Barrett Brown is a writer and anarchist activist. In 2011 and 2012, he worked with Anonymous on campaigns involving the Tunisian revolution, government misconduct, and other issues. In 2012, he was arrested and later sentenced to four years in federal prison on charges stemming from his investigations and work with Anonymous. While imprisoned, he won the National Magazine Award for his column, “The Barrett Brown Review of Arts and Letters and Prison.” Upon his release in late 2016, he began work on the Pursuance System, an open-source platform for mass civic engagement and coordinated opposition. His third book, My Glorious Defeats, is forthcoming from FSG.
This interview was conducted on March 19, 2019. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Andrew Thompson: I went to a bodega one day and saw this piece about Viktor Orbán on the front page of the Times and I figured I would read the story in the app on the bus on the way home, and I couldn’t find the story. I opened the app and it just was nowhere to be found.
So I gathered this data using the Wayback Machine. The Times website has the “Today’s Paper” section at the top, and if you go back through four years of the Times, you can click on the “Today’s Paper” link to see what was in the print version of the paper.
The New York Times A1, January 2014 – August 2018
Source: https://components.one/datasets/above-the-fold. Equivalence between the print and digital versions of the front page was estimated by taking a sample of stories from A1 articles in the “Today’s Paper” section of the website and then taking an equal number of articles from the website home page beginning from the top of the page. Topic modeling was performed with spherical KMeans clustering.
The major caveat I’ll give is that these are abstractions and they’re sort of generalizations. What’s important here are the basic shapes that come out, rather than the specific numbers. So it would not be accurate to say with total precision that there are 128 stories about China on the web, versus 148 stories in the print version of the Times about China. And because the algorithm has a bit of randomness involved, these numbers can shift based from iteration to iteration of the algorithm, and exactly what topics come out can shift sometimes in pretty interesting ways. So sometimes you’ll get a cluster that includes stories about Scott Pruitt and the EPA and climate change, and that will be, you know, a topic about Pruitt and climate change. And other times you’ll have a cluster where it’s fires and water and hurricanes and climate change, and you’ll have this topic about natural disasters. There is a fluidity in how a lot of these topics are modeled and how they come out.
So I want to kind of just want to put it to you now and ask what your response to these results are and sort of treat this like a Rorschach test and ask kind of what you saw.
Barrett Brown: I guess the most immediately clear difference there is that Trump category, is that correct?
AT: It’s not only the largest topic, but has one of the largest disparities [between print and web]. There’s two topics that have equally sizable disparities between them. One is this Trump topic which includes just kind of the general miasma of Trump coverage, the carousel of executive positions and Steve Bannon and Kushner and his—
BB: Trump administration stuff.
AT: His golfing habits, yeah. In this case, there’s a little less than twice as many stories about this stuff on the web as there is on the print front page, and I guess I’ll let you react to that and then I’ll go into the other one where there’s an equal disparity.
BB: It looks like there’s a couple that are sort of disparate. One is “New York and transit” and the other one is “Sports”. Is there another one I’m missing that has a greater disparity?
AT: The other one is this “Miscellaneous” cluster, and the miscellaneous cluster kind is like this cluster where you can’t sub-cluster it any more and get topics out of it. So you have all these stories in there about like, I don’t know, fossils and boats and things that don’t really fit in easily with rest.
BB: The kind they like to do.
AT: And these are much more likely to be print stories than they are web stories.
BB: That’s interesting to me because when someone joins a publication or any institution, they have this have this visualization of that institution, they try to emulate what they’ve seen before, they try to do it in The New York Times style, The New York Times kind-of story. And so the most obvious, amusing version is in the headlines. The “In something, comma, something, something.”. It’s very obnoxious, but more than obnoxious, I think it’s deleterious, anything that is based on those kind of arbitrary perimeters, I think that has a deleterious effect over time. Just like that ad campaign they had, what was it 10, 15 years ago, with the, “Get the Sunday New York Times”, and “we’re sitting in bed and we’re yuppies and we have no civic virtue,” kind of thing. It’s an NPR kind of thing. Like here’s a subject about this goofy small town and here’s this amusing thing. I feel like maybe that’s one reason.
