Individuals are doing it, banks are doing it — faced with the horrific news and pictures from Japan, everybody wants to do something, and the obvious thing to do is to donate money to some relief fund or other.
We went through this after the Haiti earthquake, and all of the arguments which applied there apply to Japan as well. Earmarking funds is a really good way of hobbling relief organizations and ensuring that they have to leave large piles of money unspent in one place while facing urgent needs in other places. And as Matthew Bishop and Michael Green said last year, we are all better at responding to human suffering caused by dramatic, telegenic emergencies than to the much greater loss of life from ongoing hunger, disease and conflict. That often results in a mess of uncoordinated NGOs parachuting in to emergency areas with lots of good intentions, where a strategic official sector response would be much more effective. Meanwhile, the smaller and less visible emergencies where NGOs can do the most good are left unfunded.
In the specific case of Japan, there’s all the more reason not to donate money. Japan is a wealthy country which is responding to the disaster, among other things, by printing hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of new money. Money is not the bottleneck here: if money is needed, Japan can raise it. On top of that, it’s still extremely unclear how or where organizations like globalgiving intend on spending the money that they’re currently raising for Japan — so far we’re just told that the money “will help survivors and victims get necessary services,” which is basically code for “we have no idea what we’re going to do with the money, but we’ll probably think of something.”
For reasons which you can find outlined in my Discover Your Inner Economist, I am generally in sympathy with arguments like Felix’s, but not in this case. I see a three special factors operating here:
1. The chance that your aid will be usefully deployed, and not lost to corruption, is much higher than average.
2. I believe this crisis will bring fundamental regime change to Japan (currently an underreported issue), rather than just altering the outcome of the next election. America needs to signal its partnership with one of its most important allies. You can help us do that.
3. Maybe you should give to a poorer country instead, but you probably won’t. Odds are this will be an extra donation at the relevant margin. Sorry to say, this disaster has no “close substitute.”
It may be out of date, but the starting point for any study of Japan is still Karel von Wolferen’s The Enigma of Japanese Power. Definitely recommended.
The fact that Charlie Sheen has decided donate a portion of the money from his live stage shows to help people affected by earthquake in Japan should be all you need to know that donating money to Japan is a bad idea.
Earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, tsunamis, volcanoes and even chemical or nuclear disasters can provoke a strong urge on the part of people to want to provide disaster relief in the form of charitable donations directed at those afflicted by the most recent disaster. This is almost always a mistake.
Almost all international disaster relief is ineffective. Part of the reason for this is that relief groups rarely know who is suffering most, or how aid can be most effectively directed.
Concern and generosity are entirely human—and entirely admirable!—responses to the disaster and tragedy in Japan. But if you really want to be helpful, as Felix Salmon and others have noted, there might be better ways to donate your money than just sending it to Japan. There are two basic rules for being useful: First, give to organizations with long track records of helping overseas. Second, leave it up to the experts to decide how to distribute the aid.
The first suggestion is simple: Avoid getting scammed by choosing an internationally known and vetted group. Big, long-standing organizations like Doctors without Borders and the International Committee of the Red Cross are good choices. If choosing a smaller or local group, try checking with aid groups, Guidestar, or the Better Business Bureau before submitting funds.
The second suggestion is more important. Right now, thousands of well-intentioned donors are sending money to Japan to help it rebuild. But some portion of the donated funds will be earmarked, restricted to a certain project or goal, and therefore might not do the Japanese much good in the end. Moreover, given Japan’s extraordinary wealth and development, there is a good chance that aid organizations will end up with leftover funds they will have no choice but to spend in country—though the citizens of other nations wracked by other disasters, natural or man-made, might need it more. Aid organizations can do more good when they decide how best to use the money they receive.
Felix Salmon wrote a column for Reuters warning people “don’t donate money to Japan.” His argument is that donations earmarked for a particular disaster often “leave large piles of money unspent in one place while facing urgent needs in other places.”
Commenters pointed out that many relief organizations accept donations with a disclaimer that surplus funds may be applied elsewhere. And other relief organizations don’t allow for earmarking of donations at all, but that doesn’t mean they can’t use a burst of cash during an extraordinary crisis.
Salmon also wrote, “we are all better at responding to human suffering caused by dramatic, telegenic emergencies than to the much greater loss of life from ongoing hunger, disease and conflict. That often results in a mess of uncoordinated NGOs parachuting in to emergency areas with lots of good intentions, where a strategic official sector response would be much more effective.”
That last probably is true. I also have no doubt that various evangelical groups already are planning their crusades to Japan to rescue the simple indigenous people for Christ in their time of need. (Update:Yep.)
So if you do want to donate money, I suggest giving to the excellent Tzu Chi, a Buddhist relief organization headquartered in Taiwan. Relief efforts in Japan are being coordinated through long-established Tzu Chi offices and volunteer groups in Japan, not by random do-gooders parachuting in from elsewhere. Tzu Chi does a lot of good work around the globe, so your money will be put to good use somewhere.
From the spokesman for the new provisional Libyan government formed in Benghazi to the resistance fighter holed up in her apartment in Tripoli, the message from anti-Qaddafi Libyans to the West—and the United States in particular—is uniform: Help us!
Qaddafi is not Hosni Mubarak. The Libyan forces arrayed against the insurgency, unlike the Egyptian army, will show no restraint. This will be, indeed has already become, a bloody fight to the finish involving mercenaries and soldiers whose loyalty to the Qaddafi family is based on money and brute force.
Saif Qaddafi predicted “rivers of blood,” and we are now seeing them flowing from the streets of Tripoli to Libya’s other key coastal cities.
Yet the White House has offered little but antiseptic words, followed up by nothing meaningful.
However, the spectrum of options—both multilateral and unilateral—is quite broad, ranging from the creation and enforcement of a no-fly zone, to targeted attacks to take out what little remains of the Qaddafi air force, to covert efforts to keep the Qaddafi air force on the ground, to the provision of communication infrastructure to the resistance, to the provision of armaments so that they can fight on an equal footing.
Not only would our actual assistance be of great actual help, but the emotional impact of our intervention could sway many who remain with Qaddafi and bring them over to the side of the resistance.
Far from being brutalized by four decades of domination by a theatrical madman, the Libyan people appear fairly determined not to sink to his level and to be done with him and his horrible kin. They also seem, at the time of writing, to want this achievement to represent their own unaided effort. Admirable as this is, it doesn’t excuse us from responsibility. The wealth that Qaddafi is squandering is the by-product of decades of collusion with foreign contractors. The weapons that he is employing against civilians were not made in Libya; they were sold to him by sophisticated nations. Other kinds of weaponry have been deployed by Qaddafi in the past against civil aviation and to supply a panoply of nihilistic groups as far away as Ireland and the Philippines. This, too, gives us a different kind of stake in the outcome. Even if Qaddafi basked in the unanimous adoration of his people, he would not be entitled to the export of violence. Moreover, his indiscriminate barbarism, and the effect of its subsequent refugee crisis on neighboring countries such as Egypt and Tunisia, ipso facto constitutes an intervention in the internal affairs of others and a threat to peace in the region. In arguing that he no longer possesses legal sovereignty over “his” country, and that he should relinquish such power as remains to him, we are almost spoiled for choice as to legal and moral pretexts.
And yet there is a palpable reluctance, especially on the part of the Obama administration, to look these things in the face. Even after decades of enmity with this evil creep, our military and intelligence services turn out not even to have had a contingency plan. So it seems we must improvise. But does one have to go over all the arguments again, as if Rwanda and Bosnia and Kurdistan had never happened? It seems, especially when faced with the adamancy for drift and the resolve to be irresolute of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, that one does. Very well, then. Doing nothing is not the absence of a policy; it is, in fact, the adoption of one. “Neutrality” favors the side with the biggest arsenal. “Nonintervention” is a form of interference. If you will the end—and President Barack Obama has finally said that Qaddafi should indeed go—then to that extent you will the means.
Libya is a country with barely 6 million inhabitants. By any computation, however cold and actuarial, the regime of its present dictator cannot possibly last very much longer. As a matter of pure realism, the post-Qaddafi epoch is upon us whether we choose to welcome the fact or not. The immediate task is therefore to limit the amount of damage Qaddafi can do and sharply minimize the number of people he can murder. Whatever the character of the successor system turns out to be, it can hardly be worsened if we show it positive signs of friendship and solidarity. But the pilots of Qaddafi’s own air force, who flew their planes to Malta rather than let themselves be used against civilians, have demonstrated more courage and principle than the entire U.S. Sixth Fleet.
There’s another consequence to our continuing passivity. I am sure I am not alone in feeling rather queasy about being forced to watch the fires in Tripoli and Benghazi as if I were an impotent spectator. Indifference of this kind to the lives of others can have a coarsening effect. It can lower one’s threshold of sympathy. If protracted unduly, it might even become brutalizing.
To help the president nudge the JCS in the ensuing discussion, here are the options he should ask to be put on his desk:
1. Best option: Give the Libyan rebels the aid they need to win. This may be no more than some secure communications gear and a couple of thousand rocket-propelled grenades to deter Qaddafi’s tanks and SUVs. (This may be already happening in some form.) Can we start flying discreet charter flights of stuff into some airports in the east? This needs to be ready to go ASAP — like yesterday.
2. More aggressive, riskier option: It is not in the interests of the United States, or the Libyan people, to see Qaddafi put down the rebels. So if Option 1 doesn’t work, what more do we need to do? I think here we want to think about direct action: Using Special Operations troops to corner and then capture or (if he insists) kill Col. Qaddafi. You do need tactical air on tap for this, both to finish off Qaddafi if he holes up and also to cover the extraction helicopters. This needs to be ready to kick off in 72 hours.
3. Third: And yeah, sure, let’s look at what a no-fly zone would look like. This is my least favorite option, because it is a half measure — which by definition is an act that is enough to get us involved but by itself is not enough to promise to determine the outcome. Still, is there any way to do it quickly and with less risk? I’ve heard things like stating “you fly, you die,” and not conducting extensive air strikes, just popping whoever flies. I am doubtful of this. Sen. Kerry’s simplistic “cratering” of runways is a non-starter — it is very easy to quickly fill in holes. Imposition of an American-led no-fly zone effectively would be a promise to the Libyan people, and it should not be an empty promise that allows Qaddafi to get aircraft in the air even occasionally to bomb rebellious cities. But it might be worthwhile to throw up a no-fly zone if only as a cover for Option 2, because it would have the effect of throwing sand in Qaddafi’s eyes. So the NFZ also needs to be ready to go in 72 hours.
This is what a worst case scenario looks like: Qaddafi is ramping up the use of airpower against the rebels, increasingly confident that NATO and the U.S. won’t intervene. Actually, this is a next-to-worst case scenario: the real horror would be if Qaddafi breaks out the mustard gas. Either way, we have the spectacle of the Obama Administration standing by as freedom fighters are slaughtered from the air–prime fodder for shoot-first John McCain (yet again, and still, the headliner on a Sunday morning talk show–will wonders never cease?), Mitch McConnell and even for John Kerry.
