!

Needless to say, it was a numbers game. Nobody found the needle I left in the h.r. computer haystack.

I did relish the idea of going to @AJAM launch party, because the real strength of Al Jazeera lies in the diversity, plurality and even accents of its journalists. It has the potential to break the stronghold of homogenized news and pundit noise that swamps the U.S. news market. Fox News takes up views on the right. MSNBC leans toward the left. CNN drubs us with a diet of opinion-heavy coverage.

Defining its mission distinctively will be crucial for Al Jazeera to gain a foothold in the U.S, a goal that has so far eluded the upstart network funded by the emir of Qatar. I definitely would want to be part of a true revolution where the mission is to uncover political topics, cultural issues and humanitarian stories that are profoundly overlooked by the U.S. media and internationally.

At the launch party it became clear to me that Al Jazeera means serious business. That it is hungry to win in the U.S.. And that it has fought a public-relations problem borne out of an overseas reputation and entrenched stereotypes that frequently face upstarts from Middle East countries. At the launch party, as was the case in a recent Washington Post ad which the network took out, Al Jazeera America stressed and positioned itself as a network whose mission is to offer a fresh, fact-based and unbiased approach -- to deliver objective, balanced, in-depth news reporting on stories that matter.

Dozens of small screens along one wall flashed news trailers and colorful images as I entered the Alice Tully Hall lobby. These flashing screens led to a stage where a gigantic TV emitted that familiar glow of Yves Klein blue. At first subtle matrix-like patterns flowed into place. Then the islands of Manhattan skyscrapers came into view and filled the earth's horizon. Until finally cursive Arabic calligraphy danced into place, forming the decorative logo that represents the network's name.

Photo by RG

For the first hour or so, the menu was all American. One station served comfort food, including miniature hot dogs, bacon cheeseburgers and lobster rolls. Another station had succotash and shrimp gumbo. The bar was open, and drinks poured freely.  For dessert, caterers wheeled doughnut carts through the crowd. The pastries hung from hooks along the sides of the cart. The caterers served ice cream from the middle of the cart.

It was a big, private affair. A majority of the people who attended were newly hired employees of Al Jazeera America. Sports journalist Michael Eaves and TV anchor David Shuster were both there. Denver-based correspondent Paul Beban marveled at what he called "the magic doughnut cart" ("It's like a Christmas tree only waaaay better," he tweeted). TV news producer Kim Bondy could not help but steal a selfie with her and former CNN anchor Soledad O'Brian, who by the way was sweet and charming especially to students from Columbia University.

Eventually the bigwigs had their turn. Ehab Al Shihabi, Al Jazeera’s interim CEO, came up to the podium to praise his editorial team. A five-year veteran of Al Jazeera,  Shihabi has overseen the network’s more than 70 bureaus around the globe – the largest footprint of any news gathering organization in the world. "We are here tonight to do more than just celebrate our launch," he said.

Kim Bondy, Kate O'Brian, Soledad O'Brian and David Shuster
Kate O’Brian, the new President of Al Jazeera America, has full responsibility for defining and implementing the editorial strategy and operations across the network. “Al Jazeera America has been able to demonstrate that it can and will keep its promise to views,” said O'Brian who came from ABC News. “Al Jazeera America is really trying to tell the story of Americans, stories that effect Americans,” Ms. O’Brian said in the video.

The Acting Director General of Al Jazeera Media Network, Dr. Mostefa Souag acknowledged the reputation Al Jazeera has in the U.S. "I am extremely grateful to the media that has covered Al Jazeera America so extensively over the last nine months," he said. "Those who have reported and commented on what we have been doing have demanded facts and answers. We respect, appreciate and welcome feedback and hope it will continue. Regardless of how they perceive Al Jazeera, we want you to tell us our good things and our bad things. That's the way we learn. There is still more to do."

Al Jazeera America made a string of big, splashy hires. Former "NBC Nightly News” weekend anchor John Seigenthaler, who will serve as the primetime news anchor, had his turn on the podium. He said that he was thrilled to be part of this brand new journalism. Seiganthaler was an 11-year veteran of NBC News, reporting for all of its major programs and anchoring on NBC, CNBC and MSNBC. He reported on 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the 2004 London bombings and a slew of other stories for the company during those years.

Unfortunately Ali Velshi, another former CNN talent, did not show up. But he appeared on the video presentation where he contrasted Al Jazeera’s real-news approach with the current cable-news model where the focus has instead been on the anchors, the anchors’ views and the opinions of the most excitable pundits who are frequently booked on TV.