The other reason is that they would be less inclined to put this on the front page online because the news dynamics as of the last 20 years with “new media”, they used to call it, and web outlets, they are competing pretty severely with BuzzFeed, with Axios—which I don’t know where the fuck that came from, that wasn’t around when I went to prison. They have to. And so the real stories, the stories that are more credible, that are more prestigious, they get them online so they can spread around, and then I guess they would reserve only the best and quirkiest and most ridiculous, clickbait-y of their miscellaneous articles, and also put those online, as well. And then the rest can just be left for people reading it in bed.
AT: It’s funny because I actually had a more favorable interpretation of that “Miscellaneous” topic than you did, which was that the website so much more kind of monocultural than the print product that the disparity of the miscellaneous topic in print seems to reflect a variety of coverage that doesn’t exist on the website anymore, which has just become this 24-7 Trump website, at this point. And so I look at it much more positively than that.
BB: Yeah, yeah. I’m generally going to come to these things with a grizzled, suspicious view on everything. I also have less experience working inside these publications. I’ve worked in a couple outlets, but as much as I can, I avoid that, and so I have less insight into some of these editorial [decisions]. So I hope I’m wrong.
AT: I’m going back to this spike of Trump stuff. It’s interesting to sort of see it online. When I think about sort of like what The New York Times website is now, which is—you put it well—they’re competing against BuzzFeed and the rest of these sort of clickbait factories, but they’re also competing against just these tech platforms themselves. They’re competing against just the rest of the internet. And when I think about this super-saturation of Trump-stuff, which by the way, is also reflected in the large amount of Mueller and Comey coverage, I think that, what it’s doing is it’s this website that publishes emotionally-charged, reaction-inducing content, increasingly on an app that sends you push-notifications that you go to reflexively to see updates, that you pull down to refresh, and so on and so forth, and after a while, you’re just describing a tech product. You’re not describing even a traditional news operation, you’re describing something that follows the kinesis of Twitter or something like that.
BB: Yeah, the environment’s changed and that’s their response.
AT: You’re designing a piece of software now. How do you adopt things that work in technology without capitulating to the worst tendencies of design principles these days?
BB: That was a question we had [with Pursuance]. The question came up: If we’re trying to encourage people to do work, trying to encourage people to do things that are not fun, necessarily—some of which is actually maintaining attention and all that—it doesn’t make sense for us to adopt the various methods that others have adopted, such as, broadly, the [Reddit] karma, buttons, reinforcements, serotonin, and there was some discussion about that. How do we compare that to medals? Napoleon is often quoted as saying, “Men die for such baubles”, you know, medals. He was not dismissing it, he was reminding someone who lost his baubles that these are embodiments of honor, they are embodiments of achievement, they mean something, they’re not just medals. Had they been giving medals every few minutes to whatever soldier who yelled some inside joke from the early 19th century French military scene, then it would have become a problem.
So we have not implemented anything involving any kind of cute, “Oh look, you finished a test, you get this, this sound plays and we’re going to give you cheese” kind of thing. But there are a couple of, I wouldn’t call them compromises—they are in a way, but compromises with things I don’t necessarily disagree with. As in, nation-states are kind of our model now. What makes a nation-state work? What makes any of these most powerful structures work? How can we outdo them, whether it be institutions, an intelligence agency, a newspaper, or the Kingdom of France? Which I think no longer exists. But how do we emulate the best parts of them without collapsing?
When you want people to pick up litter, if you think you’re the only one in the city that’s just full of litter picking up litter, you’re going to be discouraged from doing so because what’s the point? But if you see that others are picking up litter as well, then you’re much more encouraged to do so. So Pursuance is a visualized system, in part for these very pragmatic purposes of being able to look at a structure and assess in a few seconds how it’s composed so you can determine what part you may play in it. There’s also an emphasis on the visualization of that to have the same effect as a military parade does, or as singing the Internationale does, with the huge crowd, or whatever. You have to see it as helpful psychologically. And so that’s kind of taken more from early 19th century revolutionary-ism than it is from, say, Silicon Valley. But Silicon Valley, they have also have visual cues and they have implemented things that I think are deleterious, not because they’re visual cues and not because they involve serotonin but because they are doing these things for no particular end.
