Lee Stranahan: Erotic photographer, animator, unitarian universalist, a heavy metal band and right wing spokesman. Huh?
Lee Stranahan worked on the bleeding edge of the 90s media revolution with NewTek Video Toaster® and LightWave®.
NewTek put the power of million dollar recording studios onto any desktop in the world and Lee was a NewTek trained expert. Fast-forward twenty years, Lee the production expert has a reputation for aggressive journalism on the other side of the lens.
That’s not the only shift, either. Somewhere along the way, Lee Stranahan’s political targets flipped from the right to the left.
So, what changed?
“Do you consider what you do advocacy?” Lee had been looking over his glasses to read whatever was on his phone. At my first question, he squinted thoughtfully and then set his gaze attentively on my face.
“Yes. I always say that I’m an activist journalist. I don’t think there’s a contradiction there. I wish more people would admit that there’s an activist element to what they do. So I just come out and say it.”
Maybe Lee heard criticism implied in my question. I had read and heard from his detractors before our interview. They would say Lee is a contradiction. But advocacy is what I write about, and I was only curious.
Lee went on to explain “If you’re working on a story and the mainstream media doesn’t want to cover it, you are forced into activism,” because “sometimes you have to do that to get traction on a story.” And what drives Lee, the investigative reporter? “Trying to get the stories right. That’s important to me. And I don’t like corruption and I don’t like oligarchy. Those are big themes that I’ve covered…”
Lee Stranahan’s way of reporting on corruption and oligarchy reminds me more than anything else, that he’s not a millennial.
In 2014, Lee posted a video to his vimeo channel. It is similar to an art video I helped produce 40 years ago. A sledge hammer pounds an older model Television to smithereens. My artsy college buddies were doing the “kill your TV” thing.
Lee’s done-to-death imagery had a different message. A smiling Barack Obama flashes on screen moments before the hammer swings, followed by an invitation to subscribe to Lee’s newsletter, the Creative Conservative.
In 2008, Lee Stranahan described himself as “a citizen journalist whose main claim to fame is producing satirical comedy,” and “a registered Democrat who is excited to be voting for Barack Obama in November.”
He had been writing for HuffingtonPost and Daily Kos for a while by then, both of them online blog reporting ‘zines’ like Breitbart. Lee told me that he had been a reporter for only eight years. To understand how he got from thinking of himself as a comedic satirist to an indignant reporter for the right requires following the path of his career through the many turns after NewTek.
“I had a heavy metal band and I produced an independent film.”
If you count his documentaries, he’s done at least three films. In 1995, Lee tried his hand at producing and directing independent film. It was never released, unless you count YouTube. That’s where I viewed some of it.
Lee explains that “Breathing Room” is a romantic comedy. He says so in a recognizable voice-over on the clip, apologizing that the audio was removed from a portion to avoid copyright infringement. There’s even a cameo of Lee the director as “rented friend number three.”
After he described the nude scene, I had to go check it out. Cultural standards about nudity in film have changed, but not so much that it’s available on a public YouTube channel. You have to go to Vimeo to view the nude scene.
I agree it’s “not what you’d expect.” Meaning – it’s not the least bit erotic. Be warned – if you elect to check it out – It is relentless full frontal nudity.
I haven’t watched any more of the YouTube footage to see if the acting and cinematography improved. I may.
Why? I’m empathetic and artistry is brave. I’ve tried my hand at a few productions. I’m an advocate for follow artists. If I can find something to advocate in art, I will.
I’ve seen worse.
Lee says what works for him is honesty.
I accept that to a point. He’s not lying and he’s not hiding his past.
He doesn’t apologize for his history with the liberal press, his progressive life experience, and further back, his connection to the seedier side of the digital landscape in late 80’s – early 90’s Topeka, Kansas, where “blowing off steam” at NewTek meant a trip to Baby Dolls.
Small world facts – I was a Toaster fan in it’s infancy, I’m from Topeka and I know about Baby Dolls. I practiced law with Jerry Berger, the owner.
Baby Dolls is a strip joint; not a toy store. The people Lee has wounded with his words are jubilant when they discover this aspect of his non-religious past. It’s an interesting tidbit, but only slightly important to understanding what makes Lee Stranahan tick.I point it out, because it’s an interesting component of his personality.
It’s not any more exceptional than his religious affiliation with the Universal Unitarians. UU ministers may be Christian, Secular Humanist, Buddhist, and at least one Jew and one Wiccan of whom I know. I suspect they could be anything, but I am certain of those categories.
The list of important and famous people who are UU includes at least four presidents, and notables like Daniel Webster, Charles Darwin and Walt Whitman. It’s a very “American” religion.
As for the strip club, I’m not defending the place. Baby Dolls claims it is “couple friendly” – I guess that depends on the couple. It isn’t in a bad area of town and it’s not nearly as seedy as that seedy strip joint in the nearby college town famous for basketballs and liberals.
That seedy joint used to have a sport field behind it they built to support the local kids’ teams – and it still shuts down once a year for family friendly fun on St.Patrick’s Day. Kansas is quirky that way – state symbol is an imaginary bird.
Lee doesn’t hide his past work in erotic photography either. In 2004, Lee Stranahan informed colleagues in the developer community that he was severing his connections to that industry to focus on supporting his family, and incidentally selling his adult website domains and photography equipment.
