Steven Spielberg has a problem with the movie "Roma." Maybe not artistically -- I'm guessing that he, like most people, liked it -- but with who produced it and distributed it and how. And after learning about his objections to it, I'm choking on the irony of it all.
"Roma" is a Netflix movie. It made a brief, small-scale theatrical run to qualify for the Academy Awards, but the vast majority of people who have seen it have watched it via Netflix, either on their TV, laptop or tablet. Spielberg does not like that what he considers to be a TV movie was eligible for the Best Picture Oscar for which it was nominated. He thinks it should've been up for an Emmy instead. I read this morning that he intends to use his considerable power to prevent that from happening again in the future by getting the Academy Governor's Board to bar Netflix movies from Oscar consideration.
Spielberg has both aesthetic and business objections to Netflix flicks. On the aesthetic side, he is said to "feel strongly about the difference between the streaming and theatrical situation" as it relates to screen size, sound, and overall experience. For this I do have some degree of sympathy. I watch far more movies at home these days than I do at the theater, but I still have a soft spot for the moviegoing experience. If I am truly interested in a new release, I will make a point to get to the theater to see it.
But I don't have to. Maybe Spielberg assumes that those of us not rich enough to have a dedicated screening room in our Pacific Palisades homes are watching VHS cassettes on a 19" Magnavox sitting on a metal TV stand, but the fact is that it's not hard or even super expensive anymore to get a really nice visual and audio movie experience in our living rooms. I have a rather crappy TV by today's standards -- it's an HD flat screen, but I bought it like 13 years ago and it's not paired up with a big sub-woofer or surround sound or anything -- but it's still pretty good for anything but the grandest epics and most intense special effects-laden movies. For most movies I watch, including movies like "Roma," it's perfectly fine.
For the sake of argument, though, let's grant Spielberg's point about aesthetics. Let's defer to his obviously hefty cinephile bonafides and grant him that it's better to see a movie made for the big screen than made for Netflix. I'll grant that because what I find far, far more objectionable are his complaints about the business side of this.
The business objections of Spielberg and others on the Academy Governor's Board to Netflix movies are varied. Some of it is just that they don't like the money Netflix throws around, which is nothing I particularly care about. For the most part, though, Spielberg and his friends don't like the way Netflix interacts with movie distributors and theaters when it does those limited theatrical runs required for Oscar consideration. Specifically, Spielberg doesn't like the manner in which they rent theaters out instead of licensing films, which allows them to keep, rather than share, ticket sales, and allows them to avoid reporting box office numbers. In the aggregate, Spielberg's complaint is that Netflix is messing up a well-worn and established movie distribution model.
Which, when you think about it, is pretty damn rich coming from Spielberg. Because while I love a great many Spielberg movies, the guy's business legacy is that he fundamentally altered the model of film distribution in this country which, in turn, had a massive and, many argue, negative impact on the artistic side of filmmaking.
Spielberg broke into the business as part of the "New Hollywood" generation of writers and directors who came of age in the 60s and who came into professional prominence in the 70s. These were young auteur-types to whom Hollywood studios gave unprecedented freedom and autonomy because, frankly, the studios were losing money, were out of touch with the prevailing culture and had no idea how to woo audiences anymore.
New Hollywood movies focused on characters -- often characters who lived on the margins of society -- over spectacle. They trafficked in dark and often violent themes. Plots and storylines were heavy on ambiguity. Happy endings were not necessarily, or even often, the order of the day. From "Bonnie and Clyde" to "Five Easy Pieces" to "The Godfather" to "The Conversation" "Nashville" to "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" to "Raging Bull" and any number of movies I could name in between, some of the greatest movies in American history were made during this period.
The distribution model of these films was radically different than what we see today. Whereas now films open in thousands upon thousands of theaters on a single day, in the 1970s, films opened in a handful of cities at first and were rolled out to other cities over time, allowing word-of-mouth and critical consensus to build. This helped filmmakers gradually sell what were often tough sells, artistically speaking, to audiences. It's not fair to say anymore that certain things simply won't "play in Peoria," but it's probably the case that it's easier for things to play in Peoria if the people in Peoria hear that something played pretty well in Chicago, Indianapolis and Rockford a couple of weeks ago.
Then in 1975 Steven Spielberg made "Jaws" and it changed everything.