AT: I mean the end is to addict, right? And that’s kind of what the the digital Times product at this point is, its ends is also to addict to you its app. And you’re right that of course there’s nothing inherently wrong about rewards systems and randomness, and if you took those things out, you’re describing hell, kind of. You’re describing this world where—
BB: Robots, basically.
AT: Right, and I think that the question then becomes, How do you use these things to support the individual or to support a larger cause or some sort of experience rather than an addictive, reflexive usage of something. And that’s really what I see in the totality of what the Times is, including in this topic modeling, that it has kind of veered towards that.
But I actually think that it’s not possible to fully discuss the topical data without discussing this educational data, the educational background of people at The New York Times.
Source: LinkedIn. Only one school was counted per person associated with The New York Times. The data includes 11,037 total records of people currently or formerly associated with the paper.
On LinkedIn, people have the school they went to at the top of their profile, the most recent school they went to. It’s not every school that every person went to. It’s sort of their highest credential. I’m wondering what your reactions to seeing this was.
BB: Very little surprise. Did you have high school completed on any or is it all college?
AT: There were two ways of looking at this. One was to tally every school people went to and the other was to [select only] the highest. For reasons of consistency and regularity, I just looked at the most recent school attended.
BB: Were there any that their most recent was high school?
AT: If you just search the word “high school” in this graph, there are three people that come up with “high school” as the most recent school completed, out of I think like 9,000 or 10,000 people.
BB: I’m interested because I’m not a college graduate but I do have a National Magazine Award and a bunch of others, and I beat The New Yorker for it. And I did it from prison. So as you can tell, I’m one of those people who’s very proud about the fact that I’m beating all these eastern establishment guys. I’m like Nixon over here. I’m chortling over the eastern establishment, although Nixon did go to Whittier. But no, no, in seriousness, there’s a couple things that kind of are relevant here. One is that networks of graduates tend to get each other jobs. The bottom line is that there are legitimate reasons to hire people who have higher education. For the most part, people who went to college, who went to these good colleges, a lot of them were on scholarship, or even if they weren’t, a lot of them were smart. And I suppose it’s better to have a smart reporter who went to college than a not smart one.
The problem as far as I can recall from my own experience is that these places, what they often teach is how to succeed in these institutions, which might not be the best lesson for a journalist to learn in terms of what their actual product is, but it might be a good lesson to learn in terms of what they’re actually doing. You see these people who were all at Gawker, they all knew each other and then they’re all somehow graduating from Gawker to editing The Intercept, in terms of John Cook, going to The New Yorker as a staff writer, in terms of Adrian Chen, blah, blah, blah. I don’t know what their educational background is and if they’re the typical high-end university background. It wouldn’t be a problem if they did, of course. But the real issue is, despite the fact that if you look at this graph and if you’re someone who has a pretty mainstream view of how education works and how much of institutional education is important, that’s all well and good, but then you actually look at what the product is.
AT: If you choose just four schools, you could just choose NYU, Columbia, Harvard and Yale and you’ve already accounted for 15 percent of people in this dataset.
BB: Let me ask you this: You think that is as a result of network hiring or you think it’s a result of those prestigious schools and thus they’re more likely to get in? Obviously it’s going to be more than one factor, but what do you think is the most preponderant cause of that?
AT: For why there’s such a predominance of these schools?
BB: Yeah, but is it because someone gets in and he’s at Yale—I mean, obviously it’s more than one thing. Obviously, there’s two factors here. I’m just curious as to which one—this may not be answerable.
AT: Yeah, I think that most broadly the answer to that question would have to answer why credentialism is rampant in our society, right?
