Shock-doc filmmaker Michael Moore is famous for making people squirm, and few, if any, of his critics can boast that they've returned the favor. But one local fan can. Oakland civil rights attorney Guy Saperstein brags that he once not only made Moore squirm, but actually gave him the runs.
More significantly, the whole messy affair marked the end of Moore's career as a straight-up journalist and the start of his new life as a muckraking mockumentarian. The episode takes us back nearly twenty years: Moore was in the process of suing Mother Jones, the San Francisco-based leftist mag that had hired and fired him as editor-in-chief, for wrongful termination and emotional distress.
Moore was a shrewd self-promoter even then. He told the Associated Press that MoJo fired him because he refused to run a story critical of Nicaragua's then-Marxist government. Writing for The Nation, columnist Alexander Cockburn then blasted Mother Jones' founder, Adam Hochschild, for behaving "like a 19th-century mill owner." Moore hired attorney Dan Siegel, a one-time People's Park agitator who now sits on the Oakland school board, to represent him in court.
Mother Jones had a solid corporate law firm in its camp, but Hochschild and then-publisher Don Hazen were worried about appearances. They wanted an attorney with lefty credentials for this one, and that's why they turned to Saperstein, the lawyer wrote in his 2003 autobiography, Civil Warrior: Memoir of a Civil Rights Attorney.
Until then, Saperstein had almost exclusively represented employees in workplace lawsuits. He's perhaps most famous for securing a $157 million settlement in 1992 from State Farm in a sex-discrimination case. He says he took the Mother Jones case after Hochschild and Hazen agreed to his one condition: If, after investigating Moore's claim, he found that the guy had a legitimate gripe, Saperstein wanted the authority to settle. But after interviewing the magazine's staff, he realized he didn't need to settle the case. In his view, the plaintiff didn't have much of a case.
First off, Moore, who'd only run a small paper in Michigan, seemed to be in way over his head running a national magazine. While the staff liked Moore's politics, Saperstein says, they were less than thrilled with the man himself, who seemed paranoid and prickly. The flap over the Nicaragua article, the lawyer tells Feeder, was much ado about nothing -- a vain attempt by Moore to make his firing seem more political than performance-related. "It was really about somebody who was not a good manager of people," he says. "He doesn't work well with people."
Siegel, naturally, has a different take. He argues that the magazine hired Moore to stir things up, but got buyer's remorse after Moore did just that. And Moore quickly discovered he didn't have the editorial control he expected. "There was a culture clash at Mother Jones," Siegel says. "They hired him, but when he showed up they decided they didn't want him."
In retrospect, getting fired might've been the best thing that ever happened to Moore. Although Saperstein refused to settle, the magazine's insurance company, which had its own attorney, made the lawsuit go away for $58,000. Moore used the cash to help finance Roger & Me, and the rest is history. Saperstein, who's now retired as a lawyer but is working to defeat George W. Bush, says he has no hard feelings. He personally likes Moore; moreover, he likes his movies. "I really salute Michael for the role he's playing in American politics," he says.
Oh yeah -- the story of how Saperstein gave Moore indigestion: On his fourth day of depositions, Moore complained to Saperstein about suffering from nausea and diarrhea that kept him on the toilet for most of the previous night.
"How is your nausea and diarrhea related to your lawsuit?" Saperstein asked.
"My nausea and diarrhea," Moore replied, "were caused by the prospect of coming here and facing you for a fourth day."
"Thank you, Michael," Saperstein joked. "You're the first witness this year who has admitted I made him shit in his pants."
A Two-Black-Newspaper Town There's a newspaper war brewing in the East Bay between longtime black weekly the Oakland Post and one of its defectors. Former Post ad man Vern Whitmore says he tried to buy the paper from its owners, the Berkley family, but couldn't cut a deal. So a few months ago he started a rival paper, the Globe, which, like the Post, has editions in Oakland, Berkeley, and Richmond. It also has former Post religion editor Paul Cobb, a longtime West Oakland activist and one of Mayor Jerry Brown's appointees to the Oakland school board.
Unlike the Post, the Globe has splashy color graphics and brags that its circulation is independently audited. "When you place an ad in the Globe, you know you're getting your money's worth," the paper recently boasted.
Gail Berkley, executive editor of the Post, says she's confident her paper will withstand the competition. After all, the Post has name recognition and history on its side -- it was started by the late Thomas Berkley in 1963. "We are the paper of record for the black community in Oakland," she sniffed. "The Globe is brand-new, so they still have to prove themselves."
In its short life, the Globe has seemed intent on proving one thing: That Indian gaming is good for everyone, a "win-win situation," as one story put it. For three consecutive weeks in June the Richmond Globe ran front-page stories gushing about the virtues of Indian casinos. "Indian Gaming Brings Jobs, Boosts Economy in Low-Income Communities," one headline read. Another neutrally stated: "Indian Gaming: A History of Successful Economic Development."
Rumors have begun been circulating that Whitmore is working for the group that's trying to open a casino in unincorporated North Richmond. Not true, he says, although he acknowledges the casino folks did ask for his advice. (He's got a PR background.)
He also sat in on a couple of community meetings in an unofficial capacity. But that's about it. People have a lot of misconceptions about Indian casinos, he says. The new publisher views the Globe's laudatory stories on gaming as part of the paper's educational mission. Will there be more "educational" stories on Indian casinos in the Globe? Bet on it.
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