‘Nobody is going to believe you’: The director Bryan Singer has been dogged by sexual-misconduct accusations for decades. The Atlantic spent 12 months investigating various lawsuits and allegations against Singer, whose Bohemian Rhapsody just this week received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. Here, Singer’s alleged victims now tell their stories.
When a Harvard professor talks about proof of alien life, reporters come knocking. The astrophysicist Avi Loeb made the case in a recent paper that a mysterious space rock known as ‘Oumuamua, stunning in that it resembles nothing else in in the solar system, could in fact be an alien probe. That the theory took off might have a lot do with Loeb’s willingness in interviews to speak of his theory as a certainty—as well as the cachet of the institution he works for.
The media narrative on the fracas between MAGA-clad high-schoolers and an American Indian elder has shifted as more details have emerged, and the zigzagging isn’t always in pursuit of the truth: “The overcorrection is not about getting it right; it is about convincing people who will never trust the media to trust the media,” argues Adam Serwer.
What is covering that car? Hagfish are writhing, tubular animals that look conspicuously similar to eels, with one big difference: They emit a staggering amount of slime. A hagfish can release a teaspoon of gunk from its glands, and in half of second, that amount can balloon to 10,000 times that size. → Read the rest.
(Tim Clayton / Corbis)
Since the 1970s, dozens of city and state governments have aimed for “potty parity”—the goal of giving men and women equal access to public bathrooms. Yet, while toilet access has improved somewhat, women still have to endure longer lines than man. Sexism, of course, is a major factor at play, but the disparity also has to do with plumbing codes that often don’t account for the needs of women → Read the rest.
By now you’ve either read or heard about the stunning exposé on director Bryan Singer in The Atlantic. The report reveals pretty serious and disturbing allegations detailing sexual abuse of underage boys.
You may remember that back in October, Singer preemptively put out a statement saying that he’s expecting Esquire Magazine to drop a negative article with “reckless disregard for the truth, making assumptions that are fictional and irresponsible.”
In a statement today, Singer again denied the allegations and accused The Atlantic‘s report of being a “homophobic smear piece.”
He also said, “The last time I posted about this subject, Esquire magazine was preparing to publish an article written by a homophobic journalist who has a bizarre obsession with me dating back to 1997. After careful fact-checking and, in consideration of the lack of credible sources, Esquire chose not to publish this piece of vendetta journalism.”
And indeed, if you look at the Atlantic report, you’ll notice it’s from Esquire writer at large Alex French and Esquire editor at large Maximillian Porter.
In a statement today, the two of them address why their report is running in The Atlantic and not Esquire: it was “killed by Hearst executives.”
Atlantic editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldbergtold The Daily Beast, “We subjected it to two months of our own fact-checking and legal process. It passed a threshold for me. My clear understand is that the editors of Esquire wanted to publish the piece but that it was spiked by executives at Hearst.”
The Daily Beast also reports on some behind-the-scenes details concerning the decision:
Two sources familiar with Esquire’s plans said the piece was scheduled to run in the magazine’s December issue when orders came from Hearst executives not to publish the story. Two sources said Hearst’s chief content officer, Kate Lewis, had reviewed the story, and another source briefed on the situation said the ultimate decision to kill it was made by Troy Young, president of Hearst magazines.
Hearst did not reply to multiple requests for comment.
Sources with knowledge of the story that arrived at The Atlantic said it had much of the same information that was in the Esquire final draft, but that the writers added details that strengthened several accusations before it was published on Wednesday.
On Friday, January 18, a group of white teenage boys wearing MAGA hats mobbed an elderly Native American man on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, chanting “Make America Great Again,” menacing him, and taunting him in racially motivated ways. It is the kind of thing that happens every day—possibly every hour—in Donald Trump’s America. But this time there was proof: a video. Was it problematic that it offered no evidence that these things were had happened? No. What mattered was that it had happened, and that there was video to prove it. The fact of there being a video became stronger than the video itself.
The video shows a man playing a tribal drum standing directly in front of a boy with clear skin and lips reddened from the cold; the boy is wearing a MAGA hat, and he is smiling at him in a way that is implacable and inscrutable. The boys around him are cutting up—dancing to the drumbeat, making faces at one another and at various iPhones, and eventually beginning to tire of whatever it is that’s going on. Soon enough, the whole of the video’s meaning seems to come down to the smiling boy and the drumming man. They are locked into something, but what is it?