AT: But the specific question is, why is credentialism so rampant in a profession where it really shouldn’t be, where it’s actually really detrimental? And to me you have two opposing trends in journalism right now. You have, on the one hand, the almost unobstructed obliteration of local press and of small papers, including alt-weeklies. So my own City Paper is now dead. The Village Voice is dead. These were places that really shunned, or at least were pretty indifferent to any kind of credential at all. You had to be smart and kind of weird and you ended up writing at the paper and I think that those places valued a kind of intuition and an experience of the world above any kind of pedigree. You have the obliteration of those on the one hand and on the other hand, you have the ascent of places like Axios and Politico and the current version of the Times, which are essentially these vast, professional networks of people, not just among the journalists but between the journalists and the people they are covering. These people go to the same schools, they exist in the same circles—
BB: And that’s most dangerous when we’re talking about it being the same constituency as the Beltway, people running federal agencies or running these companies. That when it becomes most dangerous because those two are from the same schools. I think it’s even more dangerous when they have the option of joining the press corps at some point. Or otherwise getting out of this relatively low-paying position. [A writer who covered Palantir in 2014 for the Times] later joined Google. He’s at Google Cloud. So there’s several dangers there, absolutely.
AT: It’s this revolving door we don’t really talk about as much as the revolving door on Capitol Hill or the White House. But I think that that’s sort of what I see in the high placement of Columbia Journalism School, which is right below NYU, which is this place whose overarching, didactic act is that networking matters above all. A Columbia Journalism degree is really a club membership card. I don’t know what you learn there that you wouldn’t learn by simply going out and reporting.
And so I think in the popularity of that school specifically at The New York Times, I see just the worldview of networking ascendant above all else, and it’s one of many threads I think connects the educational data and the topical data. Why is there so much Trump coverage? It is just an easy way to advance your career, right? People respond positively to it.
BB: Yes, they know there’s yield there. They know that’s a good chance to get an award or at least be like, “Oh, I’ve been covering Trump”, rather than something that, first of all, is harder to cover because it’s not out in the open, not going to be the guy saying this outlandish stuff. Yeah, absolutely, I hadn’t even thought about that. It already takes away a great deal of attention that could have been directed toward some of these issues. But there’s legitimacy to that because he is one of the issues and the problem. So I mean, I kind of give them leeway on that. But obviously there’s a point of diminishing returns and that gets hit pretty quickly and there’s an unfortunate motivator to pursue it well after the actual civic purpose of journalism has been fulfilled.
AT: If we were talking about The New Yorker, it’d be one thing. The New Yorker is a property I have conceded to elitism and sort of that world.
BB: Of course. I mean [one of their editor’s names] is Willing Davidson. That’s the most WASPish name one can really imagine without making one up.
AT: The New York Times is territory I’m less willing to concede.
BB: It’s like mainland China.
AT: Yeah, The New Yorker can have its own autonomous zone of credentialism, but when it leaks into the Times, it’s a real problem and I think among the other threads I potentially see in this school data and this topic data is that the people who come from these schools are people for whom the economy was really working for the past 20 years. These are the people who have been just like effervescently optimistic about everything, and Trump was, in a way, an instance where they didn’t get what they wanted.
BB: They now understand, to a larger degree than they did in 2013, 2012, that there is a fundamental problem and that that’s not something that’s easily determined if you’re really getting your news from these major outlets. Prior to that, it’s easy to ignore issues, it’s easy to ignore how fundamentally unviable the republic is until that happens.
AT: The past three years have sort of clued them in to how wrong they were about everything, not that that’s really changed their coverage all that much.
BB: Not that they’ve really adapted, yeah. The first thing right after the election, I thought, OK, now there’s going to be sort of a soul-searching. [They said], “OK, we got to recommit to actually doing this specific stuff that needs to be done properly. Maybe we shouldn’t provide these openings to these alt-right outlets that say we’re fake news, maybe we should be careful to not print nonsense or be correct and that way they won’t be able to lie about it as well. Take the case that exists and expand upon it.” But, instead what they did was they focused on how they got the poll results. That’s an easy thing to say: “Oh yeah, we got it all wrong. We all thought these polls were going to be right. But they’re wrong.” And that’s not the greatest sin, that’s a faux-sin, that’s not a mortal sin that they committed. They had committed others. It did not lead to the reckoning that for some reason I was dying to—
AT: Which also, by the way, I think is an outcome they could have predicted had they not spent their educational lifetimes in these secluded, insulated places.
