In April, I’ll be making a presentation to a special interest group of the AERA titled “The Role of Blogs in the Rebuilding of New Orleans.” My plan is to tell five separate stories that have emerged in, around, through or about the local blogosphere since the flooding of the city in 2005. I thought I would share my notes here as I complete them. So this is the second of the five stories. I welcome any feedback.
The American Zombie blog began on July 5, 2006, with a strident assertion.
I believe that as a patriot and one who loves this country, the best way I can honor it is to exercise the 1st [amendment] as much as possible. And perhaps to recognize that what we really have to fear, is those who would spread fear and manipulate it to their own end. The truth will set us free…I would like to find it.
To that end…I start this blog to help myself wake-up.
From that day on, the blogger known as Ashe Dambala has been waking up a whole bunch of people in the Greater New Orleans area. He didn’t waste any time getting down to business either. In his third post, just three weeks after the blog was launched, he dropped his first big bombshell, accusing Greg Meffert, former Chief Technology Officer for the City of New Orleans of influence peddling and other shenanigans.
I missed out on this first round of intrigue, because my wife and I were caught up in our own personal trauma. And, to tell you the truth, I’ve always found the American Zombie tough to follow. It’s a dark blog, scary and worrisome, full of dark allusions, full of esoteric knowledge and insider information, attributed to anonymous sources. I think a certain level of familiarity with the subject matter (which I don’t have) is a prerequisite to actually understanding the intimations and accusations on offer. Most of it is simply over my head. But it’s clear that plenty of savvy people understand exactly what’s being posted, and they are often alarmed by it. Sometimes they even want to sue.
For three years Dambala was a figure shrouded in mystery, known only by his net moniker. In case you don’t know, let me quote Wikipedia: “In Vodou… Damballah is the Sky God and considered the creator of all life…. In New Orleans and Haiti he is often depicted as a serpent and is closely associated with snakes.” See how it all fits together? New Orleans, Vodou, Zombies — one might expect the subject matter of this blog to be magic or religious experience. Au contraire. The Zombie’s stock-in-trade has been and remains dirty politics, or more specifically, public corruption.
In some ways Dambala provides a stark contrast to my previous subject, Karen Gadbois. He is (or was) anonymous and obscure; Karen was always transparent. Yet at their heart I believe Ashe Dambala and Karen Gadbois share certain core values. They both exemplify the idea of the citizen journalist. Both have drawn attention to corruption. Both have both invigorated the local journalistic milieu. And that’s why they’ve both been recognized with the highest award of the NOLA blogosphere, the Ashley Morris Award.
I hope to write more about Ashley, and Rising Tide, later. At this juncture, it’s just worth recounting the circumstances surrounding Dambala’s recognition at Rising Tide IV. Many were curious to see his true identity revealed, but they were disappointed, or perhaps amused, when Jacques Morial accepted the award on Dambala’s behalf. There were some who were more irritated than amused, in particular a couple of attorneys who’d attended the event specifically to confront Dambala. They said they wanted to bring suit for libel regarding some information he posted on the American Zombie. They had several “large and beefy individuals” in tow, a move which was generally perceived as an intimidation tactic by those in attendance.
And so it came to pass that Dambala gave it up in the pages of the Times-Picayune, to short-circuit the accusation that he was hiding behind his anonymity. His real name? Jason Berry. I did a double take, as did many readers, I’m sure. I knew that name. Berry co-directed the important and ambitious documentary film, Left Behind, which Xy and I saw in 2006.
But back to that TP article from August, 2009. Molly Reid sums up Dambala’s importance nicely:
In New Orleans, perhaps fittingly, the battle between blogger and subject comes in the arena of alleged City Hall corruption, which Berry says he hopes to help expose. His blog American Zombie has focused on City Hall contracts, especially the technology contracts, such as those for the city’s crime camera program, along with the Mayor Ray Nagin free trips to such exotic locales as Hawaii. He has repeatedly scrutinized former city technology chief Greg Meffert — now under investigation by the feds — and the array of companies he is connected with.
A couple months later, Greg Meffert (and Linda Meffert and Mark St Pierre) were indicted on 63 counts by the U.S. Attorney’s office. A year after that, Meffert pleaded guilty to a fraud and bribery conspiracy charge. The Times-Picayune credited itself for breaking the Meffert story in an article from September of 2006 about a certain yacht. But that came out a couple months after the Zombie’s first Meffert story — which also mentioned the yacht. Not to split hairs, but It seems to me that’s where Meffert “first came under scrutiny.”
Update #1: According to Dambala himself, “the TP was actually reporting on the yacht before me, I was the one who broke the credit card, trips, interoperability system and I was writing about the crime cameras a month before it reached da paper.”
As for the attorneys who were threatening to sue Dambala? I don’t know what happened to them.
Update #2: According to Dambala, “On the lawsuit, I met with the city attorney and his wife who were threatening the suit at my lawyer’s office. They decided to drop the suit and I agreed to publish whatever letter they wanted on my site….” For more details see the comments section.
I have to thank local blogger Liprap, aka Leigh Checkman, for pointing me to some key resources to help me construct this account, such as it is. For example there’s this panel, sponsored by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. Jason Berry shares the dais with Kevin Allman (Gambit) and Campbell Robertson (New York Times); ironically enough the blogger is the only guy who went to journalism school. The video is worth watching if you’re interested in journalism generally and in New Orleans in particular. In it we learn that the American Zombie functions as a sort of “reporter’s notebook,” a way of sharing both original documents and (sometimes) unverified gossip for comment and scrutiny.
We also get this choice quote from Berry/Dambala:
There are writers that write for the paper and then there are journalists which I think are investigative journalists. And I think that those guys are a little off, and I’m one of them. Because they become completely obsessed with getting to the truth, and you have to be that way.
As well as this gem:
I’m pretty much a professional a-hole, in my blog.
See? He’s a professional.
Liprap thinks “he’s definitely become more sophisticated with his writing and storytelling as time has gone on, especially with regards to the recent City Hall real estate records series he’s been publishing in serialized form on Humid Beings.” I have to agree. If you haven’t read this, it starts here.