There are several problems with the conventional wisdom. The biggest problem is that we have no idea whether the rebels in Libya are freedom fighters at all. Some are, especially the English-speaking, western-educated young people who are prime targets for visiting journalists. But how relevant are they to the real power struggle? Who are the non-English-speaking tribal elders? Are they democracy loving freedom fighters…or just Qaddafis-in-waiting? It’s a question to be asked not only in Libya, but also in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Bahrain. One hopes for the best–especially in Egypt, where there are signs that the Army is allowing at least a partial transition away from autocracy. But who knows, really? Even Iraq’s democracy is looking shaky these days as Nouri al-Maliki seems intent on consolidating his power.
Only a sociopath would have any sympathy for Qaddafi. And we should do what we can to calm the situation down…but I have this growing fear that the tribal/civil war in Libya may be as representative of what’s happening in the Middle East as the exhilarating people-power revolution in Egypt. This is truly a diplomatic conundrum: we can’t continue to support the autocrats in power…but by opposing them, we may be aiding and abetting the birth of a more chaotic, brutal Middle East. Those who express vast confidence about one side or the other–or who want to shoot first, as the inevitable McCain does–shouldn’t inspire much confidence. We should provide what humanitarian help we can; we should try to mediate, if possible…but we should think twice–no, three times–before taking any sort of military action.
Let’s do a quick tally of the Middle East’s nondemocratic leaders.
America’s friend Hosni Mubarak? Gone.
America’s friend Zine El Abidine Ben Ali? Gone.
America’s friend the king of Bahrain? Wobbling.
America’s friend the king of Jordan? Shaken.
On the other side of the ledger:
America’s enemy, the Iranian theocracy? The mullahs unleashed ferocious repression against democratic protesters in the summer of 2009 and kept power.
Hezbollah? It brought down the Lebanese government to forestall a U.N. investigation into the terrorist murder of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Hamas? Last month it banned male hairdressers in Gaza from cutting women’s hair, the latest zany ordinance from the self-described Islamic movement.
If Gadhafi and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad still rule territory in a month’s time, and if Hezbollah and Hamas continue to rely on their armed presence to back up the militant policies they impose, the promises of Middle Eastern democracy will look very hollow. And the incentive structure of the Middle East will acquire a sinister new look.
Gadhafi’s departure from power in other words is not just a requirement of humanity and decency. It’s not only justice to the people of Libya. It is also essential to American credibility and the stability of the Middle East region.
Obama already has said that Gadhafi “must” go. Gadhafi is not cooperating — and to date, the insurgents have lacked the strength to force him.
The United States paid a heavy price for encouraging Iraqis to rebel against Saddam Hussein in 1991, then standing by as the Iraqi leader slaughtered rebels from the air. We still pay that price, for the memory of the slaughter is a crucial element in the distrust that so many ordinary Iraqis felt for the United States after Hussein’s ouster in 2003.
The president must not repeat that mistake. He’s already committed himself. Now the only choice he faces is whether his words will be seen to have meaning — or to lack it.
The argument that we need to intervene in Libya for the sake of protesters elsewhere isn’t remotely credible, not least because no one is proposing that the U.S. make armed intervention against internal crackdowns a standing policy to be applied in all cases. If intervention in Libya were to deter other unfriendly governments from trying to crush protest movements with violence, Washington would have to make these governments believe that it was prepared and willing to do the same thing to them. Pushing unnecessary war with Libya is bad enough, but if it were just the first in a series of unnecessary wars it becomes even more undesirable.
The U.S. can lend assistance to Tunisia and Egypt in coping with refugees from Libya, and it is appropriate to provide humanitarian aid for the civilian population in Libya where it is possible to deliver it, but there is no reason to become more involved than that.
Rep. Darrell Issa, the Republican chairman of the powerful Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has launched an inquiry into whether spokesman Kurt Bardella improperly shared e-mails from other reporters with a New York Times reporter writing a book on Washington’s political culture, POLITICO has learned.
Bardella has been cooperating extensively with the Times’s Mark Leibovich on the book, and Issa told POLITICO Monday that he would “get to the bottom” of exactly what Bardella shared with Leibovich.
On Tuesday morning, Issa fired Bardella as a result of his investigation.
Issa, Bardella and Leibovich all were given several opportunities by POLITICO to deny that the e-mails were improperly shared. Bardella and Leibovich declined comment. Issa says he simply does not know.
Issa said Monday that Bardella assured him that “he does not share information between one reporter and another.” But he added there are questions about whether he might have treated Leibovich and his book project differently.
“His collaboration with the book author is what I want to get to the bottom of,” Issa said.
Issa said he was seeking to speak to Leibovich personally on Wednesday to ascertain “what kind of cooperation he was expecting. … I want to know in minute terms what the terms are.” As of late Monday afternoon, Leibovich said he had not heard from Issa or his staff.
In an earlier interview with POLITICO, Issa said he was aware his staff has been cooperating with Leibovich and that he had had a hallway interview with Leibovich himself. He said he agrees that if Bardella forwarded or blind-copied reporter e-mails to Leibovich, it would be improper. “It troubles me too,” Issa said, adding that if it is going on, “I’m going to get it stopped.”
Confronted about whether he was sharing the e-mails with Leibovich, Bardella initially said, “Am I bcc’ing him on every e-mail I send out? Of course not.”
Leibovich, a former Washington Post staffer, is on leave from the Times while he researches the book, which is scheduled to be published next year. Reached Monday night, Leibovich had no comment.
Politico.com first reported the alleged leak Monday. The Web site’s editor, John Harris, first raised concerns about the e-mails Sunday in a letter to Issa.
“The practice of sharing reporter e-mails with another journalist on a clandestine basis would be egregiously unprofessional under any circumstances,” Harris wrote, according to Politico. “As the editor-in-chief of Politico, my concern is heightened by information suggesting that Politico journalists may have had their reporting compromised by this activity.”
Harris – a former Post writer and editor – said in an interview Monday that his Capitol Hill reporters heard about the possible leak Friday. “It’s just intolerable if [information about] our reporting was shared with other journalists from other news organizations,” he said. “Our reporting is proprietary and our stories are competitive. Journalists have an expectation that their communication [with sources] is confidential.”
But sources familiar with the matter said that the leak involves hundreds of e-mails to Issa’s office, many of them mundane and routine inquiries from news organizations seeking information and interviews with the chairman.
Bardella lists Leibovich among his friends on Facebook.
Although I would be first to offer condolences to any reporter whose e-mails or inquiries to a press officer had been blithely shared with another reporter, I wouldn’t spend more than five seconds on cheering him up. A certain variety of Washington reporter lives and dies by leaks from government officials, so I don’t see why a government official leaking to a reporter about a national security matter is kosher, but a government official leaking about what reporters are asking him about is “egregiously unprofessional,” “compromising,” or “intolerable,” as Harris puts it.
As for Harris’ expectation that communications from reporters will be “held confidential,” well, I feel another lung coming up. Although I hope flacks will keep confidential my inquiries to them and their bosses, never in my journalistic career have I believed that a flack would keep his mouth zipped. Flacks and reporters are in the business of distributing information, not sequestering it. They move information like currency traders! They’re blabbermouths! This is one reason why reporting on the press is so easy, why the freshest journalistic recruit can start reporting on the press with almost no experience: Reporters love to give up their secrets and the secrets of others. Why? Because that’s what they’re trained to do! Flacks are almost as loose-mouthed.
Anybody composing e-mails these days should proceed on the assumption that what they write will be posted on the Web milliseconds after they send it. E-mail is not a secure form of communication. You might as well skywrite your questions to a press spokesman as put them in an e-mail. If Harris is so upset about his reporters’ e-mails getting leaked to Leibovich, he should have them use the phone. It’s not a leak-proof device, but it’s harder to forward a phone conversation unless you’re running a tape recorder.
Of course it is wrong for somebody to share correspondence without asking for permission first, but if that ethical constraint were universally observed, there would be no journalism. We’d all be rewriting GAO reports for a living.
I’m somewhat mystified that Issa required an “investigation” to get to the bottom of this, because inside Issa’s office there was no secret about Bardella’s cooperation. When I was writing my profile of Issa, Bardella openly discussed his cooperation with Leibovich—and not just with me, but with his direct boss as well. For example, during a meeting with Bardella and Issa’s chief of staff, Dale Neugebauer, the three of us had a light-hearted discussion about how extensively Bardella was working with Leibovich.
“So you know about this, right?” I asked Neugebauer.
“Oh yeah. Yeah, he knows,” Bardella said.
“He [Bardella] just got to Washington and he’s got a book about him coming out,” I noted.
“I know, no kidding,” Neugebauer said.
In a later conversation, Bardella told me, “I’ve shared a lot with [Leibovich].” He added, “I have provided him with a lot of content. I BCC him on certain projects that I’m working on.” Bardella said he shared information that shows “this is how it happens” and “this is the conversation I’m having right now.”
“Do the other folks in the office know?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Bardella said, and he gave me an example of the type of stuff he shares: “Here’s this inquiry I got from a reporter. Here’s what I said to my staff about it, here’s the story, here’s the e-mail I just got from so-and-so, another reporter who’s upset that I gave his story to [someone else].”
At another point in one of our conversations, Bardella explained that getting news in partisan outlets— he cited the Daily Caller, the Washington Examiner, and the Washington Times—was easy, but it didn’t have the same impact as getting something in the mainstream press. He explained that he had recently leaked a report on ACORN to the New York Times, which had run what was, in his view, a good story for Issa. He then received an e-mail from an aide to Senator Susan Collins, he said, who complained about not being part of the decision to leak the report. Bardella said that he sent the e-mails documenting the whole drama to Leibovich.
“I blind-copied Mark in my response,” he said, “which was, given that my options were the Examiner or the New York Times, I’m not exactly going to apologize for the result that I just produced that you would not have. You had the report for four days and you didn’t do shit with it.”
This long back and forth was the lead-in to a Bardella quote I used in the piece:
[R]eporters e-mail me saying, “Hey, I’m writing this story on this thing. Do you think you guys might want to investigate it? If so, if you get some documents, can you give them to me?” I’m, like, “You guys are going to write that we’re the ones wanting to do all the investigating, but you guys are literally the ones trying to egg us on to do that!”
To me that last quote was one of the most important things Bardella told me. The rest of it—that offices clash over how to leak info and that bookers and reporters are competitive—is interesting but relatively well known, and not very relevant to a piece about Darrell Issa. But that Bardella accused reporters of offering to collaborate with Issa as he launches what will inevitably be partisan investigations of the Obama Administration seemed jaw-dropping. This is exactly the dysfunctional investigator/reporter dynamic that in the nineteen-nineties fed frenzies over every minor Clinton scandal. In his short-lived career, Bardella was witness to the fact that it was all starting over in 2011, now that there was again a Republican House and a Democratic President. From what I know of what Bardella shared, the beat reporters who cover Issa and engaged in this kind of game with Bardella will be the ones most embarrassed by the e-mails that Leibovich possesses.
Will Ryan now publish every email he has sent requesting an interview with someone on the Hill? If not, why not? And if another journalist somehow got access to his emails and published them, would he be fine with that? Or is it just because he’s buddies with Leibovich? Just asking. I’m not saying that there is nothing wrong with the journalist-source relationship right now. I’m saying there are ethical and unethical ways to point this out.
Politico, the news Web site that on Monday revealed that a Congressional aide had been secretly sharing e-mails with a New York Times reporter, itself sought correspondence between government officials in numerous federal agencies and other news organizations.