Rather than rely on word-of-mouth, Universal Studios spent millions on a well-planned and highly-coordinated marketing campaign to promote "Jaws" before its release. TV and Internet trailers are ubiquitous now, but they were rare in the mid-70s. "Jaws," however, featured a high-profile national prime-time commercial buy. The producers and the author of the novel on which the movie was based hit the TV talk show circuit to promote the film and the publisher of the book worked with the studio to ensure that the paperback version matched the film poster as a means of cross-promotion. The movie also had the most elaborate array of marketing tie-ins of any film to date, including a soundtrack album, T-shirts, plastic tumblers, a book about the making of the movie, beach towels, blankets, shark costumes, toys and games.
More significant was the abandonment of the slow-roll distribution. "Jaws" opened simultaneously in hundreds of theaters across the entire United States. It was more than a movie, it was an event. It made a massive amount of money in its first weekend and, in so doing, single-handedly ushered in the Blockbuster Era. Today we take first weekend box office figures for granted as a measure of a film's success -- indeed, we deem a film a success or a failure based, almost exclusively, in how that first weekend goes -- but we didn't start doing that until "Jaws" came out in June of 1975.
There is no question that the blockbuster distribution model makes way better business sense than the old way of doing things -- studios are rolling in cash now in ways no one every could've imagined back in the 1970s -- but it fundamentally altered the artistic and aesthetic sense of Hollywood as well.
Marketing is essential now in ways it never was before "Jaws." It's far easier to market spectacle and thrills than it is to market character sketches and ambiguity, so we get more of the former now than we do of the latter. It's far easier to get people into a movie theater if they have a really good idea of what they're going to see than it is to spring surprises on them, so modern marketing gives far more away about a movie's plot than it holds back and sequels, copycat films and films with shared universes proliferate. People like to feel good far more than they like to be challenged so, while movies have always been about entertainment, the product is made to go down with a few more spoons of sugar than they did during the New Hollywood era. The "Hollywood Ending," primarily a function of morality in the Golden Age, is now a function of test marketing and focus groups.
Which is not to say that good movies aren't made now and the the industry has gone to hell. There were a lot of truly crappy movies made in the early-to-mid 70s (we remember the good ones and forget the bad). There have likewise been tons of fantastic blockbuster movies that followed "Jaws" into America's multiplexes, many of which form the cultural DNA of people of my generation and beyond, many of which were made by Steven Spielberg. And despite the now 44-year-long blockbuster mentality of Hollywood, there have always been a handful of good, small, dark, morally ambiguous or challenging artistic movies that slip past the beancounters every year. And yes, even a couple of those were made by Steven Spielberg.
But it is inescapable that Spielberg almost singlehandedly changed the moviemaking business. He did it by basically blowing up one distribution model and replacing it with another and in so doing he fundamentally changed both the business and artistic sides of Hollywood. For him to now bitch that someone else is doing that is quite the damn thing.
I'm an unpopular figure among a certain swath of media professionals. Newspaper folks, mostly, or people who started their careers working for newspapers. They don't like me because I've spent a good chunk of the past decade arguing that it's bad when old establishment media folks coast on their reputation, credentials and presumed authority and that the old media companies are flawed to the extent they are unable to quickly adapt to new information or ways of thinking, causing them to roll forward on inertia.
In other news, the former Executive Editor of the New York Times has written a book largely about how new, online-based media is bad and irresponsible and will lead to the ruination of society. The book has been found to include multiple, significant plagiarized passages and a plethora of errors that were likely overlooked because the author was deemed too important and established to edit and fact-check. Meanwhile, the book's old school publisher is standing behind the author, saying it'll fix what can be fixed. It's hard not to see that as an admission that, plagiarism and errors notwithstanding, it's simply not practical or viable for them to stop publication at this point.
An awful lot of journalists were fired between 2015-17 because their companies went with a "video strategy" influenced strongly by Facebook's claimed video ad revenues and Facebook's direct encouragement of their media partners to pivot to video and away from a written product.
That didn't pan out the way anyone expected, however. Video engagement was far lower than expected and revenues followed suit. As a result of all of this a lot of video editors and producers were fired, joining their print journalism colleagues on the unemployment line. Online media, in many respects, is a flaming hole in the ground at the moment.
Why did the video strategy -- which Facebook claimed was the Way and the Truth -- not pan out?
Facebook knew by January 2015 that its video-ad metrics had problems, and understood the nature of the issue within a few months, but sat on that information for more than a year, the plaintiffs claimed in an amended complaint Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Oakland . . . Facebook in 2016 revealed the metrics problem, saying it had “recently discovered” it. The firm told some advertisers that it had probably overestimated the average time spent watching video ads by 60 percent to 80 percent. Tuesday’s filing alleged that Facebook had instead inflated average ad-watching time by 150 percent to 900 percent.