The highlight of the evening was, naturally, Jennifer Hudson. The mega-star and pop-music icon was clad in a short, tight, long-sleeved black turtleneck dress. She performed several songs to the constant snapping of cellphone pictures. My favorite was her rendition of Al Green's "Let's Stay Together."

Michael Eaves saw me dance with Jennifer Hudson
During Hudson rendition of a Whitney Houston classic song, the American Idol alum came down from the stage to dance with the audience. She mostly shimmied from one fan to another. Then she spotted me. She sidled right up to me and we danced, real up-close and personal, for what felt like a blissful 30 minutes. (I'm sure it was not that long, but you know what I mean.) I tried my best to feature her when I danced beside her. I did not want to upstage her with any tricky moves. She was the star, after all.

To my surprise and delight Hudson did not move on to the next chump. As we gyrated together, she chose to stay with me until it was time for her to turn around to walk back up the stage. While we danced, she pointed the microphone at me several times so that we took turns singing! She was nice enough to rescue me when I forgot the lyrics. A total pro!

It was a great time, a very fun and memorable evening, even though by New York standards Al Jazeera America's one-month celebration was actually pretty tame stuff. Basically a lavish cocktail party for the friendly, hard-working employees who did not dare go too crazy in front of their bosses who had something to prove to American everywhere. They were on their best behavior.

Al Jazeera America launch party | Photo by Peter Wang

Later, some people came up to me to ask if I were a plant for the occasion. Well, no. I was just a guest who was loving Jennifer Hudson's great voice and stylish vibe. I thought it was classy that the Qatari-owned network pulled out all the stops by inviting her to their swanky party at Lincoln Center.

And I thought it was very canny of them to emphasize the “America” in the new channel's title. As we all exited the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, we all walked away with a party favor that was very much on-message: an individual apple pie. --rg

HERE IS Ehab Al Shihabi, Al Jazeera’s interim CEO, explaining his vision for the network at an Aspen Institute event:

Monday, September 16, 2013

PROFILES IN ACTIVISM | Meet Loida Nicolas Lewis, One of the World's 100 Most Influential Filipina Women Leaders

NEW YORK CITY |  Between now and October 4, 2013, Loida Nicolas-Lewis will stay on one message. As the lead producer of the New York premiere of NOLI ME TANGERE opera, Ms. Lewis will be hard at work raising funds for the show, raising awareness for it among the members of her vast network and doing her best to get as many people as possible to see this unique production.

With a book by Guillermo Tolentino and music by Felipe de Leon, the NOLI opera has been Ms. Lewis's baby project ever since saw it in a Chicago production and was appropriately wowed. It is the first full-length Western-style opera that the Philippines has produced. Based on Dr. Jose P. Rizal's important novel about the oppressive Spanish rule of the Philippines for 333 years, the NOLI opera performs October 4–6, 2013 at the Sylvia and Danny Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College.

Visit the official website of the NOLI ME TANGERE opera to purchase tickets or get more information:

Me and Ms. Loida Nicolas Lewis at the Asia Society
Ms. Nicolas-Lewis has been fervent about her building of support for the NOLI opera. What’s at stake goes far beyond ensuring the success of this stage production. If given the right level of support, the East Coast premiere of the NOLI opera could serve as a model for the globalization of Philippine classical music and theatrical performance. Can we promote and sustain the arts and culture we have created?  How do we U.S. Filipinos and Filipino Americans build, cultivate and engage passionate communities that will rally for arts and culture over materialism — for the perpetuation of Philippine art forms and musical literature that transcend language barriers?

"Nothing happens in the world if it does not happen in New York," Ms. Nicolas-Lewis said. “The Philippines has now shed its title as ‘Sick Man of Asia’ and is now considered a rising star. Our mother country [now has the third highest growth rate] in Growth Domestic Product for 2012. We extended a $1-billion loan to the International Monetary Fund to stabilize the economy of our former colonial master Spain. It is time for us Filipino Americans to show the world that we are a cultured people.”

Soon after the October premiere of the NOLI opera, Ms. Nicolas-Lewis will fly to San Francisco. Why? She has been tapped to speak at the Global Filipina Women: Power & Influence as part of the 10th Filipina Leadership Summit from October 24 to October 26, 2013 in San Francisco at the Mark Hopkins InterContinental Hotel.