In a 2009 Freedom of Information Act request distributed to at least half a dozen cabinet departments, Ken Vogel, a Politico reporter, made a broad request for all government communications with reporters or editors of 16 news organizations.
The request — which was eventually fulfilled in part after being narrowed, a Politico editor said — asked for “copies of all correspondence,” including “but not limited to e-mails, notes, letters and phone messages — received from or sent to employees or officials” of a number of media organizations: the five major television networks; National Public Radio; the Web sites Huffington Post, ProPublica and TPM Muckraker; and The Chicago Sun-Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Washington Times. The request also included Politico.
Among the agencies that received the request were the Justice Department, the Energy Department, the Commerce Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Treasury Department and the Transportation Department.
Politico was the first to report this week that Kurt Bardella, the chief spokesman for Representative Darrell Issa of California, had been giving copies of Mr. Bardella’s e-mail correspondence to Mark Leibovich, a reporter for The New York Times who is on leave to write a book about the political culture in Washington.
Politico reported that its editor in chief, John F. Harris, wrote to Mr. Issa that the practice would be “egregiously unprofessional under any circumstances” and called for an investigation into whether “journalists may have had their reporting compromised by this activity.”
(Mr. Harris said in an e-mail Wednesday morning that he was not interested in a legal probe of the situation, but asked Issa directly for answers about the arrangement between Mr. Bardella and Mr. Leibovich.)
Mr. Harris said in an interview Tuesday that there was a difference between a routine request for correspondence under the Freedom of Information Act and an arrangement in which e-mails were passed on immediately to another reporter.
He called it “bad faith between journalists who had an expectation of privacy and the person representing Chairman Issa, who violated that.”
“I thought there was a professional expectation, widely held and legitimately held, and that was compromised.”
In the Politico request, Mr. Vogel hinted at one target of his search, noting that included in the response should be “invitations (including to social events).” In fact, several government officials said Tuesday that the broad request was eventually narrowed to a search for invitations from reporters to social events.
Over at The New York Times’s Caucus blog, Michael Shear (with assistance from three other reporters) responded this evening to POLITICO’s scoop about Kurt Bardella, a since-fired aide to Rep. Darrell Issa who shared reporters’ emails with Times reporter Mark Leibovich.
Shear reported that POLITICO’s Ken Vogel in 2009 filed a Freedom of Information Act seeking correspondence between “at least half a dozen cabinet departments” and representatives of various media outlets (including POLITICO).
Comparing Vogel’s request to the Bardella/Leibovich arrangement, under which Bardella apparently blind copied Leibovich on emails to unknowing reporters, Shear writes that Vogel’s “initial F.O.I. request was, if anything, broader in its reach than the dissemination of information from Mr. Bardella to Mr. Leibovich.”
I find the blog item a bit perplexing and out of character. The comparison, in any event, misses the point of Vogel’s request, whose results never wound up in a story.
The correspondence Vogel requested is considered public information under federal law, the Freedom of Information Act, while the emails Leibovich received from Bardella are not, because Congress — unlike executive branch agencies outside the White House (and some in it) — is not subject to the FOIA. There’s nothing terribly novel about seeking reporters’ emails with executive branch officials. The Columbia Journalism Review and Gawker forced the state of New York to release emails between reporters and David Paterson’s staff last year.
Leibovich’s email collection is for a book due out in 2012, which Leibovich’s publisher describes as an examination of “Washington’s culture of self-love.”
Vogel tells me his request wasn’t actually aimed at reporters. He was reporting for a follow-up story on the controversy over The Washington Post’s aborted plans to host “salons,” in which the Post offered lobbyists who paid as much as $250,000 off-the-record access to “those powerful few” — Obama administration officials, members of Congress, and even the paper’s own reporters and editors.
Shear writes “Mr. Vogel hinted at one target of his search, noting that included in the response should be ‘invitations (including to social events).’ In fact, several government officials said Tuesday that the broad request was eventually narrowed to a search for invitations from reporters to social events.”
Vogel says he never asked for “invitations from reporters.” He asked for emails with “employees or officials at the media outlets,” because he wasn’t looking for embarrassing emails from reporters, but rather for invitations to salons or other events.
This isn’t to say that there’s anything wrong with reporting on reporters and their emails, whether obtained from leaky staffers or public records. But the equivalence the Times went for in its headline isn’t there, either in the form or subject of Vogel’s reporting.
In the middle of all this is the book author, the New York Times’ Mark Leibovich, a friend of mine, who set out to write about this town’s culture and finds himself being sucked into the dysfunctional drama, which resembles nothing so much as a bad reality-TV show in which people put their honesty and judgment second to their quest to be players.
This particular episode begins with the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza, another friend of mine (see what I mean by incestuous?) who wrote the definitive profile of Issa in January, describing his history as a car thief, among other things. Lizza also got Bardella to make some some surprisingly candid statements.
“I’m going to make Darrell Issa an actual political figure,” Bardella said. “I’m going to focus like a laser beam on the five hundred people here who care about this crap, and that’s it . . . so Darrell can expand his sphere of influence here among people who track who’s up, who’s down, who wins, who loses.”
Bardella also disclosed contempt for reporters he described as “lazy as hell. There are times when I pitch a story and they do it word for word. That’s just embarrassing. They’re adjusting to a time that demands less quality and more quantity.”
Lizza learned that Bardella had been sharing reporters’ obsequious e-mails with Leibovich. Lizza didn’t include the anecdote because Bardella wasn’t his focus, but word spread via journalistic pillow-talk after Lizza mentioned it in conversations, eventually making its way to Politico. That publication had done more than any other to increase Issa’s profile, with items such as “Issa aims to unmask health care deals” and “Sheriff Issa’s top six targets.”
Put on your PJs: It’s about to get even cozier. Politico reporters were making inquiries on Friday about their e-mails being forwarded to Leibovich, but on Saturday night they partied with Leibovich at the American Legion Hall on Capitol Hill for the 40th birthday party of Politico’s executive editor, Jim VandeHei.
A few hours before the party, Leibovich got a call from Politico’s editor-in-chief, John Harris – who, along with VandeHei and reporter Mike Allen, used to work at The Post with Leibovich (and me! So very cozy!). “Couldn’t this wait until VandeHei’s party?” Leibovich joked to Harris.
The bash itself was a celebration of the politically powerful. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and White House official Austan Goolsbee joined the likes of Bob Woodward and Tom Brokaw in a video tribute to VandeHei. The party received a 600-word write-up, which included Leibovich’s attendance, in Allen’s Politico Playbook the next day.
Also Sunday, Politico’s Harris wrote to Issa calling for an investigation into the “egregiously unprofessional” release of e-mails. On Monday, Politico published a story on the controversy co-written by Marin Cogan, a friend of Lizza’s.
From what I understand, the e-mails won’t look good for Politico if and when Leibovich releases them. There are expected to be many from Allen and reporter Jake Sherman. There could be embarrassments for other outlets, including The Post, that played footsie with the 27-year-old Bardella as part of a culture in which journalists implicitly provide positive coverage in exchange for tidbits of news.
But this isn’t real news. The items Bardella fed journalists were “exclusive” previews of announcements designed to make Issa look good. Now that Bardella has been fired, Issa has been embarrassed and a few reporters are set to be humiliated, it might be a good time for those who cover the news to regain a sense of detachment from those who make the news.
Self-absorption to the point of parody? Check. Thinly-disguised “news” stories that serve journalists’ own personal or business interests? Check. Evidence that “journalistic ethics” is taking on the status of an oxymoron? Check. In the world of celebrity journalists, it’s perhaps to be expected that some news reporters and editors have come to regard themselves as the story, or, at the very least, to become convinced that their concerns and woes as the most fascinating part of the story. (Hence, hours of Cooper Anderson’s knock on the head in Cairo.) For people in the business of providing “context” and “perspective” that’s a pretty big character flaw.
The report, by Moody’s Analytics chief economist Mark Zandi, offers fresh ammunition to Democrats seeking block the Republican plan, which would terminate dozens of programs and slash federal appropriations by $61 billion over the next seven months.
Zandi, an architect of the 2009 stimulus package who has advised both political parties, predicts that the GOP package would reduce economic growth by 0.5 percentage points this year, and by 0.2 percentage points in 2012, resulting in 700,000 fewer jobs by the end of next year.
It doesn’t matter how many “reports” from “economists” get released making the obvious point that cutting spending=cutting jobs, the Real Americans in the Tea Party and those who understand them and speak for them, the Villagers, know that cutting spending is the right thing to do. Because arglebargle!
I can’t vouch for these numbers and Zandi, who used to advise John McCain, is now the Democrats’ favorite economist to cite. But that’s largely because Democrats are making an argument that mainstream economists like Zandi happen to support: In the midst of such a weak economic recovery, less government spending is almost certainly going to mean fewer jobs.
On Monday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor dismissed the Moody’s report entirely: “I would note that Mr. Zandi was a chief proponent of the Obama/Reid/Pelosi stimulus bill that we know has failed to deliver on the promise of making sure unemployment did not rise above 8 percent.”
But speaking with senators on Capitol Hill Tuesday, Bernanke took issue with the reports and their predictions of dire consequences if the Republican proposal were to pass the Senate.
“A $60 billion cut obviously would be contractionary to some extent, but our analysis does not get a number quite that high,” Bernanke said of the job losses predicted by Moody’s and the economic damage predicted by Goldman Sachs. “I have to say we get smaller impact than that.” Instead, Bernanke said that the cuts would likely slow economic growth by “several tenths” of a percent and that the lost jobs would be “much less than 700,000.”
Although Republicans may feel vindicated by Bernanke’s remarks, he did add that the proposed GOP cuts would not grow the economy in the short term.
“It would of course have the effect of reducing growth on the margins certainly,” he said. “It would have a negative impact, but 2 percent? I’d like to see their analysis. It seems like a somewhat big number relative to the size of the cut.”
As I have written before, the old-style Keynesian approach used by Zandi has many of the same flaws that are found in the Goldman Sachs approach: excessively large multipliers, inaccurate predictions of the effect of the 2009 stimulus, failure to recognize that reducing uncertainty about the debt can have positive effects, especially if it is done in a credible way by reducing spending growth now, not postponing it to a date uncertain in the future. After stating that “too much cutting too soon would be counterproductive,” Zandi claims that this is what the “House Republicans want” and what their budget does. But it’s simply not credible to say that a budget that has government spending increasing at 6.7 percent per year cuts spending too much too soon.
In sum, there is no convincing evidence that H.R. 1 will reduce economic growth or total employment. To the contrary, there is more reason to expect that it will increase economic growth and employment as the federal government begins to put its fiscal house in order and encourage job-producing private sector investment.
Zandi, Phillips, and other economists who think the government has been creating or saving jobs with supply-side spending are not taken seriously on the right. They have economic models that rate how much “bang for the buck” (they prefer this cliché) is delivered from various types of spending—unemployment checks, food stamps, tax cuts. They have the CBO’s numbers, which posit that 1.4 million to 3.5 million people have jobs that wouldn’t have existed without the stimulus package that became law two years ago this month. Republicans just don’t buy them.