To be clear: the current state of affairs in online media is largely the fault of media companies for desperately and stupidly chasing trends that even a moment's reflection should've revealed were idiotic (note: NO ONE prefers video news content online over print), but it sure as shit doesn't help that Facebook, allegedly, was lying to everyone about user behavior and ad revenues.
Hunter S. Thompson had long since lost his fastball by 9/11. Within three and a half years he'd be dead. But what he wrote on 9/12/01 -- like so much of what he wrote when the stakes were truly high -- was dead on the fucking money.
The towers are gone now, reduced to bloody rubble, along with all hopes for Peace in Our Time, in the United States or any other country.
My daughter texted me from school today. She was in her freshman humanities class which is basically an English/social studies mashup. Anna texts me from school a lot. When she does so it's usually the best part of my day. Today, like most days, it was because she wanted to share something funny with me.
Today, however, my credentials and I were the butt of the joke:
Anna later explained that her teacher was not talking about me, my political science degree and my sports writing career specifically. Rather, she was just making a point about how, when you read something, you should be critical of the writer, who he or she is and what his or her background is. Today they happened to be discussing an article about the value of a liberal arts education and the teacher approvingly noted that its author had a history degree so, obviously, he knew what he was talking about. The crack about the political science degree-possessing sports writer was an imaginary horrible meant to portray a true ignoramus.
I won't lie: I was less than pleased about all of this. Not because I thought of it as some sort of personal attack, as I have never met her teacher and she doesn't know a thing about me or my career. And not because of the underlying lesson, as I agree it is vitally important to assess and be critical of one's information sources. Rather, I was pissed about how superficial a notion it is to look at a person's formal education to assess a person's credibility.
I've gone at length about my unconventional career path, but I'm not the only person doing something radically different than their college transcript might suggest they'd one day do. My father grew up working on cars at his father's taxi cab company and wanted to work on jet engines one day but, due to a typographical error by the United States Navy, wound up in meteorology school and spent the next 40 years as a weather man. Anna's mother has a degree in French but has spent the past 23 years working in the office furniture business. My best friend from college has an M.A. in history but has nonetheless spent most of the past 20 years working at technology companies in Silicon Valley. I'm sure all of us know many people who have careers that are completely unrelated to whatever it was they studied in college and who can speak as authorities on those topics regardless of what they happened to major in back in the day.
My displeasure with what I heard today was not, however, simply about a teacher who does not seem to appreciate that career paths are often crooked. It's about her seeming not to appreciate the value of a crooked career path in and of itself.
I am not exactly a typical or a popular figure in the baseball writing world. When I began this job a decade ago it was pretty unusual for a large media company like NBC to give someone with no journalism experience the kind of platform I have. One used to pay their dues for years, serving time as an agate guy, a high school football stringer, a backup beat writer and then, maybe, if everything broke right, they could be a columnist, which is roughly equivalent to what I do. I jumped the line. I had never been part of the baseball writing fraternity. What's more, my writing tends to skew pretty sharp and critical and includes a lot of media criticism as well so, while I have made many friends in the business over the years, I'm still not welcome in the club. If my credentials had been in order -- if I had gone to journalism school and if I had written game stories for the Des Moines Register or the Sacramento Bee -- I'd likely be invited to more meetings and parties.
But I'd probably also not have this job.
NBC was late to the online sports game and, when they launched my website, they wanted to make up for lost time. They did so not by aping what everyone else had done ten years earlier, but by making some noise. They hired a lawyer to be their football writer and, with that precedent set, hired one to be their baseball writer too. Our lack of a journalism background and our willingness to say and do whatever the hell we wanted to was a feature, not a bug, and nearly a decade later it's still working pretty well. It's working well, I'd argue, precisely because neither Mike Florio nor I approach our job like someone who went to J-school would and because, as such, we give readers something they can't get anywhere else. Our lack of traditional qualifications for our job were strengths, not weaknesses. NBC's hiring people with unconventional resumes helped them solve a problem they likely could not have solved (i.e. catching up with their competitors quickly) if they had done the conventional thing.
A couple of lawyers with liberal arts backgrounds are not alone in that, of course. There are a lot of people who contribute to society in ways far more important than writing about sports despite the fact that they are not doing what they had set out to do back in college. There are companies being run by people without business degrees, artists who never went to art school, musicians who never had lessons, and tons and tons of people making a difference in the world despite the fact that they simply fell into jobs adjacent to -- or often not adjacent to -- the disciplines they initially set out to pursue.
