Inciting is usually a telegraphed endeavor, with rhetoric yelled to an audience through a megaphone held by a coarse, weathered hand. But it can also be delivered subtly, with a soft voice and a wink, in the name of doing good.
Subtlety is necessary if a federal agency intends to incite activists to take action on the hot issues of the moment. This approach is what we see when we look at the most recent documents acquired by a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request of the controversial August 10th conference call.
President Obama with Former NEA Communication Director Yosi Sergant
Readers of Big Hollywood may recall an article published in late August entitled “National Endowment for the Art of Persuasion?” that described an August 10th conference call organized by the White House, the NEA, and the Corporation for National and Community Service. As stated during the conference call, the goal was to bring together a group of pro-Obama artists to push the President and his agenda, with United We Serve as the first proposed effort. During the call, Yosi Sergant, then Communications Director for the NEA, encouraged artists to create art on the vehemently debated issues of health care, energy, and the environment.
In the newly obtained documents, Nell Abernathy, a representative of The Corporation, is shown providing the handpicked moderator a list of “concrete asks” to be emailed to the call participants following the conference call. The first concrete ask in the document [document 1] included volunteering on issues that were closely related to legislation being vehemently debated nationally:
“Serve in your community. You are probably already working to improve health care or green a neighborhood. Reach out to friends, colleagues and fans to serve with you. Ask five to pledge to serve with you.”
Health Care Reform and Cap-and-Trade legislation were both being intensely debated in Congress in August, causing town hall meetings at the time to go nuclear over the proposed health-care legislation. Democrats were widely viewed as losing the debate. Asking a stacked group of pro-Obama art activists to address these issues could only lead to policy advocacy – and it did, as we have shown (here & here).
The new documents also show that other efforts were underway. In response [document 2] to the “concrete asks” document, an artist that participated in the call sent the following (emphasis added):
“We’ve been doing a lot of brainstorming about how we can add our skillset to this effort, and here are some of our thoughts…Making prints that subtly encourage the progressive agenda. Health care, Employee free choice, immigration, energy conservation, etc.”
This is the type of propaganda art that Big Hollywood helped stop by publishing the article. The response was sent by a talented print designer (Tugboat Printshops) prior to, but on the same day that, the article was published.
In addition to this email, other documents [documents 4] show that multiple events were in the planning phase leading up to the publication of the article – however all dialogue was abruptly halted the day after its publication. The events revealed in the FOIA documents include a Los Angeles event with hip-hop and indie-rock artists, and a film-screening event with on-air promotions led by Al Gore’s Current TV.
In addition to terminating discussions on these events, the article also halted the NEA’s involvement in another conference call scheduled for August 27th and moderated by Americans for the Arts, a NEA grant recipient. In an email [document 3] dated August 26th, Sergant stated:
“in light of the current situation…I am reviewing the current situation with my team and may or may not be able to participate in the upcoming [United We Serve] call. I will let you know shortly.”
The NEA ultimately did not participate on the conference call due to the article, a fact that was correctly guessed by Lee Rosenbaum, a participant on the August 27th call. One can only wonder how different that call may have been had the NEA participated.
Ultimately Sergant was forced to resign from his post at the NEA and the White House issued conduct guidelines to address the “appearance” issues of the call. However the White House and the NEA both claimed that no laws were violated in this effort.
The obvious question is – if the NEA, the Corporation, and the White House weren’t doing anything wrong, why did this activity abruptly stop?