“These analyses by the Keynesians are missing a key part of the story,” Rep. John Campbell, R-Calif., explained Monday. “One hundred percent of the money they’re talking about is borrowed. Republicans, right now, are talking about cutting spending on the margins, and 100 percent of what we don’t cut will be borrowed. The capital that they’re putting to work is capital that’s not improving something in the private sector, and all of these studies fail to take into account the interest we’re paying on the deficit.”
Campbell, an Ayn Rand disciple, has been saying this for a while. Republicans have started aping him only recently. Two years ago, as they opposed the stimulus bill, House Republicans reverse-engineered the White House’s economic models—models bearing a kissing-cousin resemblance to Zandi’s—and promised 6.2 million jobs for half the price of the Democrats’ proposal. The number was based on calculating how many jobs would be killed by tax hikes and inverting it.
This didn’t make much sense, and Republicans didn’t really believe it, but they were out of power. Their bill didn’t pass, so no one noticed. The Democrats’ stimulus did pass, and because unemployment went up, voters don’t think it worked. This gives Republicans a free hand to say anything they like about doomsaying predictions of cuts in government spending leading to cuts in employment. (Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who helped develop the GOP’s Potemkin stimulus, noted that the Democrats planned on spending $275,000 per job if their models worked; the current cost estimate per job is $228,055, as reported derisively by the conservative CNSNews.com.)
They may be dismissive, but Republicans aren’t Pollyannas about this stuff. Boehner’s comment to a Pacifica Radio reporter—if the spending cuts killed government jobs, he said, “so be it” —was not the party’s message. It’s not actually how they’ve been approaching their cuts.
A GOP aide with knowledge of the process that led to $61 billion in proposed cuts described it like this. The ideas for cuts came from plenty of places—a lot of them came from freshmen—but they were vetted by veteran staff on the Appropriations Committee. Those people tried to direct the cuts away from the salary side of the agencies they were attacking. They tried to target discretionary spending that was not part of salaries. For example, Republicans cut $1.3 billion of discretionary funding to community health centers; the Affordable Care Act, which is still there, stubbornly unrepealed, included mandatory funding for those health centers that the GOP didn’t touch.
The goal, even if GOP leaders won’t sing about it, was to shrink spending but leave employment as unmolested as possible. The agencies have discretion over how they use their shrunken budgets; they don’t have to cut back jobs.
The Republicans who’ll open up about possible job losses might have the more convincing case. Campbell talks about the losses as Joseph Schumpeter talked about creative destruction—temporary losses offset by sustainable gains.
“If we do not get the deficit down, if we don’t change trajectory, will lose more jobs than we lose from cuts,” Campbell said. “When a debt crisis hits, if we’ve still got 47 percent of our debt held by foreigners, we’ll have much greater job loss than that. Our first objective to is try and prevent a fiscal collapse, a la Greece. And it will take a longer time for the private sector to replace public-sector jobs that are cut, but when they do, they’ll last longer.”
Republicans have been talking like this for months, and they haven’t been hurt by it. The choice between stimulus spending and creative destruction is a choice between something voters don’t think worked and something voters don’t think we’ve tried. As long as voters don’t pay attention to how the U.K.’s austerity program is working, the GOP will be just fine.
Congress has until March 4 to figure out how to fund the U.S. government. And as of right now, House Republicans and Senate Democrats are more than $60 billion away from a consensus. It’s a high stakes game, given that last time the federal government shut down, all sorts of important functions were halted (passport/visa processing, toxic waste cleanup, museums, monuments and 368 national park sites all closed, etc). So who stands to benefit from all this brinkmanship?
House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have been working behind the scenes to draft a two-week stopgap measure to avert a government shutdown that would include $4 billion in immediate cuts, according to House and Senate GOP aides.
The House would move first – the Rules Committee could meet as early as Monday. Boehner is hoping to pass the bill by Wednesday. Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have been in discussions but if a deal is not reached ahead of time Senate Republicans would offer Boehner’s proposal as a substitute to Reid’s bill. The cuts will include reductions that President Obama has suggested and other non-controversial items in the hopes of luring support from moderate Senate Democrats who are facing tough reelections. No details were immediately available on what cuts Boehner and McConnell are looking at. “Senator Reid’s position that they will force a government shutdown rather than cut one penny in spending is indefensible – and it will be very hard for them to oppose a reasonable short-term funding measure that will cut spending,” says a House GOP aide. If nothing is done by March 4 the government will shutdown.
Reid’s office said Wednesday he still plans to move forward with a 30-day spending freeze at current levels. The House on Saturday passed a bill funding the government through the end of the fiscal year. But that bill slashes funding by $100 billion — cuts that are not likely to survive the Democratically-controlled Senate. The Senate has proposed cutting $41 billion from Obama’s 2011 request, but that translates into funding the government at roughly the same level it’s at right now. “While Republicans are making a genuine effort to cut spending and debt, Washington Democrats can’t seem to find a single dime of federal spending to cut, insisting on the status quo, even for a short-term spending bill,” McConnell said Wednesday in a statement to TIME. “But keeping bloated spending levels in place is simply unacceptable. So it is our hope that Democrats will join us in a bill that actually reduces Washington spending.” Both sides agree that more time is needed to negotiate a compromise and Boehner has said he will not allow even a temporary extension without some cuts.
The competing bills amount to a game of chicken between the Republican-controlled House and the Democrat-controlled Senate. Both sides claim they are trying to avoid a shutdown, but if one happens both are laying the ground work to blame the other. While both Parties say they want cuts, Republicans want immediate results while Democrats have been taking more of a “scapel” rather than a “meat axe” approach, as Reid put it yesterday on a call with reporters.
So what actually happens if Congress fails to pass a continuing resolution and the coffers dry up? Certain necessary activities would continue—anything related to defense, inpatient or emergency medical care, air traffic control, securing prisoners, or disaster assistance, for instance. But legally, federal agencies would have to wind down nonessential business. That means hundreds of thousands of employees would go on furloughs, from Treasury to Health and Human Services to the Department of Education, to be paid whenever a continuing resolution passed. Thousands more contractors would just lose their gigs. Parks would shut down. Offices would clear out. Phones would go unanswered.
Nobody knows exactly how it would shake out, not just yet. The president has broad discretion to decide what counts as necessary and what does not, says Stan Collender, a longtime budget expert and a partner at Qorvis, a D.C. communications firm. Right now, the White House Office of Management and Budget says it is helping agencies review their protocols in the event that March 4 comes and goes without a continuing resolution on Obama’s desk. (The OMB has required federal agencies to keep an updated contingency plan on file since 1980.) Officials are looking at who will go and who will stay, and how they will tell whom to go where, just in case.
But everyone dreads the prospect. The last time the government shut down was during the Clinton administration. For five days in November 1995 and 21 days between December 1995 and January 1996, the lights went off. In the first shutdown, 800,000 workers stopped heading into the office. In the second, about 284,000 stayed at home, with an additional 475,000 working on “non-pay status.” These were not just pencil-pushers either. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gave up on monitoring the outbreak of diseases. Workers at 609 Superfund toxic-waste sites stopped cleaning up.
This isn’t just about the spending bill. The stakes are higher even than that. At this point, no one side really knows how the power dynamic between the House and the Senate will shake out. House Republicans feel their preferences should take priority because they won the last election. Sharp cuts to non-defense discretionary spending are nothing more than their due. Senate Democrats counter that they still control not just the Senate, but also the White House — the House Republicans are a minority partner in this play, and don’t get to decide what the government does or doesn’t do merely because they control one of the three major legislative checkpoints. An uncompromising force is meeting an unimpressed object. But this won’t get settled in an arm wrestling bout, and it’s looking less and less likely that it’ll get settled in negotiations, either. Unfortunately, it seems increasingly possible that this will ultimately get decided when both sides put their theory to the test and take their case to the people during a government shutdown.
What would be the reasonable course of action in a situation like this? The answer is obvious: pass a short extension of the current continuing resolution — say, for a few weeks — to cover the time needed to hammer out a compromise between the House GOPers and Senate Democrats. And House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has done just that, proposing a stopgap bill that would fund the government at current levels until the end of March. Boehner, though, has declared he won’t accept a temporary measure unless it includes spending cuts. So if he sticks to that extreme position and he and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid don’t reach a compromise by March 4, much of the federal government will shut down.
In such a scenario, it would seem that Boehner would deserve most of the culpability. Just like Gingrich. But would Boehner pay the same price?
The political dynamics are different this time. And Boehner is playing to two audiences that each is looking for a different show. Much of the tea party crowd — in and out of Congress — would cheer a government shutdown. These folks see the federal government as the enemy. They’d be delighted to strangle it, even if only for a few days. Yet independent voters, whom both parties need to court, would probably not be as happy. These people usually want their representatives in Washington to make the system work. They aren’t looking for showdowns or games of chicken. By forcing a shutdown, Boehner can appease his right — but at the cost of potentially alienating the middle.
Of course, if a shutdown comes, Boehner will try to blame it on Democrats and President Obama, claiming that their unwillingness to accept spending cuts created the problem. He’ll bash them for not listening to the people, and he’ll depict himself as a champion of principle. If it comes to this, it will be the climax of the GOP’s just-say-no strategy of the past two years.
Capitol Hill Democrats say Boehner is riding the Overreach Express and risks coming across more as a tea party bomb-thrower than as a responsible legislator. At least, that’s their hope. It will certainly take some deft maneuvering for Boehner to cause a shutdown, accuse the Democrats, and be hailed as a spending-cut hero of the republic. But it’s hard to know where the American public is these days. It generally detests overall government spending, but opposes many of the individual cuts the Republicans have passed. And though the American electorate sent a band of conservative ideologues to Washington this past November, many Americans fancy the notion of bipartisan cooperation. It’s no sure bet that the public will embrace a politician who throws this switch.
Boehner might be the player who has the most to lose. Obama and the Senate Democrats are already viewed as politicians who consider government a positive force that can be used to resolve the nation’s problems. If they draw a line against severe GOP cuts and ask for more time to forge a compromise, that’s hardly a news story. But Boehner, who is still a new figure on the scene, has benefited by not being regarded as an ideologue. If he refuses to back a measure that keeps the government functioning while the politicians look for a bipartisan deal, he could end up becoming identified as an I-know-best, anti-government extremist. That will, no doubt, be a badge of honor in certain circles. But it may not go over well beyond those quarters.
Boehner has a choice: reasonableness or ideology. In 1996, Gingrich chose the latter and crashed. At that time, Boehner was in his third term as a House member. The next two weeks will show what lessons he learned — if any.
House GOP leaders held a conference call with freshmen GOP members on Wednesday to lay out the strategy. More than half of the 87-member class participated in a call with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio; Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.; Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.; and House Republican Conference Chairman Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas. The call gave more detail to an outline of the strategy GOP leaders gave the freshmen class before it left Washington for this week’s recess.
The GOP aides said the thrust of the trimmed-down CR is to avoid a government shutdown and make the GOP spending cuts as hard as possible for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and the White House to ignore or criticize. “What we will end up saying is we have passed two bills to prevent a shutdown and then we will ask the Senate: ‘How many bills have you passed to prevent a shutdown?’ ” an aide said.
Senate Democrats dismissed the idea that the House proposal represented any kind of concession.