That's true even of the guy who wrote the article about the value of a liberal arts education they were discussing in my daughter's class today. The guy who was deemed OK by Anna's teacher because he had a history degree. His name is David Brooks. He's a columnist for the New York Times who didn't spend a day in journalism school and who hasn't spent a minute pursuing the academic study of history since he graduated from the University of Chicago 35 years ago.
There's probably a lesson in there someplace. If Anna doesn't learn it at school, I'll make a point to talk to her about it separately. I think I can do it too, despite the fact that I didn't study education.
Anthony Bourdain died today.
Unlike so many self-styled literary and entertainment industry badasses, there was simple skill, craft and humanity underlying the attitude, which he would freely allow to show. The former without the latter -- and without self-awareness-- is empty. Whatever he was doing to project that bad boy persona was immediately set aside when he got down to work writing about or chronicling a place, a people, a cuisine or whatever it was he was interested in at the moment.
In losing Anthony Bourdain, we didn't lose a "celebrity chef" or a "travel show host." We lost an insightful, empathetic and humane chronicler of the human condition. A man who could have so easily been a complacent, thrill-seeking, luxury-living, globetrotting celebrity but chose to be something more. He was an anthropologist who discarded dispassionate observation in order to advocate for the best in humanity, paying special attention to the vulnerable, the exploited and the overlooked.
Last year Bourdain went to West Virginia for an episode of his show, "Parts Unknown." In the space of one hour he did a better job of capturing my home state than a thousand poverty porn tourist journalists with pre-written stories parachuting in from coastal publications have ever done. It was typical of his work. He never went with the easy or expected narratives, even if doing so would've saved him a lot of work. Probably because he knew that those easy narratives obscured truths, perpetuated lies and, unwittingly or otherwise, served to work injustices, both large and small.
I embedded that episode below. You should watch it. If he ever went someplace special or interesting or unknown to you, you should watch that too.
This evening I did a segment on BBC World News about today's announcement that the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox will play a two-game series in London next year. They allowed me on the air even though I spent most of the day trafficking in the silliest British stereotypes and mocking the monarchy.
Come for me talking about baseball, stay for the Shrek Funko Pop! figurine I had forgotten that my children put on my mantlepiece.
In today's Washington Post Jonathan Greenberg writes about how Donald Trump lied his way onto the Forbes' 400 list of the wealthiest Americans back in the early 1980s. It's an amazing story, which illustrates just how insecure, desperate and pathological Trump truly is. It reminds us that, then as now, he possessed no shame whatsoever and would stop at nothing to portray himself as wealthy and powerful, going so far as to disguise his voice and to pretend to be another person in order to appear as something he was not.
While most people are sharing and reacting to that story based on the bald-faced lies Trump told and the audacious things he did in order to make Forbes' list, the story tells a larger and, in my mind, more significant story. It's a story about journalism and American values and about how a certain failure and bankruptcy in both of those things led us to where we are today.
Malcolm Forbes came up with the idea of the Forbes 400 in 1982. The idea was to personalize wealth after decades in which faceless corporate conglomerates dominated the story of American business. Given the circles in which Malcolm Forbes traveled, his personal extravagance and his obvious love of fame and celebrity, it's not surprising that there was more going on here than the mere reporting about powerful business figures.
The Forbes 400 was about elevating and celebrating the wealthy -- many of whom were not, actually, business figures but, rather, heirs -- simply because they were wealthy. It was a gossipy, clickbaity listicle for the pre-Internet age. We all know what MegaCorp Consolidated owns and what it does, but who is its biggest shareholder? How is he special? What makes him tick? More importantly, what does he own? What does he wear, eat, drink, drive and fly? The Forbes 400 constituted an implicit argument for the social value of wealth for its own sake. An argument which kicked off or, at the very least, worked in tandem with the greed-is-good, "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" social and cultural forces ascendent in 1980s America.
It was this culture which gave us Donald Trump. Donald Trump became president because he was famous. He became famous because he was portrayed as rich. He was portrayed as rich because, in the early 1980s, there was a big cultural push -- much larger than Donald Trump -- to celebrate the rich simply for their status of being rich. If that culture did not exist, there would have been no Forbes 400 for Trump to lie to get on to and if there was no Forbes 400, and the culture which surrounded it, it's an open question whether anyone outside of the New York real estate world would've ever heard about Donald Trump. Donald Trump did not lie his way to the presidency on his own. He had a lot of help.