BB: Right, exactly. They’ve never been to Dallas, much less Waxahachie.
AT: I do also see in this coverage these are people who, given where they went to school, have been told over and over how brilliant and prescient they are, and for that to turn out wrong seems to evoke a degree of outrage in them.
BB: Here’s a great indicator: Thomas Friedman has been their star columnist for about 20 years now. He’s been a columnist there for longer than that but he’s really been a big star for the last 20 years, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for his “clear vision”, as they put it, that’s a quote from the Pulitzer committee, in discussing the effects of the global war on terror. And among the columns which won that award in 2001, there was one in Summer 2001 where he goes to Russia and writes a column and concludes the column with “keep rootin’ for Putin” because Putin’s going to be a great democratic reformer. He’s going to show them how to make money and how to actually make things and capitalist reform and blah, blah and free markets and democracy.
Beyond that, around the same time, he actually mocked people for worrying about the effects of civilian casualties in Afghanistan. He said, “The Taliban are gone.” Now that the Taliban are gone, it turns out that some of these “civilians”—put civilians in scare quotes—were perhaps praying for another dose of the B-52’s. You know, bombs, blah, blah, blah. I mean, just stuff that is not just going to turn out to be wrong, not just talking about “Oh, here’s why Colin Powell’s dominating the Bush White House,” but stuff that doesn’t even require prediction, it just requires like not being whoever this person, Thomas Friedman, is. And this should have been apparent, with him, with Charles Krauthammer, with Richard Cohen to a lesser extent, the Washington Post. Our only indicator in science if a hypothesis is useful, or even approaching correct, is if it can predict outcomes and so that same indication still holds true, obviously, to a lot of other things including journalism, at least commentator journalism where you’re making predictions. Obviously, there’s other issues that turn out to be more important and to that extent, you have proven to be, by any definition, not that great at your job. They have these indicators and it’s not as if all the people who voted for Trump are like, “Thomas Friedman was wrong about this in 2003.” That’s not really it. But it definitely does help to alienate them from those of us who notice. And of course, Thomas Friedman is this person who has been given the highest station you can get in terms of a pundit. That is noticeable and it should have given this indication that no, you’re not all brilliant.
You weren’t selected by this AI that finds the best person in the world to be at The New York Times. And that applies of course across the press, it’s not just The New York Times. But they are, by virtue of their particular prestige and their particular position in terms of helping set the conversation, they are the most to blame.
AT: You dropped out of Texas if I understand correctly?
BB: Yeah, well, I got into Columbia, couldn’t afford to go there. So I went to the University of Texas and I had some financial assistance or loans, like $2,000 I think I still owe them. I went to my first journalism class, by a tenured professor, Robert Jensen. He became a left-wing figure for a while, but kind of didn’t really have much new to say, just had a brief thing after 9/11. The first thing he does is show us this video of the Talking Heads because in this Talking Heads video and the song has a lyric, “Facts don’t do what I want them to.” And I never came back to that class. And I quit. I had already worked at couple of weekly papers in Dallas and Mexico when I was 15 and 16 and written a couple freelance stories and articles when I was 17 and 18. This was 2000, 2001.
AT: So at that point there was still like a weekly press and there was still—
BB: Yeah. The one that I worked for, the internship I had at Dallas in 1998, that paper was, about a year later after I left, bought and closed down by the other weekly alt, The Observer. I think the [Dallas Times] Herald just went out of business. So yes, this was all in the transition period when the dot-com stuff had just started and a lot of the first things I wrote for after having been among the last generation just to have print, that stuff was just coming online, so it was very much a transition period in which suddenly there was a lot of money in all these websites and they were paying $40 for a not-that-great essay from an 18-year-old, so I think that ended.
AT: It seems like that avenue has mostly been shuttered to people at this point, where the surest way at this point to get to a place like the Times or just to write is to go to a place like Columbia Journalism School or to go to NYU or something. There are so many ramifications of that, but the fact that that avenue has been closed feels like a blow, not only to sort of the press, to the process, or the quality and type of information that’s disseminated as we’ve discussed, but it has ramifications for people as well who want to do this kind of work. I’m wondering what position you would be in if you were that age in 2019, just what your career would look like?