“The Republicans’ so-called compromise is nothing more than the same extreme package the House already handed the Senate, just with a different bow,” said Jon Summers, Reid’s communications director. “This isn’t a compromise; it’s a hardening of their original position. This bill would simply be a two-week version of the reckless measure the House passed last weekend. It would impose the same spending levels in the short term as their initial proposal does in the long term, and it isn’t going to fool anyone. Both proposals are non-starters in the Senate.”
The GOP freshmen, according to senior House GOP aides, backed the approach, even though it amounts to a retreat from the $61 billion in cuts from enacted fiscal 2010 spending levels (and $100 billion from Obama’s fiscal 2011 budget proposal that the previous Congress ignored). The House approved the $100 billion in cuts after the freshmen rejected the GOP-leadership-backed plan to cut $32 billion from fiscal 2010 spending levels.
According to several GOP sources, the freshmen and many senior conservatives are girding for an eventual retreat from the bigger CR because they know GOP leaders are fearful of the political consequences of a government shutdown and want to wage the spending-cut battle over many cycles–instead of betting all their chips on this first showdown with Reid and Obama.
Boehner and Cantor have pleaded with the freshmen to take the long view of the budget war and not risk a political backlash over the CR dispute. GOP leaders have instead argued to win as many spending cuts as they can during the CR debate and follow up with more when Congress must raise the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling later this spring and find still more when the fiscal 2012 appropriations bills are written.
This approach reflects Boehner’s deep-seated belief that the 1995 Gingrich-led Congress risked everything in its shutdown confrontation with President Bill Clinton, and in the aftermath Republicans not only lacked the stomach to fight for more spending cuts, they veered in the opposite direction and targeted federal spending to vulnerable districts to protect the GOP majority.
“We have a totally different mindset and approach than 1995,” said a senior House GOP source. “We don’t want to shut the government down. But we do want to cut spending. And we will. And the CR will do that one way or the other.”
When I was selected as one of the two human players to be pitted against IBM’s “Watson” supercomputer in a special man-vs.-machine Jeopardy! exhibition match, I felt honored, even heroic. I envisioned myself as the Great Carbon-Based Hope against a new generation of thinking machines—which, if Hollywood is to believed, will inevitably run amok, build unstoppable robot shells, and destroy us all. But at IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Lab, an Eero Saarinen-designed fortress in the snowy wilds of New York’s Westchester County, where the shows taped last month, I wasn’t the hero at all. I was the villain.
This was to be an away game for humanity, I realized as I walked onto the slightly-smaller-than-regulation Jeopardy! set that had been mocked up in the building’s main auditorium. In the middle of the floor was a huge image of Watson’s on-camera avatar, a glowing blue ball crisscrossed by “threads” of thought—42 threads, to be precise, an in-joke for Douglas Adams fans. The stands were full of hopeful IBM programmers and executives, whispering excitedly and pumping their fists every time their digital darling nailed a question. A Watson loss would be invigorating for Luddites and computer-phobes everywhere, but bad news for IBM shareholders.
The IBM team had every reason to be hopeful. Watson seems to represent a giant leap forward in the field of natural-language processing—the ability to understand and respond to everyday English, the way Ask Jeeves did (with uneven results) in the dot-com boom. Jeopardy! clues cover an open domain of human knowledge—every subject imaginable—and are full of booby traps for computers: puns, slang, wordplay, oblique allusions. But in just a few years, Watson has learned—yes, it learns—to deal with some of the myriad complexities of English. When it sees the word “Blondie,” it’s very good at figuring out whether Jeopardy! means the cookie, the comic strip, or the new-wave band.
I expected Watson’s bag of cognitive tricks to be fairly shallow, but I felt an uneasy sense of familiarity as its programmers briefed us before the big match: The computer’s techniques for unraveling Jeopardy! clues sounded just like mine. That machine zeroes in on key words in a clue, then combs its memory (in Watson’s case, a 15-terabyte data bank of human knowledge) for clusters of associations with those words. It rigorously checks the top hits against all the contextual information it can muster: the category name; the kind of answer being sought; the time, place, and gender hinted at in the clue; and so on. And when it feels “sure” enough, it decides to buzz. This is all an instant, intuitive process for a human Jeopardy! player, but I felt convinced that under the hood my brain was doing more or less the same thing.
Indeed, playing against Watson turned out to be a lot like any other Jeopardy! game, though out of the corner of my eye I could see that the middle player had a plasma screen for a face. Watson has lots in common with a top-ranked human Jeopardy! player: It’s very smart, very fast, speaks in an uneven monotone, and has never known the touch of a woman. But unlike us, Watson cannot be intimidated. It never gets cocky or discouraged. It plays its game coldly, implacably, always offering a perfectly timed buzz when it’s confident about an answer. Jeopardy! devotees know that buzzer skill is crucial—games between humans are more often won by the fastest thumb than the fastest brain. This advantage is only magnified when one of the “thumbs” is an electromagnetic solenoid trigged by a microsecond-precise jolt of current. I knew it would take some lucky breaks to keep up with the computer, since it couldn’t be beaten on speed.
DID THE SINGULARITY just happen on Jeopardy? The Singularity is a process, more than an event, even if, from a long-term historical perspective, it may look like an event. (Kind of like the invention of agriculture looks to us now). So, yeah. “In the CNN story one of the machine’s creators admitted that he was a very poor Jeopardy player. Somehow he was able to make a machine that could do better than himself in that contest. The creators aren’t even able to follow the reasoning of the computer. The system is showing emergent complexity.”
I’m not a big Jeopardy geek, but my understanding is that players are surprised at how big a role button management plays in winning or losing a round. In the few minutes of the Watson game that I watched, it was pretty clear that Watson was excellent at pressing the button at exactly the right moment if it knew the answer, which is more a measure of electromechanical reflex than human-like intelligence.
To the credit of IBM engineers, Watson almost always did know the right answer. Still, there were a few bloopers, such as the final Jeopardy question from yesterday (paraphrasing): “This city has two airports, one named after a World War II hero, and the other named after a World War II battle.” Watson’s guess, “Toronto”, was just laughably bad—Lester Pearson and Billy Bishop fought in World War I, and neither person is a battle. The right answer, “Chicago”, was pretty obvious, but apparently Watson couldn’t connect Midway or O’Hare with WW II.
I was on the show, in 1996 or ’97, and success is based almost entirely on your reflexes — i.e., pushing the buzzer as soon as Trebek finishes reading the question, er, the answer. (I came in second, winning a dining-room set and other fabulous parting gifts, which I had to sell to pay the taxes on them.)The benefit to society would come if we could turn Alex Trebek into Captain Dunsel.
If I owned a gun, it would probably be in my mouth as I type this. I don’t know how the physics of that arrangement would work, but the mood in Chez Jim is darker than Mothra’s hairy crotch. I’ve just been sitting here listening to Weird Al’s weirdly prescient “I Lost on Jeopardy” in the dark, cuddling with a tapped-out bottle of WD-40. Humanity took a hit tonight. Our valiant human heroes made it close, but that Watson tore us new assholes in our foreheads. ALL OF US. That noise you heard driving to work was your GPS system laughing at you. While you were sneezing on the D train this morning your Kindle was giving you the finger. There is blood in the water this morning and this afternoon and forever more. This wasn’t like losing some Nerdgame like chess. Who the hell even knows how to play chess? The horsies go in little circles, right? “Jeopardy!” is the game that makes dumb people feel smart. Like National Public Radio, it’s designed to make people feel superior. And we just found out that people are not superior. No, not at all.I might personally call the whole thing a draw. I read Ken Jennings’ piece in Slate and I can tell the machine was just better at ringing the buzzer than him. If it was truly a battle of Humanity versus Accursed Frankensteinian Monstrosity there should have been one human and one monstrosity. Or one smart human, one machine and me. I could answer sportsy questions. And the rest of the time stay out of Ken’s way. No disrespect to Brad, but this is one fight that ought to have been fought one-on-one. Don’t make humans battle each other to save the world from machines. It’s too cruel. I’d sit back and let the goddamned human expert answer the tough questions. I’d just be there to figure out a way how to unplug the fucking thing when no one was watching. So, here’s the lineup for this Rematch that I demand, formally, right here on The Awl—which I know everyone at IBM reads—Me, Ken and your little Betamax.
And you have to put a little more at stake than just money. For Ken, Me and the Watson. Why did they call it Watson, anyway? Wasn’t Watson just Sherlock Holmes’ butler? And Alexander Graham Bell’s friend who was in the other room and got the first phone call. Why not call the thing what it is: HYDE. Or LILITH. Or Beezelbub of the Underland? Its dark, soulless visage no doubt crushed the very spirit of our human champions. Maybe force it to wear a blonde wig. And talk in Valley Girl language. “Like Oh My God, Gag Me with a Spoon, Alex. I’ll like take like Potpourri for like $800!”
This rematch should happen on Neutral Ground. I suggest Indianapolis. Halftime at the next Super Bowl. This gives Ken a chance to put the pieces of his broken ego back together. And for me to eat some Twinkies. There probably won’t even Be a Super Bowl because of the Looming Lockout, so America will just be watching commercials and various superstars mangling America’s Favorite Patriotic songs. Make IBM take their little Cabinet of Wonders on the Road. Get the military involved to make sure there are no shenanigans this time like plugging it into the Internet or texting it answers from the audience. Also, I want the damned thing to NOT be plugged into the Jeopardy game. It needs to be able to hear Alex and to read the hint on the little blue screen. How much time does it take a human to hear Alex and see it printed out and understand just what the hell the half-idiot writers of “Jeopardy!” were getting at? (Was a Dave Eggers mention really necessary during Wednesday night’s episode? The category was Non-fiction. And it’s obvious that Watson has some kind of super Amazon app embedded in its evil systems. The first 200 pages of Dave’s Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius were pretty good. Everything else is Twee Bullshit. “I am a dog from a short story. I am fast and strong. Too bad you know I die in the river from the title of this short story. Woooof!” I mean, seriously, “Jeopardy!” Get a library card. There are billions of other writers and I’ve seen at least 5 shows in which you’ve used some form of Dave Eggers. )
The computer-science department at the University of Texas at Austin hosted viewing parties for the first two nights of the competition.
“People were cheering for Watson,” says Ken Barker, a research scientist at Texas. “When they introduced Brad and Ken, there were a few boos in the audience.”
Texas is one of eight universities whose researchers helped develop the technology on which Watson is based. Many of the other universities hosted viewing parties for the three days of competition as well.
Mr. Barker says he was blown away by Watson’s performance on the show, particularly the computer’s ability to make sense of Jeopardy!‘s cleverly worded clues.
But the computer did make a few mistakes along the way.
Most notably, Watson incorrectly wrote “Toronto” in response to a Final Jeopardy clue in the category of U.S. Cities. Both Mr. Jennings and Mr. Rutter returned the correct response, which was Chicago.
Mr. Barker says Watson may have considered U.S. to be a synonym of America and, as such, considered Toronto, a North American city, to be a suitable response.
Raymond J. Mooney, a computer-science professor at Texas, says Final Jeopardy is the Achilles heel of the computer.
“If it didn’t have to answer that question, it wouldn’t have,” he says.
Clues in that final round are often more complicated than others in the show because they involve multiple parts.