The elevation of the rich for their own sake in the 1980s was not new, of course. Back in the Gilded Age the robber barons were larger-than-life figures, permeating the culture far beyond the business pages. In the Great Depression the names of the wealthy could be found in song lyrics and constituted instantly recognizable references in movies, on stage and on the radio. This elevation of the rich likewise did not stop with the death of Malcolm Forbes and the end of the go-go 1980s. To see how this celebrity-style reporting on the rich and powerful still works, one only need look at the often uncritical coverage of figures like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and, more broadly, the culture of Silicon Valley as something separate, apart and, somehow, more noble and visionary than the mere businessmen and women that they are.
All of which is to say that, however much fun it is to point and laugh at the prospect of a 36-year-old Donald Trump pretending to be something he wasn't, that's not really the big takeaway from today's piece in the Washington Post. We know Trump is a pathological liar and those of us who paid attention to him before he got into politics have known this for years.
The more important questions raised by that article are how and why Trump was given the platform from which to tell his lies in the first place? Who will be the next to take advantage of America's sick and misguided fascination with wealth for its own sake to ascend to a position for which he is clearly unqualified? Finally, when will the media, which utterly failed to push back against the idea that greed is good in the 1980s and has continued to fail in this regard each and every time that ethos has been repackaged for a new era, begin to ask itself why the wealthy are celebrated and considered newsworthy in and of themselves?
I've spent a lot of time beating up on "Hillbilly Elegy" author J.D. Vance over the past year or so. My review of his book is here and some further stuff on him and his political writing is here and here, in case you've missed it. The short version of my beef with him: while his personal story may have been compelling enough for a decent memoir, he and others have attempted to use that personal story as disingenuous cover for an odious political agenda.
It's not a new political agenda, mind you. The gist of it involves blaming the poor and downtrodden for their misfortune, which has long been a talking point of the conservative establishment of which Vance, a Yale Law graduate who worked for a hedge fund in Silicon Valley for years, is quite firmly a part.
The twist is the use of Vance himself and his dubious hillbilly bonafides to provide absolution to anyone who would prefer to look away. "It's not your fault that poor people in flyover country are screwed," Vance has told both conservatives and liberals alike, "they've done it to themselves!" Upon being told that they all exhale in relief, content in the knowledge that they cannot do anything to help and thus cannot be criticized for turning away, their guilt assuaged because, hey, a hillbilly said it was OK for us not to care. It's almost genius, really.
As coastal elites have gotten off on Vance's guilt-free rural poverty porn, Vance himself has been plotting a political career. Now relocated to Columbus, Ohio, he strongly considered a run for the U.S. Senate in 2018. While he ultimately decided against that, he has surrounded himself with the sorts of advisors and donors, both in Columbus and nationally, who anoint political stars. He's writing Op-Ed pieces, spoken at political luncheons and has gone on the lecture circuit. It's the usual stuff a future candidate does.
Vance, however, claims that he has a particular problem for a Republican in middle America: he does not support Donald Trump and did not support him during the election. This "problem," of course, will increasingly be seen as a strength the longer Trump stays in office and the lower his popularity plunges. Vance, no idiot, knows this quite well and will likely continue to position himself as a Republican Party savior, seeking to take it back from the insane fringe that has taken it over in the past few years.
There's only one problem with that. He's buddying up to Steve Bannon, who is angling to get Vance installed as the next head of the conservative think tank, The Heritage Foundation:
J.D. Vance, the best-selling author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” a memoir about his upbringing in Appalachia, was also floated early in the process as a possible high-profile, younger recruit. He has met in recent months with Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist who has returned to his post running Breitbart News, and Bannon has privately expressed a desire to see an ally installed at Heritage.
You can endeavor to heal the nation of its Trumpist fever, or you can work with the leader of the alt-right agenda who parted with Trump because he wasn't extreme enough. Likewise you can work to elevate the voices of the overlooked people of poor middle America, as Vance has claimed over and over again that he desires to do, or you can fall in with Bannon, who has worked tirelessly to exploit these people into backing his twisted, white nationalist delusions. You cannot do both.
What J.D. Vance decides to do in this regard is his own business. It's a wonderful time for all of the rest of us, however, to stop listening to Vance and to stop believing he's some fresh new voice of reason who can bridge the vast political, cultural and social divides in this country. Because once you start taking meetings with a guy who blows up bridges and brags about doing it, you've opted out of the "bringing us all together" business.
UPDATE: I have some other ideas on politics and bringing people together. It's a decidedly more inclusive view of the world than whatever it is Bannon and, by extension, Vance is interested in pursuing.