It’s possible that Lee Stranahan is a controversy magnet. It’s possible that he wants to be. His offer sparked a philosophical debate on whether or not the sex trade could be non-exploitative, and bondage photography was art. (Archived on the NewTek forum, forums.newtek,com.)
Lee argued in favor of the unionization of sex workers, and then brought the question back to whether or not there was a customer for what he was selling. I’ve defended sex workers and I’ve prosecuted the exploitations of women and children in the sex trade. Like Lee’s romantic comedy, I’ve seen worse.
Baby Dolls is a strip joint and adult websites are not art galleries.
Honest or not, how does that history work for a right wing champion?
INSERT – FOOD FOR THOUGHT; EDITORIAL OPINION: Attention Advocates: The puzzle of last year’s Presidential election can be viewed though Lee Stranahan’s shifting lens. there is an “outrage” in the community that is bringing people together.. lee says he saw an unprecedented level of organization in the women’s march and that is what caused him to make a permanent move to washington, d.c. he isn’t working to support that outrage – but he saw it and decided it had historic significance.
lee’s popularity suggests a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of the radicalized middle. If the neo-conservative agenda has less of a morality component than the opposition perceives, it helps to explain Lee Stranahan and Donald Trump.
Was there a transformation?
What really changed?
After 2006, you find Lee moving eagerly into the blogosphere, working on a number of creative projects, and producing animated political jabs directed at republicans.
By 2007, he had gathered a following of a half million and was cross-posting to other left wing blogs, and posting to the kind of sites that are considered primary news sources for much of the public, including Huffington Post and Daily Kos.
The work has his distinctive voice, but is no longer the “off the cuff” style of rhetoric found in his personal blog. Lee was conducting interviews and researching for his entries.
He’s been married to the same woman the whole time, so it’s not likely that he’s a fundamentally different person.
In Lee’s words,
“My friend Andrew Breitbart used to say ‘Who I am on any day depends on what I need to do. Some days I’m a comedian, some days I’m a journalist, some days I’m an activist, some days I’m a serious writer.’
See what I’m saying? And I feel that way too. I feel like depending on what I’m doing that day, I may need to switch roles. So, if you view journalism as a role, and you take it seriously, you can do that. But I can look at stuff in another way too. I’m a person who has different things I do, everybody is.
I tell people who are activists, I teach a class in journalism. I say journalism is a tool you can use in activism. It’s not the only tool. Organizing’s a tool. Obviously, there’s lots of stuff. It’s a tool, but that doesn’t mean you misuse the tool. You use it right, use it properly. Activism can be a tool for journalists.”
In 2007 he was a political satirist, and now he’s a reporter who sometimes uses satire to make his point. I don’t think that’s a distinction without a difference in this case. Even looking at his work as different roles, Lee points to a moment in time, a single event that ignited his passion for “getting a story right that nobody else is covering.” Bob Partlow would say Lee found his outrage.
Lee wanted to follow up on the tabloid report that John Edward was sneaking around in hotels. The extramarital affair reported by National Enquirer caught his attention.
“Ariana was great,” he says, of the Huffington Post editor. But his work at the Daily Kos was banned. He describes a showdown with Marcus Moulitsas (Markos Moulitsas Zúniga) over the story he wanted to cover “and ‘boom’ I get kicked off.” He shrugs, “Elizabeth Edwards wrote the introduction for Marcus’ book. Who knew?”
He describes his transformation to reporter as flowing from that first rejection, and to reporter for the right to a subsequent meeting with Andrew Breitbart.
The meeting was a couple years after being dropped by Daily Kos, and before he produced anything for the benefit of right wing causes. He wrote of the meeting “I didn’t sell out and change my views. By the time I’d reached out to interview Andrew, I was already disappointed by the arrogant and too often false supposition by liberals that they are the sole arbiter(sic) of facts. I was tired of seeing lies and bullying pass for argument.”
When he wrote that, he was already working with Andrew Breitbart. It is possible to see his politics begin to move subtly in the direction of the people who were paying him, with each following post on his blog. His family obligations were expanding, his wife was again pregnant.
Perhaps there was a commercial element to the changed loyalties, but perhaps there was something deeper.
INSERT – FOOD FOR THOUGHT; EDITORIAL OPINION: Attention Advocates: The key demographic recruited to defeat the democrats after the election of Barack Obama looks an awful lot like Lee Stranahan. The election was won/lost by the votes of soccer moms, unionized working class white males over 40 and non unionized white males under the age of 40. These voters hated Hillary Clinton, but voted for Barack Obama. They came out of the woodwork for Donald Trump.
Lee stranahan’s following may be less of the traditional right-winger and more like the guy in the mirror, his wife and his eldest son. these are the people the democratic party hopes to win back before 2018. advocates on both sides of elections will be competing over the people lee stranahan touches daily. advocate or commerce, it put’s him in a good place.
Part III: Advocacy Profiles – Investigative Reporters Stranahan and Partlow. Available before Earth Day (April 22)
Part III of the profile on investigative reporters will be available in time for the newsletter edition, along with on update on our report on the advocates working on the Maryland Trust Act – aka sanctuary legislation, and a profile on Maryland’s Hispanic Caucus Chair, Joseline Peña-Melnyk (D).
In time for the magazine People and the Earth edition, we are developing a profile feature on Climate Advocate Bill Petty, a Earth Day report on Climate Change in the political environment of 2017 and a wonderful photo journal piece on advocates for refugees in Europe by Suzanne Günther.