The phrasing of the question Watson got wrong included what linguists refer to as an ellipsis, an omitted phrase whose meaning is implicit from other parts of the sentence. The clue that tripped up Watson, “Its largest airport is named for a World War II hero; its second largest, for a World War II battle,” left out “airport is named” in the second clause.
Mr. Mooney says it will be some time before the average person will be using a computer with the capabilities of Watson, but he did see one potential immediate impact from the show.
With a history of sending spandex-clad stunt doubles hurtling towards earth and terrible buzz, there was little suspense about how the nation’s top theater critics would review Julie Taymor’s latest musical, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. On Monday night, they posted their reviews, breaking an embargo that was supposed to last until the show opens on March 15, and it became clear that the true contest was to see which critic could craft the most withering put-down.
“Spider-Man” has not even officially opened yet. The date has been delayed five times to fix myriad problems, with Sunday afternoon being preview performance No. 66 and the opening planned for Monday night being pushed back five more weeks to March 15. But this $65 million musical has become a national object of pop culture fascination — more so, perhaps, than any show in Broadway history.
Starting with Conan O’Brien’s spoof of Spider-Man warbling in rhyme on Nov. 30, two nights after the musical’s problem-plagued first preview, the show has been lampooned on every major late-night comedy show and by The Onion, which portrayed the producers as still being optimistic about the show despite a nuclear bomb’s detonating during a preview. Recently, Steve Martinslyly referred to it in a series of tweets about watching the “Spider-Man” movies at home.
“Settling in to watch Spiderman 3 on deluxe edition DVD, but I fell from hanging cables in screening room. 2 hour delay,” he wrote.
Media celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Glenn Beck and the hosts of “Morning Joe” have all raved about the musical, especially Mr. Beck, who said in an interview on Friday that he had seen it four times.
Mr. Beck has framed its appeal on his radio broadcast as a face-off between regular Americans and cultural snobs (i.e., liberals). In the interview, however, he was more fanboy than fire breather, rattling off plot points and design elements with the practiced eye of a Sardi’s regular.
“The story line is right on the money for today, which is to be your better self, that you can spiral into darkness or — ” here he quoted one of the show’s anthemic songs — “you can rise above,” said Mr. Beck, who estimated that he sees a dozen shows a year. “In fact, I just wrote an e-mail to Julie” — Ms. Taymor — “about how much I loved the new ending.”
Last month, “Spider-Man” became the first Broadway show since “The Producers” to land on the cover of The New Yorker; the cartoon, by Barry Blitt, who also did “The Producers” cover in 2001, showed several injured Spider-Men in a hospital ward.
“For our cover we always ask ourselves, would our one million readers know what we were making reference to?” said Francoise Mouly, art editor of The New Yorker. “But in no time at all, ‘Spider-Man’ has gotten enough notoriety that we knew the cover would make people laugh. Even the show’s producers laughed; they’ve been hounding us to buy copies of the artwork.”
Reading through the reviews this morning, it became clear that the main character in this drama isn’t Peter Parker—it’s Julie Taymor. Theater directors rarely receive the kind of mainstream attention that their Hollywood brethren do. (Do you know who Daniel Sullivan is?) But in this case, the specter of steely, uncompromising Taymor looms large over the critical discussion.
There’s a reason for this: Spider-Man is very clearly Taymor’s production, stamped with her trademark mix of spectacle and folklore. (She first gained widespread fame for her shadow-puppets-on-the-savannah production of The Lion King.) And she seems to have created a proxy for herself with Arachne, Spider-Man‘s ancient, eight-legged antagonist.
Some of my colleagues have wondered aloud whether Spider-man will ever be finished — whether it is, in fact, finishable. I think they’re onto something: I saw the show on Saturday night, and found it predictably unfinished, but unpredictably entertaining, perhaps on account of this very quality of Death Star–under–construction inchoateness. Conceptually speaking, it’s closer to a theme-park stunt spectacular than “circus art,” closer to a comic than a musical, closer to The Cremaster Cycle than a rock concert. But “closer” implies proximity to some fixed point, and Spider-man is faaaar out, man. It’s by turns hyperstimulated, vivid, lurid, overeducated, underbaked, terrifying, confusing, distracted, ridiculously slick, shockingly clumsy, unmistakably monomaniacal and clinically bipolar.
But never, ever boring. The 2-D comic art doesn’t really go with Julie Taymor’s foamy, tactile puppetry, just as U2’s textural atmo-rock score doesn’t really go with the episodic Act One storytelling. Yet even in the depths of Spider-man‘s certifiably insane second act, I was riveted. Riveted, yes, by what was visible onstage: the inverted Fritz Lang cityscapes, the rag doll fly-assisted choreography, the acid-Skittle color scheme and Ditko-era comic-art backdrops. But often I was equally transfixed by the palpable offstage imagination willing it all into existence. See, Spider-man isn’t really about Spider-man. It’s about an artist locked in a death grapple with her subject, a tumultuous relationship between a talented, tormented older woman and a callow young stud. Strip out the $70 million in robotic guywires, Vari-lites, and latex mummery, and you’re basically looking at a Tennessee Williams play.
We loved the show, and here is why we think people will see it:
• Flying is awesome.
There are aerial acrobatics; airborne fight scenes; the actors fly up and land among the audience. The wires are visible but don’t obstruct any of the view or movements of the actors.
• The story is familiar, yet fresh.
It is based on the classic comic books, and the movie, so the audience knows what to expect — nerdy Peter Parker gets bit by a mutating spider and acquires superpowers. After his uncle is killed, he becomes a crusader against crime. And, of course, Peter is in love aspiring actress Mary Jane who is in love with Spiderman.
Spiderman faces off with a bunch of villains, most notably the Green Goblin.
There are only two new story elements that the writers have introduced: the Geek Chorus — four teenagers that are obviously creating/narrating the story of Spiderman that unfolds before our eyes; and a new villain — Arachne, a character from Greek mythology, that tempts Spiderman to give in to his powers and cross over to some abstract dimension to become her boyfriend.
These new elements make Spiderman: The Musical fresh and different that the usual Spiderman adaptation. And who is to complain about an old-fashion love triangle plot?
• The sets are creative.
Unfolding backdrops, huge video screens; most of the set invokes the theme that this is a comic book story. The sets move surprisingly quickly, given how massive and detailed they are.
• The music is by Bono and The Edge.
The songs are very U2 and very rock at times, and it’s loud. As it should be.
• The cast
My favorite were the villains — the Green Goblin and Arachne.
• The choreography
Cool slow motion sequences.
• It’s the most expensive show ever.
With a price tag of $65 million, this is indeed the most expensive Broadway show ever produced — which is another reason why tourists and locals alike would flock to see it and judge it for themselves.
So if there are no more injuries, and the production irons out the technical glitches that do occur and are tolerable during previews but will be unacceptable once the show opens, Spiderman should pull through for its investors (who include theater veterans like James Nederlander and Terry Allan Kramer, as well as Disney via its acquisition of Marvel, the franchise for the Spiderman comics.)
Sorry, esteemed Broadway critics, but we are with Glenn Beck on this one.
And so, while we usually reserve our “Most Scathing Reviews” feature for movies, we’ll make an exception for this Broadway production that seems to wish it was a movie.9. “Never mind turning off the dark. I spent much of this dreadful new musical muttering Please, Lord, make it stop.” — Charles Spencer, The Telegraph
8. “For without a book with consistent rules that a mainstream audience can follow and track, without characters in whom one can invest emotionally, without a sense of the empowering optimism that should come from time spent in the presence of a good, kind man who can walk up buildings and save our lousy world from evil, it is all just clatter and chatter.” — Chris Jones, The Chicago Tribune
7. “Spider-Man is chaotic, dull and a little silly. And there’s nothing here half as catchy as the 1967 ABC cartoon theme tune.” — David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter
6. “More dispiriting is the music… [Bono and the Edge] transformed their sound into stock Broadway schlock pop—sentimental wailing from the early Andrew Lloyd Webber playbook, winceable lyrics and the kind of thumpa-thumpa music that passes for suspense in action flicks.” — Linda Winer, Newsday
5. “Or wait, maybe the bottom of the barrel is a weird on-the-runway sequence, in which a cadre of second-tier villains with names like Swiss Miss and Carnage do a bit of high-fashion sashaying. In the running, too, is a bizarre military number, as well as the first-act closer, a rip-off of a Rodgers and Hart song. The latter is sung by – get out your score cards – the other main-event evildoer, the Green Goblin, a former scientist played by the talented classical actor Patrick Page.” — Peter Marks, The Washington Post
4. “Who exactly is “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” for anyway? The only answer I can come up with is an audience of Julie Taymor types who care only about panoramic sensibility— a bit of slow-mo choreography here, a smattering of diabolical mask work there. Much as I enjoyed the clever shifts in perspective during the skyscraper scenes, it was hard for me to picture adults or young people yearning for a second visit, never mind critics who may feel obliged to check back in with the production when (or should I say if?) it officially opens. Nothing cures the curiosity about “Spider-Man” quite like seeing it.” — Charles McNulty, The LA Times
3. “After all this expenditure of talent and money, “Spider- Man” is probably unfixable because too much has gone into making humans fly, which is not what they are good at. It imitates poorly what the “Spider-Man” movies do brilliantly with computer graphics — and without putting live actors in jeopardy.” — Jeremy Gerard, Bloomberg
2. “This production should play up regularly and resonantly the promise that things could go wrong. Because only when things go wrong in this production does it feel remotely right — if, by right, one means entertaining. So keep the fear factor an active part of the show, guys, and stock the Foxwoods gift shops with souvenir crash helmets and T-shirts that say “I saw ‘Spider-Man’ and lived.” Otherwise, a more appropriate slogan would be “I saw ‘Spider-Man’ and slept.” — Ben Brantley, New York Times
1. “It’s by turns hyperstimulated, vivid, lurid, overeducated, underbaked, terrifying, confusing, distracted, ridiculously slick, shockingly clumsy, unmistakably monomaniacal and clinically bipolar…At this point, I honestly hope they never fix the (non-injurious) glitches: They puncture the show’s pretense and furnish meta-theatrical opportunities that can’t be staged. We’ve had Epic Theater, we’ve had Poor Theater — is this the dawn of Broken Theater?” — Scott Brown, From his review in New York Magazine, which is actually neither negative, positive or even neutral, but seems to sum up the irrationality of the whole enterprise better than any other.
I’ve used this space to make all sorts of important HuffPost announcements: new sections, new additions to the HuffPost team, new HuffPost features and new apps. But none of them can hold a candle to what we are announcing today.
When Kenny Lerer and I launched The Huffington Post on May 9, 2005, we would have been hard-pressed to imagine this moment. The Huffington Post has already been growing at a prodigious rate. But my New Year’s resolution for 2011 was to take HuffPost to the next level — not just incrementally, but exponentially. With the help of our CEO, Eric Hippeau, and our president and head of sales, Greg Coleman, we’d been able to make the site profitable. Now was the time to take leaps.
At the first meeting of our senior team this year, I laid out the five areas on which I wanted us to double down: major expansion of local sections; the launch of international Huffington Post sections (beginning with HuffPost Brazil); more emphasis on the growing importance of service and giving back in our lives; much more original video; and additional sections that would fill in some of the gaps in what we are offering our readers, including cars, music, games, and underserved minority communities.