This morning the President of the United States, in response to an accurate news report that made him look bad, threatened the license of a national broadcast network:
It happens to be the broadcast network that employs me. I'd hope, however, that such a thing angers people who don't work for NBC. I mean, I get that he's mad, but the most powerful member of the United States government threatening the media because it criticized him is, if not the most un-American thing ever, certainly in the top-10.
I'm pretty sure if Obama had said this about Fox News in 2010 there would be talk of impeaching him. Short of that, it'd dominate the news cycle for several weeks and be cited in the rants of conservatives for years and years. Now, I presume, we'll just chalk it up to "Trump being Trump" and stagger on to the next unnecessary crisis he creates or legitimate crisis he neglects.
In the meantime, Trump can take my NBC WordPress login from my cold dead hands. Or whatever it is people say in such situations. Sorry, I'm new to this "living under a petulant dictator" thing. We all are.
In the past week President Trump, first through a spokesperson, and then personally, demanded that United States citizens lose their jobs because he does not agree with their political views.
We can disagree about the underlying issues which led to him saying this. We can debate the nature of protest and the mode and manner of expression of views with which he takes offense. We can discuss the propriety of sports figures wading into non-sports topics. No matter where you come down on any of that, however, we are left with the President of the United States saying people should lose their jobs because he does not agree with their political views.
No one, no matter their views about the protests or comments of athletes, should find this acceptable. Whether one holds far right or far left views, every last American should find it abhorrent that a government official, let alone the most powerful government official, is demanding people's jobs because he does not like what they believe.
This is not a controversial assertion. It is not a close issue. It is, perhaps, the most basic and fundamental issue there can be when it comes to our rights and our liberties as Americans under the Constitution. It is the entire goddamn point.
Some people who take in interest in genealogy discover that they are Irish when they thought they were Scottish. Others find a long-lost cousin. When I began looking at my family history I found out that my great-great grandmother murdered my great-great grandfather with an axe on a snowy winter's night in Detroit, Michigan in 1910.
Nellie Kniffen's violent rampage and her husband Frank's grisly demise was front page news in Detroit for several weeks, but she and her crime were soon forgotten, both by the public and by her family. Those who remembered it tried hard to forget it and those who came after knew nothing about it at all.
Through research of public records, personal interviews and a review of the sensationalistic newspaper stories written before Frank Kniffen's body grew cold, I unearthed a chapter which had been torn out of my family's history. And I began to better understand the ghosts and demons which have haunted my family for over a century.
The story of Nellie and Frank -- Nellie Kniffen Took An Axe -- is available as a Kindle eBook for $2.99.
Daniel Drezner wrote a column in today's Washington Post about the foray of some "Silicon Valley thought leaders" into politics. The short version: Zynga’s Mark Pincus and LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman have launched a platform aimed at rallying people into political causes outside of the current party structure, forming some sort of center-left, pro-business movement and basically "disrupting" political engagement. Or something, in the way that only Silicon Valley types talk about such things.
Many have been sharply critical of this and similar initiatives. Drezner is critical, but less so, noting that even though Pincus and Hoffman are bound to fail, we should nonetheless take them and other Silicon Valley types seriously when they wade into politics, saying that Democrats should keep "their neoliberal billionaires inside the tent."
My distaste for neoliberalism notwithstanding, I don't necessarily disagree with Drezner. I don't believe anyone should be kept outside the tent if it can be helped. If they advocate good policies and want to make the world a better place - of if they are open to discussion about making the world a better place and share at least some common ground -- I want them in that tent. That's the point of all of this, after all.
At the same time, I share some of the skepticism many have about tech giants wading into politics, mostly because of the frankly odd manner in which tech giants tend to wade and the manner in which the media and the public has tended to discuss such wading.
So let's put it all into perspective, shall we?
By accident of my age and some friendships I made years and years ago, I know a number of people who are either Silicon Valley denizens themselves or people who at least orbit that world. They used to be programmers or startup employees, now they're mid-to-upper management guys. Some have made a lot of money. Others haven't. Some are academics now. But they all speak that odd Silicon Valley language and, at times, share a bit of it with me. It's a strange world, but so too is any somewhat insular subculture with which one is unfamiliar. Like any other, there is jargon and custom and behavior that those of us on the outside don't quite understand.
The people in that world, however, aren't fundamentally different than those of us who are not. Contrary to how tech moguls are often described, they have needs, desires and opinions that are not of some other planet.