BB: Well, I would do the same thing that I did anyway, which was to gradually just work my way up, I have this clip, I can get this editor’s attention at Vanity Fair, blah, blah, blah, Guardian, and now I’m credible because they’ve seen this, this and this. And then I would go into full-scale international banditry in order to grab attention and credibility. You have to understand that it wasn’t until after I went to prison for three felonies and publicly threatened the Pentagon and called up Booz Allen Hamilton’s vice president and woke him up at seven o’clock in the morning that I started getting university professors to ask me for recommendations for their stuff, or to speak at a university, or the National Magazine Award. So there are avenues, they have to be unconventional avenues.
But that’s obviously an unusual case. Not everybody can be the bandit king of the journalism reform world. But it used to be, of course, 120 years ago, or 100 years ago, you got the job at the Times or whatever else because you were a street kid and you followed around the cops and you were sent to report on—you were a crime reporter. And that’s how you became like the original editor at—you’re 60 years old, 50 at the Kansas City Star and all that, and you quote Ovid and all that, you smoke your cigar. So I don’t know—that’s not still possible. That’s a totally different world where that’s all been cemented where we don’t have street kids in fedoras getting jobs at the Times anymore. They channelled everything into these avenues that are super costly and do not function as advertised and they don’t even think function as advertised, but there’s very few people willing to say, “Well, I’m not going to do this because it’s part of a deleterious process.” And so I think the avenues shut down. The avenues to the Times shut down. I think the legitimate and I think best course for the people involved, lest they be sullied, and for the nation, is for these new elements, these new press strategies to be experimented, to be implemented, and that will allow ambitious people to rise again, as they used to be able to, and hire people to rise with less compromise and in a way that in the course of their rise does far better service to the republic in the way that the press is supposed to do, and I think that’s going to be the only solution. I think it’s going to start to happen just like it did with the bloggers who popped up in the early 21st century and a lot of them moved on from the blogs, which at first were ridiculed, to become the columnists at the Washington Post, and Glenn Greenwald, you know, Salon, Guardian, then Intercept. And then they fuck up The Intercept, which they just did. I don’t know the lessons there. Either those other alternatives will be enough that they can compete with and replace and do a better job than these outlets or they won’t and the republic will fall under a greater and greater kleptocracy, more and more amoral with a generation that has seen nothing else.
AT: It raises in many ways the ultimate question that I kind of want to ask connecting these two datasets. When I was a writer in Philly, I did some writing for Philadelphia magazine and then I later wrote an article about Philadelphia magazine 2016. Philadelphia magazine is just kind of your standard issue urban glossy magazine. It was actually the first one but, you know, I’m sure Austin has a magazine.
BB: I’ve written for it. My friend does too. D magazine in Dallas is the one. I started the prison column for it actually.
AT: Yeah, Texas Monthly is another one of these.
BB: Yeah, they stopped covering politics, incidentally.
AT: New York magazine is the most prestigious of them. So you’re familiar with kind of the standard fare of these magazines which are, you know, front-of-the-book featurettes on food and shopping and whatever amenities exist in the city and then longer features. And when I was writing for them and writing about them, the editors would tell me, “We do the front of the book stuff to justify the longer stuff we do. We need to do the cheaper, easier stuff to pay for the longer stuff.”
BB: Right, exactly. That’s pretty common.
AT: But it always struck me, when I started writing for the website, I found they favored the short, easy stuff all the time and they actually seemed to have a taste for it, that the editors seemed to want to publish this stuff beyond just any kind of financial obligation, and rather than the short stuff justifying the long stuff, it was the longer features they needed to justify the existence of the publication in the first place—that really what they wanted were these featurettes, where it’s just this pablum about shopping and food and that’s kind of what interested them more than anything.
I think that the question over the data of the educational backgrounds of the writers and the difference between the print and the web versions of the Times is, which is sort of the true version of the Times? Which one do you think more accurately externalizes the desires and interests of the people at the Times?