Around the same time, I got an email from Tim Armstrong (AOL Chairman and CEO), saying he had something he wanted to discuss with me, and asking when we could meet. We arranged to have lunch at my home in LA later that week. The day before the lunch, Tim emailed and asked if it would be okay if he brought Artie Minson, AOL’s CFO, with him. I told him of course and asked if there was anything they didn’t eat. “I’ll eat anything but mushrooms,” he said.
The next day, he and Artie arrived, and, before the first course was served — with an energy and enthusiasm I’d soon come to know is his default operating position — Tim said he wanted to buy The Huffington Post and put all of AOL’s content under a newly formed Huffington Post Media Group, with me as its president and editor-in-chief.
I flashed back to November 10, 2010. That was the day that I heard Tim speak at the Quadrangle conference in New York. He was part of a panel on “Digital Darwinism,” along with Michael Eisner and Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen.
At some point during the discussion, while Tim was talking about his plans for turning AOL around, he said that the challenge lay in the fact that AOL had off-the-charts brand awareness, and off-the-charts user trust and loyalty, but almost no brand identity. I was immediately struck by his clear-eyed assessment of his company’s strengths and weaknesses, and his willingness to be so up front about them.
As HuffPost grew, Kenny and I had both been obsessed with what professor Clayton Christensen has famously called “the innovator’s dilemma.” In his book of the same name, Christensen explains how even very successful companies, with very capable personnel, often fail because they tend to stick too closely to the strategies that made them successful in the first place, leaving them vulnerable to changing conditions and new realities. They miss major opportunities because they are unwilling to disrupt their own game.
After that November panel, Tim and I chatted briefly and arranged to see each other the next day. At that meeting, we talked not just about what our two companies were doing, but about the larger trends we saw happening online and in our world. I laid out my vision for the expansion of The Huffington Post, and he laid out his vision for AOL. We were practically finishing each other’s sentences.
Two months later, we were having lunch in LA and Tim was demonstrating that he got the Innovator’s Dilemma and was willing to disrupt the present to, if I may borrow a phrase, “win the future.” (I guess that makes this AOL’s — and HuffPost’s — Sputnik Moment!)
There were many more meetings, back-and-forth emails, and phone calls about what our merger would mean for the two companies. Things moved very quickly. A term sheet was produced, due diligence began, and on Super Bowl Sunday the deal was signed. In fact, it was actually signed at the Super Bowl, where Tim was hosting a group of wounded vets from the Screamin’ Eagles. It was my first Super Bowl — an incredibly exciting backdrop that mirrored my excitement about the merger and the future ahead.
I underestimated Arianna Huffington when she launched her Huffington Post in May 2005. I didn’t trash the site the way Nikki Finke did, though. Finke called Huffington the “Madonna of the mediapolitic world [who] has undergone one reinvention too many,” and slammed her site as a “humongously pre-hyped celebrity blog” that represented the “sort of failure that is simply unsurvivable.” And those were among Finke’s nicer comments.
Instead of critiquing Huffington’s debut copy, I speculated as to whether she was up to the job of “impresario.” In the scale of things, my write-up is more embarrassing today, now that Huffington has sold the Post to AOL for $315 million, than is Finke’s pissy take. Huffington has proved herself a first-rate entrepreneur, incubator of talent, and media visionary.
My feeling, then, is that this deal is a good one for both sides. AOL gets something it desperately needs: a voice and a clear editorial vision. It’s smart, and bold, to put Arianna in charge of all AOL’s editorial content, since she is one of the precious few people who has managed to create a mass-market general-interest online publication which isn’t bland and which has an instantly identifiable personality. That’s a rare skill and one which AOL desperately needs to apply to its broad yet inchoate suite of websites.
As for HuffPo, it gets lots of money, great tech content from Engadget and TechCrunch, hugely valuable video-production abilities, a local infrastructure in Patch, lots of money, a public stock-market listing with which to make fill-in acquisitions and incentivize employees with options, a massive leg up in terms of reaching the older and more conservative Web 1.0 audience and did I mention the lots of money? Last year at SXSW I was talking about how ambitious New York entrepreneurs in the dot-com space have often done very well for themselves in the tech space, but have signally failed to engineer massive exits in the content space. With this sale, Jonah Peretti changes all that; his minority stake in HuffPo is probably worth more than the amount of money Jason Calacanis got when he sold Weblogs Inc to AOL.
And then, of course, there’s Arianna, who is now officially the Empress of the Internet with both power and her own self-made dynastic wealth. She’s already started raiding big names from mainstream media, like Howard Fineman and Tim O’Brien; expect that trend to accelerate now that she’s on a much firmer financial footing.
Tonight, courtesy of a press release that our parent company sent to everyone but us, we learn that AOL has acquired the Huffington Post for $315 million. More interestingly, Arianna Huffington has been made Editor In Chief of all AOL content, including TechCrunch.
Now, no-one here has been more skeptical than me of AOL’s content strategy. I was reasonably scathing about that whole “tech town” bullshit and I was quick to opinion-smack Tim Armstrong in the face over his promise that “90% of AOL content will be SEO optimized” by March. Hell I’ve stood on stage – twice – on TC’s dime and described our overlords as “the place where start-ups come to die”.
And yet and yet, for once I find myself applauding Armstrong – and AOL as a whole – for pulling off a double whammy: a brilliant strategic acquisition at a logical price. As AOL’s resident inside-pissing-insider, I can’t tell you how frustrating that is. I can’t even bust out a Bebo joke.
An important note before I go on: I have no idea how any of this will affect TechCrunch. So far AOL has kept true to its promise not to interfere with our editorial and there’s no reason to suppose that will change under Huffington. That said, it would be idiotic to think that our parents’ content strategy – particularly the SEO stuff – won’t have annoying trickle-down consequences for all of us in the long term.
As I wrote the other week, I hate SEO. It’s bad for journalism as it disincentivises reporters from breaking new stories, and rewards them for rehashing existing ones. And it’s bad for everything else because, well, it’s garbage. But when discussing the SEO phenomenon privately, I’ve always cited the Huffington Post as the exception that proves the rule.
Arianna Huffington’s genius is to churn out enough SEO crap to bring in the traffic and then to use the resulting advertising revenue – and her personal influence – to employ top class reporters and commentators to drag the quality average back up. And somehow it works. In the past six months journostars like Howard Fineman, Timothy L. O’Brien and Peter Goodman have all been added to the HuffPo’s swelling masthead, and rather than watering down the site’s political voice, it has stayed true to its core beliefs. Such is the benefit of being bank-rolled by a rich liberal who doesn’t give a shit.
What difference does it make? AOL as a brand meant something to me in the 1990s, but not now. Who cares whether AOL retains a semblance of political neutrality? In any case, mainstream media always feels pretty liberal, so why would anyone really notice. Now, that quote is from the NYT, so… think about it. The NYT would like to be the big news site that looks neutral (but satisfies liberals). HuffPo is the raging competition, which needs to be put in its place.
Last night I saw a tweet saying that AOL was going to buy the Huffington Post for $31.5 million. Yowza, I thought. That’s a pretty rich valuation. Maybe 20x forward earnings? Who knows?
But no! AOL actually bought HuffPo for $315 million. I mentally put in a decimal place where there wasn’t one. I don’t even know what to think about this. It sounds completely crazy to me. The odds of this being a good deal for AOL stockholders seem astronomical.
Still, maybe I’m the one who’s crazy. After all, I haven’t paid a lot of attention to either HuffPo or AOL lately. I’m a huge skeptic of synergy arguments of all kinds, but maybe Arianna is right when she says that in this deal, 1+1=11
So maybe AOL + HuffPo won’t equal 11. And maybe 10x Huffington Post’s reported 2010 revenue is a very pre-Lehman multiple. But the broad strokes here make sense to me:
AOL is pushing its workers very hard to make more content it can sell. HuffPo is a content-making machine:
Huffington Post still has the reputation as a left-leaning political site written by Arianna Huffington’s celebrity pals. In reality, it is most concerned with attracting eyeballs anyway it can. Sometimes it’s with well-regarded investigative journalism, and much more often it’s via very aggressive, very clever aggregation. And sometimes it’s by simply paying very, very close attention to what Google wants, which leads to stories like “What Time Does The Super Bowl Start?“
However they’ve done it, it’s worked–much more efficiently than AOL, which is headed in that direction as well. AOL reaches about 112 million people in the U.S. every month with a staff of 5,000. The Huffington Post, which employed about 200 people prior to the deal, gets to about 26 million.*
AOL can start selling this stuff immediately:
HuffPo reportedly generated around $30 million in revenue last year, but that was done using a relatively small staff that sales chief Greg Coleman had just started building. AOL’s much bigger sales group, which has just about finished its lengthy reorg, should be able to boost that performance immediately.
AOL can afford it:
Tim Armstrong’s company ended 2010 with $725 million in cash, much of which it generated by selling off old assets. This seems like a relatively easy check to write and one that shouldn’t involve a lot of overlapping staff–AOL figures it will save $20 million annually in cost overlaps, but that it will spend about $20 million this year on restructuring charges. HuffPo is about four percent of AOL’s size, and several of its top executives are already stepping aside. (This is the second time in two years that sales boss Greg Coleman has been moved out of a job by Tim Armstrong.) The biggest risk here will be in the way that Huffington, who is now editor in chief for all of AOL’s edit staff, gets along with her new employees. On the other hand, morale is low enough at many AOL sites that it will be hard to make things worse.
AOL Gets a Really Big Brand:
There’s some downside risk to attaching Arianna Huffington’s name to a big, mainstream media brand, as her politics and/or persona might scare off some readers and/or advertisers. But two years after Armstrong arrived from Google, AOL still doesn’t have a definable identity, other than “the Web site your parents might still pay for even though there’s no reason to do so.” Being known as “the guys who own Huffington Post” is infinitely better than that.
HuffPo’s “pro” list is much shorter, but only because there’s not much to think about for them: Huffington, co-founder Kenneth Lerer and their backers get a nice return on the five years and $37 million they put into the company. And those who stay on get to leverage the benefits of a much larger acquirer–access to more eyballs and more advertisers. Easy enough to understand.
No doubt Hippeau and Lerer and Huffington were drinking champagne last night, but the truth is, this deal is not a victory for either side. It’s a slow-motion train wreck and will end in disaster.
Listen to Nick Denton, who runs Gawker, which now becomes the biggest independent Web-based news outlet. “I’m disappointed in the Huffington Post. I thought Arianna Huffington and Kenny Lerer were reinventing news, rather than simply flipping to a flailing conglomerate,” he told me.
Denton insists he has no intention of ever selling Gawker, and he seems not-so-secretly pleased to see his opponents cashing out: “AOL has gathered so many of our rivals— Huffington Post, Engadget, Techcrunch—in one place. The question: Is this a fearsome Internet conglomerate or simply a roach motel for once lively websites?”
One big problem with the deal is that Arianna Huffington now runs editorial for AOL properties, which include tech sites Engadget and TechCrunch. Those sites are both accustomed to being free-wheeling, fiercely independent and fiercely competitive—so competitive, in fact, that recently they’ve been battling with each other.
Michael Arrington, who runs TechCrunch and just sold it to AOL a few months ago, is an abrasive, big-ego, sometimes obnoxious guy. He’s a friend of mine, so I mean this in the best possible way. But I can’t imagine him working for Arianna.