When the election hit last year, a lot of Silicon Valley types freaked out, just like a lot of the rest of us did, because it did not conform to expectations. Most of them never thought that Trump would win and, like a lot of us, they started to question the assumptions they harbored. Assumptions which they thought were safe. As I said, Silicon Valley culture can be insular and, of course, Silicon Valley sits in the Bay Area, which is far more politically homogenous than a lot of places. While I disagree with so much of what has been written about so-called "bubbles," I don't think it's unreasonable to say that many of the political assumptions held by Silicon Valley types were less-challenged and more strongly held than those held by some of us in the Midwest, making the freakout of the Silicon Valley types a bit more pronounced than our own.
There are a lot of transplants in Silicon Valley. My friends are from Ohio, many others are from other places. During the post-election freakout, a lot of them asked me or their friends back home, "WHAT HAPPENED TO OHIO?" or "WHAT HAPPENED TO MICHIGAN?" Soon those panicky questions turned to more thoughtful ones like "what can I do to help Ohio?" or "what can I do to help Michigan?"
Some -- like venture capitalist-turned-author J.D Vance or former Uber executive Brian McClendon -- have moved back to their home states and have vowed to take an active role in politics. Some, while staying in California, have vowed to funnel money back home to political causes or to otherwise become engaged in local politics from afar. Some are still trying to figure it out the answer to that question. Some only asked that question for a while and then got back to the business of Silicon Valley.
Others, like Pincus and Hoffman, are simply trying to apply what they know to the problem. To combine their life's work with politics, while bringing the jargon and weirdness of their particular subculture along for the ride. Thus you read articles about entrepreneurs wanting to "disrupt democracy" and about how "thought leaders" are going to bring bold new innovation to a tired industry, just like they did so many times before. Because most in the media don't have a super strong grip on either business or technology, the coverage, like all the coverage of these folks which has come before, is often comically credulous.
Here's the thing, though: you can't "disrupt" politics, let alone public policy. Not in any fundamental way. Politics and policy will always come down to one's values and ones goals and how clearly those values and goals are communicated to voters. Voters who have shown, time and time again, that they will respond to ideas and promises, not branding and cultural framing on its own. You can try to sell them "innovation" and "the future" all you'd like, but they will not get on board with you unless you tell them what you plan to do, in very basic terms, or what it is you stand for, in very plain terms. Voters do not do Silicon Valley cloudspeak.
In light of that, I've talked to my friends in Silicon Valley about what, exactly, Silicon Valley actually wants. What are its political values. They have some ideas. They're not crazy or disruptive or innovative, really. They're a lot of things many people support and some things only a few people support, but they're pretty conventional, politically speaking:
All of this adds up to Silicon Valley being just like and other industry, sector or collective of activists. It wants what's good for it, in its conception of the world. And those wants are all things that have been discussed over and over again by any number of parties, politicians and interest groups. It's not sui generis.
In light of that, the next time you hear about a tech billionaire getting into politics or a group of entrepreneurs putting together some killer app that purports to change the game forever, note their status, but just for a moment. Note their financial power, but not in any way you wouldn't note the financial power of a media mogul or an investment banker who enters the political fray. Then: ask them what it is, exactly, they stand for and ask them if they have a good idea about how to implement it or to convince a majority of people to get behind it. If they stand for good things and have good ideas, join them. If they don't, don't. As I have argued before, there is no magic bullet when it comes to this stuff.
What we should not be doing is what so many in the press have been doing lately, which is treating these guys as if they're magical unicorns with heretofore unprecedented ideas, with plans to disrupt democracy forever.
I just watched the latest Trump press conference. As usual, it was a disaster. Not for him so much, as he's apparently bulletproof and/or oblivious, but for things like rationality, democracy and civil society. It served as just the latest in a never ending series of reminders that we have given a dangerously arrogant, deluded and incompetent man the nuclear codes.
It also reminded us that the press has no idea how to ask Trump a question.
I understand why they are having so much trouble. While presidents have used press conferences as a means of propaganda and reality denial for as long as presidents have given press conferences, at least a small amount of actual information has been disseminated at the things over the years. Presidents -- even Nixon -- have always possessed at least a scintilla of shame which regulated just how big their lies could be and which, in turn, reined in their most nonsensical tactics of distraction. As such, a reporter's lazy, open-ended or compound question has never been that harmful. Presidents have become experts at ducking them and steering them to other, more comfortable topics, but they have always at least pretended to be acquainted with reality and have always communicated some rudimentary information as they sparred with the Fourth Estate.