BB: I took a stipend at nerve.com when I was 19 or 20. I’d had a copywriting gig and I’d interned there for a few hundred dollars, so I did know the kind of people that I normally wouldn’t know who had come from that different environment that’s more traditional, the media employees, or media people in New York. And you know, I don’t remember them saying, “Jesus Christ, we’ve got to get someone in Guatemala right now and see what’s going on.” As time goes on, as we have this younger generation taking over, we know what they’re interested in, we know what’s worked, and it’s this goofy shit. That is I think either by experience or by deduction or induction, whichever one it would be, I guess induction, one would determine yeah, that that’s what they want to write about. That’s what they’re reading about, that’s what people click on, that’s what works. That’s not just because the readers want it supposedly, but because they want to do it.
That’s an oversimplification because of course there’s the other person that wants to report at the White House. They want to go be in the White House press corps and they want to hear what the press secretary’s going to tell them and maybe ask a question. So I think it’s hard for me to kind of say with any fairness, here’s what they’re like in general. I think I’m more comfortable saying there’s this kind and then there’s this kind, there’s the kind like that wants to be the hard-boiled reporter, the press corps person and then there’s the increasingly prominent goofy ass millennial, and that’s basically the two types.
AT: I saw an ad to subscribe to the New York Times that was a take on “be the change you want to see in the world”. I think that the text was “Be the change you want to read in the world” or something. But there are these two antagonistic forces right now. One is sort of the world of the traditional mainstream press, the Times, Washington Post, the places we’re talking about, and they are sort of pitted against the alt-right. And both of them are so loathsome in their own way that it’s really hard to be antagonistic towards one without them becoming sympathetic to the other.
BB: It was the same thing with the election. You can’t point out, look, Hillary Clinton did this, this and this, without being treated like you were a Trump supporter, and vice versa. And obviously one is much worse than the other but it makes it difficult to have nuanced conversation. It’s a difficult thing to have to deal with. People pretend to believe that they don’t trust the press, but in effect they absolutely do. Anything that doesn’t challenge an assumption, they’ll take it as fact.
AT: I think that in both of these data sets, you see evidence of a lot of what Trump supporters say, which is that this is an institution of elites who are obsessed with the President. Like, that’s very empirically true. So the question is, how do you maintain that truth, how do you acknowledge that truth without sort of acknowledging every other claim of the alt-right?
BB: It maybe can be done in a short form, but it generally requires the chance to be able to say a sentence and then be ready for the very next sentence to [qualify the previous sentence]. Having gone to prison in late 2012 and getting out right after the election, the change was more perceptible to me because the transition was so clear. I get out and everyone’s gone nuts. There’s a lot of craziness that I was not used to. And I’m used to a lot of craziness.
There’s two major things the press have tried to do. They’ve tried to reestablish authority, and they’re understandably worried about this assault on expertise, on facts and authority. The problem is they allowed that assault by virtue of taking their position for granted. When The New York Times facilitates the Iraq war as they did, they opened themselves up. The New York Times was not paying attention to what turned out to be very reasonable complaints by the people about [Judith Miller’s] stuff because she won them awards. So careerism and all that. The press has this history, it goes back to Mockingbird and it goes back to Henry Luce voluntarily giving the services of Time magazine to the CIA and you have all that stuff really unresolved, Watergate and the Church commission. If they don’t address things that are clearly certain kinds of conspiracies and then all of a sudden they’re all in on what would sound like an outlandish conspiracy ten years ago, which is that a sitting American president is working with the Russians—by opening themselves up to the legitimate criticism, they open the door for illegitimate criticism.
So all that stuff was waiting in the wings, and now it’s mainstream. And so they’ve failed to do that and they’ve [framed the choice as one] between expertise—which they keep proving to be wrong, because Thomas Friedman’s supposed to be the expert and that kind of thing—and the alternative, which must be this other horrible thing.
There is an alternative that actually promotes people based again on, what is their actual record? Not how long have they been here, how famous is their name, how many cute books, titles they have, like Flat—The Earth’s Flat, Flatitudes and Long—Longitudes and Attitudes, what is the actual fucking name of one of Thomas Friedman’s column collections? There are opportunities.