The other, bigger problem is AOL itself. AOL touts itself as a media company, but as Ken Auletta reported in The New Yorker recently, most of what AOL publishes is junk, and 80 percent of its profits come from a rather seedy little business—charging subscription fees from longtime users who don’t realize that they no longer need to pay for AOL service, and could be getting it free.
The other problem is that AOL’s chief executive, Tim Armstrong, is a sales guy. He ran sales at Google before he came to AOL in 2009. Nothing wrong with sales guys, except when they start telling people how to do journalism. Sales guys deal in numbers. But journalism is about words. Sales guys live in a world where everything can be measured and analyzed. Their version of journalism is to focus on things like “keyword density” and search-engine optimization.
Journalists live in a world of story-telling, and where the value of a story, its power to resonate, is something they know by instinct. Some people have better instincts than others. Some people can improve their instincts over time. The other part of storytelling is not the material itself but how you present it. Some can spin a better tale out of the same material than others.
But no great storyteller has ever been someone who started out by thinking about traffic numbers and search engine keywords.
With startling arrogance and audaciously twisted reasoning, two appellate judges ignored more than 100 years of legal precedent, invented a new definition of “residency” and ordered Rahm Emanuel off the Feb. 22 mayoral ballot.
With the election just four weeks away, the appellate panel voted 2-1 to reverse the decisions of the Chicago Board of Elections and a Circuit Court judge. It’s an adventurous, flawed ruling that has immediate and profound consequences. The case is headed to the Illinois Supreme Court, but the ballots are headed to the printer — without Emanuel’s name. Early voting begins Monday.
In a blistering dissent, Appellate Justice Bertina E. Lampkin accused her colleagues, Thomas E. Hoffman and Shelvin Louise Marie Hall, of “careless disregard for the law,” and harshly criticized them for refusing to ask the Supreme Court for an expedited review.
Lampkin accused the majority of ignoring case law that clearly supported Emanuel’s argument —including a significant case in which Hoffman prevailed.
“The majority’s new standard is ill-reasoned and unfair to the candidate, voters and those of us who are charged with applying the law,” Lampkin wrote. The decision “disenfranchises not just this particular candidate but every voter in Chicago who would consider voting for him.”
Illinois, like many states, requires anyone running for a municipal office to be a resident of the municipality. This sensible rule ensures that elected officials understand the interests and desires of their constituents. Emanuel long lived in Chicago and was a congressman representing part of the city for many years before he became President Obama’s chief of staff. At that point he moved his family to Washington, D.C., and rented out his house. But he kept family heirlooms and other items locked in the Chicago basement, indicating a plan to return. It was well known that Emanuel hoped to come back and run for mayor whenever Mayor Richard M. Daley decided to step down from that office.
When Daley announced his retirement and Emanuel filed to run in the race, his opponents challenged his residency—and lost before the elections board, which found that Emanuel had intended to return to Chicago after his D.C. stint for the president. A trial court affirmed the board. Now this intermediate appellate court says that’s wrong. Because Emanuel did not have a regular physical presence in Chicago in the year before the election, he is ineligible to run.
Emanuel moved to Washington DC and stayed there for 21 months, only returning when Richard Daley announced he wouldn’t seek another term. Under that definition, the statute becomes essentially meaningless; anyone who lived in Chicago for any period of time could return and run for office on the shortest of notice and dare anyone to prove that returning wasn’t the intent all along. The majority ruled that the legislature intended this requirement to apply to physical residence — which makes sense, because one wants a mayor who’s actually familiar with the city’s issues.
Rahm gave a short statement to the press (no profanity delay buttons were necessary today). An appeal is on the way. He brushed off suggestion that politics played a role in court decision and said: “I have no doubt in the end we will prevail.”
If he is not granted that stay and the Illinois Supreme Court does not overturn the lower court’s opinion, it seems unlikely he would want take the Lisa Murkowski route and run as a write-in candidate, because the residency ruling would lead to a legal challenge to his being sworn into office.
On the one hand, there is no legal process to stop Emanuel from running a write-in campaign, according Ken Menzel, a legal counsel with the Illinois State Board of Elections.
“We don’t have a challenge process for write-in candidates in Illinois,” he explained. “You can’t prevent a person from being a write-in candidate.”
According to James Allen, a spokesman for the Chicago Board of Elections, Emanuel would have until Feb. 15 to file a write-in bid for the Feb. 22 Chicago mayoral primary election.
On the other hand — and more importantly — the state residency statute in question in the case decided today governs eligibility to hold public office, not eligibility to be on a ballot.
“The basis of the challenge is the allegation he’s not eligible for office,” Menzel said.
The finding that Emanuel failed to meet the state’s strict residency requirement, if not reversed, means a write-in campaign would begin in environment of uncertainty as to whether Emanuel could assume office, were he to win.
“I think you’re getting into uncharted waters if you get into a write-in campaign,” Menzel added. “This is the sort of thing that perhaps, if he were to try, we’d see some case-law made.”
The Illinois Supreme Court has ordered the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners to put Rahm Emanuel’s name back on the mayoral ballot, attorneys for Emanuel said Tuesday.
The court has not decided whether to hear Emanuel’s appeal of Monday’s Illinois Appellate Court ruling that tossed him out of the race to replace Mayor Daley. The Supreme Court granted Emanuel’s motion for a stay of the ruling, Emanuel attorney Mike Kasper said Tuesday.
Last month, Gawker published a series of messages that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange had once written to a 19-year-old girl he’d become infatuated with. Gawker called the e-mails “creepy,” “lovesick,” and “stalkery”; I’d add overwrought, self-important, and dorky. (“Our intimacy seems like the memory of a strange dream to me,” went a typical line.) Still, given all we’ve heard about Assange’s puffed-up personality, the substance of his e-mail was pretty unsurprising. What really surprised me was his typography.
Here’s a fellow who’s been using computers since at least the mid-1980s, a guy whose globetrotting tech-wizardry has come to symbolize all that’s revolutionary about the digital age. Yet when he sits down to type, Julian Assange reverts to an antiquated habit that would not have been out of place in the secretarial pools of the 1950s: He uses two spaces after every period. Which—for the record—is totally, completely, utterly, and inarguably wrong.
Oh, Assange is by no means alone. Two-spacers are everywhere, their ugly error crossing every social boundary of class, education, and taste. You’d expect, for instance, that anyone savvy enough to read Slate would know the proper rules of typing, but you’d be wrong; every third e-mail I get from readers includes the two-space error. (In editing letters for “Dear Farhad,” my occasional tech-advice column, I’ve removed enough extra spaces to fill my forthcoming volume of melancholy epic poetry, The Emptiness Within.) The public relations profession is similarly ignorant; I’ve received press releases and correspondence from the biggest companies in the world that are riddled with extra spaces. Some of my best friends are irredeemable two spacers, too, and even my wife has been known to use an unnecessary extra space every now and then (though she points out that she does so only when writing to other two-spacers, just to make them happy).
What galls me about two-spacers isn’t just their numbers. It’s their certainty that they’re right. Over Thanksgiving dinner last year, I asked people what they considered to be the “correct” number of spaces between sentences. The diners included doctors, computer programmers, and other highly accomplished professionals. Everyone—everyone!—said it was proper to use two spaces. Some people admitted to slipping sometimes and using a single space—but when writing something formal, they were always careful to use two. Others explained they mostly used a single space but felt guilty for violating the two-space “rule.” Still others said they used two spaces all the time, and they were thrilled to be so proper. When I pointed out that they were doing it wrong—that, in fact, the correct way to end a sentence is with a period followed by a single, proud, beautiful space—the table balked. “Who says two spaces is wrong?” they wanted to know.
Typographers, that’s who. The people who study and design the typewritten word decided long ago that we should use one space, not two, between sentences. That convention was not arrived at casually. James Felici, author of the The Complete Manual of Typography, points out that the early history of type is one of inconsistent spacing. Hundreds of years ago some typesetters would end sentences with a double space, others would use a single space, and a few renegades would use three or four spaces. Inconsistency reigned in all facets of written communication; there were few conventions regarding spelling, punctuation, character design, and ways to add emphasis to type. But as typesetting became more widespread, its practitioners began to adopt best practices. Felici writes that typesetters in Europe began to settle on a single space around the early 20th century. America followed soon after.
Presentation of opinion A. Assertion that people who hold it are rubes.
Presentation of opinion B. Invocation of authority.
History lesson! Discussion of old technology; no mention of enforcement of author’s preferred orthodoxy by newer technology (e.g. HTML rendering multiple spaces as one)
Rumination on beauty. Grecian urns, etc.
For now let’s ignore the ignore the bullying nature of this argument (it should be obvious to anyone that those of us who believe in two spaces are a minority that’s relentlessly and mercilessly persecuted by the bloodthirsty masses, both through jeremiads like Manjoo’s and through the technological eradication of our ability to express our beliefs). Which of the points in the above argument are rhetorically meaningful?
Only point 3 really carries any weight with me. I’ll take Manjoo’s word that all typographers like a single space between sentences. I’m actually pretty sympathetic to arguments from authority, being the big-state-loving paternalist that I am. But, with apologies to friends and colleagues of mine who care passionately about this stuff, I lost my patience with the typographically-obsessed community when they started trying to get me to pay attention to which sans-serif fonts were being used anachronistically on Mad Men.
I love you guys, but you’re crazy. On questions of aesthetic preference there’s no particular reason that normal people should listen to a bunch of geeky obsessives who spend orders of magnitude more time on these issues than average. It’s like how you probably shouldn’t listen to me when I tell you not to use .doc files or that you might want to consider a digital audio player with Ogg Vorbis support. I strongly believe those things, but even I know they’re pointless and arbitrary for everyone who doesn’t consider “Save As…” an opportunity for political action.
Nor should we assume that just because typographers believe earnestly in the single space that their belief is held entirely in good faith. They’re drunk on the awesome power of their proportional fonts, and sure of the cosmic import of the minuscule kerning decisions that it is their lonely duty to make. Of course they don’t want lowly typists exercising their opinions about letter spacing. Those people aren’t qualified to have opinions!
I thought Manjoo’s argument was weak, for many of the reasons Tom mentions, but that doesn’t change facts. Here’s a little-known law of graphic design:
The number of people wishing to fit a document onto the same or fewer number of pages as a previous edition of said document, despite the new draft being longer than the previous edition, is directly proportional to the number of people who turn in said document to their graphic designer with double spaces after every period.
Okay, maybe I made that up. But real talk: Double spaces are bad.
Let me just add: if you’re spending time worrying over whether my emails contain one or two spaces, you need to ask them to let you out of the asylum more often so you can pursue a more interesting hobby. I double space after sentences because I learned to type on a manual typewriter, and it’s not worth the effort to retrain myself. Even if typographers groan every time they open one of my missives.
As Manjoo explains, there are still teachers out there infecting students’ minds with the idea that they should put two spaces after a period. Why? Because that’s the way they learned. And I did too, when I took a typing class in 1985. But now we have computers, and fonts that use proportional spacing, which makes two spaces after a period look wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
We’re never going to maintain our global dominance if people keep doing this. You think that 10-year-old kid in Shanghai is being taught to put two spaces after a period? No way.