Not Trump. He hits the lectern at Mach 2 with his hair on fire spewing a brand of nonsensical drivel that would make Tristian Tzara chuck it all, go back to school and become an actuary. He is so utterly shameless that, were he not so mendacious, dangerous and corrupt, it'd almost be perversely admirable. He has blown past Orwellian archetypes so quickly that he is not even bothering to answer the question "what is two plus two" with "five." He's gone straight on to "potato."
As such, the presidential press conference has shed the last vestiges of an exchange of information and has, necessarily, become a truly adversarial affair. The guy being questioned has already, in explicit terms, declared war on the press. The investigative journalists and columnists have grokked this and are firing their big guns at Trump on the daily. It's time for the members of the White House Press Corps -- the ones who actually get to ask Trump questions -- to quit pretending they're sparring and join the goddamn fight.
While I am a member of the media, I'm not really a reporter. I never went to J-school and I don't interview people very often. I don't have a fedora with a card that says "press" in the band. I don't even own one of those cool little digital tape recorders. As an interviewer of willing, sensible and amiable subjects, I'm fairly mediocre. I get the basic information fairly well, but I'm not fantastic at digging too deeply below the surface. I just don't have the reps yet.
But as a lawyer who did cross-examinations and depositions and who conducted internal investigations for 11 years, I do have a lot of experience asking questions of people who don't want to answer them. Or who have something to hide. Like any trial lawyer, I've sat across a table or stood across a room from people who I knew to be lying to me and I got them to either admit it or to look so bad in denying it that they may as well have.
I was not successful at it because I am uniquely talented. Indeed, compared to my colleagues, I suspect I was pretty average when it came to legal talent and instincts. I was successful at it because I followed some basic rules that I and every other trial lawyer is taught. They are rules that, in this mad age, when the President of the United States of America is trying to get one over on us like some employee embezzling from the payroll of my clients tried to get over on me, would serve the White House Press Corps well.
The big ones:
Litigation, war and conducting presidential press conferences are, obviously, very different things. But they do have a few things in common. In all three you have a mission. Thanks to the approach the Trump Administration has taken, in all three you, unfortunately, have an adversary. Above all else in all three you have to have a plan and it has to be a plan that you can carry out without your adversary controlling the terms of engagement. By following the rules of litigation and, in some cases the rules of war, you're way more likely to be successful than whatever the hell it is you're doing now.
Wikileaks was founded in 2006 with a self-proclaimed mission to oppose what its founder, Julian Assange, considered to be “secrecy-based, authoritarian” governments and entities. To combat their censorship of information in the public’s interest and to expose their lies and corruption. If Wikileaks made bumper stickers to promote themselves, they might’ve printed them up with something like “Wikileaks: liberating information and fighting the powerful.”
In the past few years, however, Wikileaks has itself become powerful and its mission and acts have come under increased scrutiny and criticism. Criticism ranging from its careless outing of dissidents to its alleged connection to Russian state-sponsored hackers and the publishing of hacked emails from the Clinton campaign during the U.S. presidential election.
And now, in keeping with the behavior of the powerful entities upon which it has declared war, Wikileaks has decided to protect itself by going after those who would seek to expose its own secrets.
This month Baseball Writers Association of America members with ten years or more of tenure will cast their ballots for the Baseball Hall of Fame. Many already make their ballots public with some writing columns explaining their choices. Next year they will be required to make their ballots public. Fans and non-voting writers like me lap all of this up. As a result, in baseball, December is the month for Hall of Fame arguments.
For some voters, however, it is the month for complaints. Complaints about the process for voting for the Hall of Fame and complaints about the arguments their very own votes set off
There has been a lot said lately about fake news, echo chambers and bubbles. A big part of that involves how, rather than obtaining information, people consume news a source of confirmation of their ideological biases, which in turn leads to polarization and things like people believing that a New York real estate developer who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth is the savior of The Common Man.
It’s hard to identify let alone stop this pernicious pattern, but today I got a great view of how it starts. In my little world of baseball news of all places
We’ve heard much lately about how liberals live in a bubble. About how they fail to understand people different than they are and, to the extent they do have impressions of conservatives, middle Americans and the working class, they come by virtue of caricature and exaggeration via stereotype and pop culture. They are told that they do not understand “Real Americans.”
It's a two-way street. Let's talk about both ways. And let's talk about our lack of community despite a fully-connected society.
I was quoted extensively in a story in the Columbia Journalism Review about sports writers who do not, as a rule “stick to sports."