Ms. Nicolas-Lewis will receive an award as among the 100 Most Influential Filipina Women in the World (FWN Global 100). The organizers of the Filipinas Women's Network has dubbed this working recognition award as "the ultimate showcase of the Filipino community’s most inspiring individuals in the private and public sectors, who exemplify innovation, femtorship, professionalism, empowerment and leadership." It is "an important initiative of Pinay Power 2020," says FWN Founder Marily Mondejar.

Last year, Ms. Nicolas-Lewis was named "China's newest public enemy Number 1." As the national chair of the US Pinoys for Good Governance, she held a press conference in Manila on July 14 to announce a worldwide campaign to “Boycott Made in China Products.”  She explained that her group's call for the global boycott of all kinds of China-made products was a way of matching China's diplomatic and military arrogance in claiming ownership of the Scarborough Shoal and the Kalayaan group of islands in the West Philippine Sea.

"We have to internationalize the issue," she said, noting the rich oil resources in those islands. "Who will share this black gold? Who will share the natural gas?"

China’s government-controlled media fired back with a newscast calling on the Chinese people to boycott a chain of convenience stores in China believed to be owned by Ms. Nicolas-Lewis. She used to own a Cayman company that operates retail convenience stores in four Chinese cities: Xiamen, Chengdu, Suzhou and Guangzhou. Unfortunately for her former Chinese business partners who bought out her ownership interest in the “Beatrice” stores – at a substantial discount – several years ago, the China authorities are boycotting a wholly-owned Chinese business.

Here is a video of an NTD.TV newscast of Ms. Nicolas-Lewis articulating her political cause:

This past August, Ms. Nicolas-Lewis spoke again at an intimate conversation with the Filipino American Press Club of New York. In the following video, prepared by New York Balita and shot at the Jeepney GastroPub, she explains her political stance to a group of mostly young people and interested insiders:

BIOGRAPHY | Loida Nicolas Lewis served as Chair and CEO of TLC Beatrice International, a $2 billion multinational food company with operations all across Europe, from 1994-2000. She assumed the leadership of one of the largest companies in the U.S. after the death of her husband, the African-American, Wall Street financier Reginald F. Lewis, and won over a skeptical business community by moving quickly to sell assets including the corporate jet, paying down debt, downsizing the New York corporate staff by 50 percent and increasing earnings. After successfully running the company for six years, she completed the sale of TLC Beatrice and its related businesses in 2000, achieving a 35 percent on investment for its shareholders.

In 1987, her late husband, Reginald, a Harvard Law graduate, had bid for and won the international operations of Beatrice International in a $1 billion leveraged buyout that at the time was the largest of its kind. In 1992, he was listed by Forbes Magazine as among the 400 wealthiest Americans. In 1995, Loida appeared on the cover of Working Woman magazine as the Top Business Woman in America.

Currently, Loida is Chair and CEO of TLC Beatrice, LLC, a family investment firm. A lawyer by profession, admitted to practice in the Philippines and New York, she was the first Filipina woman to pass the New York bar without attending law school in the United States.

After having won her discrimination case against the US Immigration and Naturalization Service in 1987 and been awarded three years pay back, Loida served for ten years as General Attorney with the INS. She co-authored "Hot to Get A Green Card," now in its 10th edition and a best-seller in its genre.

Loida is Chair of the Reginald F. Lewis Foundation, which has donated millions of dollars to Harvard Law School, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland's African-American History and Culture, and Virginia State University. There is a Reginald F. Lewis International Law building at Harvard and the Reginald F. Lewis School of Business at Virginia State University.

She also supports Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Asian Pacific American Legal Center, Asian Pacific Islander Coalition on HIV/AIDS, Asian Pacific American Film, Asian American Arts Alliance, Asian American Federation of New York, Asian American Foundation, Diversity Theater and Ma-Yi Theater.

Loida was recently elected to the Board of Directors of the National Catholic Reporter and the Apollo Theater Foundation.

She has two daughters, both cum laude A.B. graduates of Harvard University; Leslie is an actor and Christina is a freelance writer following a five-year stint as a columnist for the Wall Street Journal. She has three grandchildren, Christian, Savilla, Calvin and two sons-in-law, Gavin Sword and Dan Halpern.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

INTERNATIONAL JOURNALISM SEMINAR | Is it worth reporting names and naming extremely sensitive areas that could put LGBT at real risk?

You don't have to take my word for it.

You can read all about the seminar I organized on international journalism story coverage of LGBT issues and human rights from a two-time NLGJA Excellence in Journalism Award winner who attended the session.

A former radio journalist and a first-time novelist who won an NLGJA Award for a radio conversation between Edmund White and David Leavitt, writer David Swatling looks back on his experiences at this year's NLGJA National Convention and 9th LGBT Media Summit entitled "Boston: Uncommon."  Swatling somehow found time to jot down his thoughts about the panel discussions and breakout sessions he attended in Boston while he was participating in a mystery writers' convention soon after the NLGJA convention.

You see, Swatling has just completed writing his first novel Calvin's Head, a psychological thriller set in Amsterdam where he is based.

Roberta Sklar (IGHLRC), Jeb Sharp (PRI's The World), Charles M. Sennott (Global Post), Michael Luongo, me, Kevin Douglas Grant (Global Post)

Swatling attended numerous sessions at the NLGA 13 conference. He especially liked a session about gay comic book artists and another session on how the media can serve LGBT people over the age of 50. He also attended the session I organized.

In an August 31, 2013 post entitled "Uncommon Community," Swatling reports:
The conference began with the 9th LGBT Media Summit – a day of networking and breakout sessions focusing on strategies for the future. After a breakfast plenary that examined the early days of LGBT community newspapers as remembered by the men and women who established them, I opted for the panel assembled by Randy Gener on International LGBT Story Coverage. After all, I live in Amsterdam most of the year, had worked for international radio, and have been writing about developments concerning the Russian anti-gay laws for the past five months. 
After cordial introductions, the discussion got somewhat scrappy. Roberta Sklar, communications director of the International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission, urged caution in extremely sensitive areas where the “right to existence” was at stake. The traditional reporting of names and locations could put lives at risk. But Charles M. Sennott, editor and co-founder of GlobalPost, said he wrestled with the notion of “being careful.” Was he naïve to believe in the power of truth? A difficult question, one writer and photographer Michael Luongo faces often in his reporting, especially in the Middle East. He stressed that being a gay journalist gave him access to stories he felt needed to be told. And he’s willing to take responsibility for sources who get in trouble for talking to him.

Read more of Swatling's experiences here at

His post includes a superb video profile of Michael Luongo, NLGJA's Journalist of the Year 2013 Award winner. In addition to being a revealing introduction to Luongo's conflict-based reporting as a freelancer, the video seems to me a perfect video resume. Surely a major news operation will have the guts to hire Luongo full time after watching this video. Soon after Boston, Luongo flew to Kurdistan where he is now reporting.

Here is the video about how he puts himself in harm's way to get the best story he can find:

As Swatling suggests in his post, the seminar I organized highlighted the healthy tension between international journalists and human-rights advocates. Is it worth naming names of LGBT people whom journalists cover? Are the LGBT media really covering the reality on the ground, or are they making LGBT lives in other countries worse and more dangerous by naming names and by creating an echo chamber of aggregated news and LGBT stories. Should the media tone down the volume?

To which I add: What about the stories of hope and resilience? Might the LGBT Media also produce restorative narratives that honestly and seriously inquire into the possibilities of empowerment and human strength? Can international journalism on LGBT issues and human rights also express revitalization and reveal opportunities in disruption?

On a personal note, thank you to these wonderful panelists who went out of their way to speak at my panel:
1) KEVIN DOUGLAS GRANT, a founding member of The GroundTruth Project and the Deputy Editor of Special Reports at GlobalPost;
2) MICHAEL LUONGO, 2013 NLGJA Journalist of the Year Award recipient and author of "Gay Travels in the Muslim World" and "Frommer’s Buenos Aires"
3) CHARLES M. SENNOTT, the Vice President, Editor-at-Large and co-founder of GlobalPost;
4) JEB SHARP, producer of the public radio program PRI’s The World, a radio news magazine; and
5) ROBERTA SKLAR, a veteran of social justice media campaigns and the Communications Director and Press Secretary of the International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission.

If you are interested, I prepared an "International Journalism Seminar Resources File and Tool Kit" that serves as a handout for the session. It is available on the NLGJA website at at

However, there is a more current and updated version of this PDF document, which you can download at It includes a PDF document from the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) which outlines its LGBT priorities. Thanks to the U.S. State Department for  providing me with that ECA document. Attitudes and tolerance toward LGBT persons vary from country to country, just as they vary among U.S. cities and states.

The US State Department has launched a newly created LGBT Travel Information Page to help LGBT travelers be prepared and research their destination before they go. Visit it here.