Twenty seconds pass, then 30—and still the boy is smiling in that peculiar way. What has brought them to this strange, charged moment? From the short clip alone, it is impossible to tell. Because the point of the viral video was that it was proof of racist bullying yet showed no evidence of it, the boy quickly became the subject of rage and disgust. “I’d be ashamed and appalled if he was my son,” the actress Debra Messing tweeted.
A second video also made the rounds. Shot shortly after the event, it consisted of an interview with the drummer, Nathan Phillips. There was something powerful about it, something that seemed almost familiar. It seemed to tell us an old story, one that’s been tugging at us for years. It was a battered Rodney King stepping up to the microphones in the middle of the L.A. riots, asking, “Can we all get along? Can we get along?” It was the beautiful hippie boy putting flowers in the rifle barrels of military policemen at the March on the Pentagon.
In the golden hour at the Lincoln Memorial, the lights illuminating the vault, Nathan Phillips stands framed against the light of the setting sun, wiping tears from his eyes as he described what has happened—with the boys, with the country, with land itself. His voice soft, unsteady, he begins:
As I was singing I heard them saying ‘Build that wall, build that wall.’ This is indigenous land; we’re not supposed to have walls here. We never did … We never had a wall. We never had a prison. We always took care of our elders. We took care of our children … We taught them right from wrong. I wish I could see … the [young men] could put that energy into making this country really great … helping those that are hungry.
It was moving, and it was an explanation of the terrible thing that had just happened—“I heard them saying ‘Build that wall.’ It was an ode to a nation’s lost soul. It was also the first in a serious of interviews in which Nathan Phillips would prove himself adept—far more so than the news media—at incorporating any new information about what had actually happened into his version of events. His version was all-encompassing, and he was treated with such patronizing gentleness by the news media that he was never directly confronted with his conflicting accounts.
When the country learned that Phillips was—in addition to being, as we were endlessly reminded, a “native elder”—a veteran of the Vietnam War, the sense of anger about what had happened to him assumed new dimensions. That he had defended our country, only to be treated by so poorly by these MAGA-hatted monsters blasted the level of the boys’ malevolence into outer space.
The journalist Kara Swisher found a way to link the horror to an earlier news event, tweeting:
And to all you aggrieved folks who thought this Gillette ad was too much bad-men-shaming, after we just saw it come to life with those awful kids and their fetid smirking harassing that elderly man on the Mall: Go fuck yourselves.
You know the left has really changed in this country when you find its denizens glorifying America’s role in the Vietnam War and lionizing the social attitudes of the corporate monolith Procter & Gamble.
Celebrities tweeted furiously, desperate to insert themselves into the situation in a flattering light. They adopted several approaches: old-guy concern about the state of our communities (“Where are their parents, where are their teachers, where are their pastors?:” Joe Scarborough); dramatic professions of personal anguish meant to re-center the locus of harm from Nathan Phillips to the tweeter (“This is Trump’s America. And it brought me to tears. What are we teaching our young people? Why is this ok? How is this ok? Please help me understand. Because right now I feel like my heart is living outside of my bod:” Alyssa Milano); and the inevitable excesses of the temperamentally over-excited: (“#CovingtonCatholic high school seems like a hate factory to me:” Howard Dean)
By Saturday, the story had become so hot, and the appetite for it so deep, that some news outlets felt compelled to do some actual reporting. This was when the weekend began to take a long, bad turn for respected news outlets and righteous celebrities. Journalists began to discover that the viral video was not, in fact, the Zapruder film of 2019, and that there were other videos—lots and lots of them—that showed the event from multiple perspectives and that explained more clearly what had happened. At first the journalists and their editors tried to patch the revelations onto the existing story, in hopes that the whole thing would somehow hold together. CNN, apparently by now aware that the event had taken place within a complicating larger picture, tried to use the new information to support its own biased interpretation, sorrowfully reporting that early in the afternoon the boys and clashed with, “four African American young men preaching about the Bible and oppression.”
But the wild, uncontrollable internet kept pumping videos into the ether that allowed people to see for themselves what had happened.
The New York Times, sober guardian of the exact and the nonsensational, had cannonballed into the delicious story on Friday, titling its first piece, “Boys in ‘Make America Great Again’ Hats Mob Native Elder at Indigenous Peoples March.”
But the next day it ran a second story, with the headline, “Fuller Picture Emerges of Viral Video of Native American Man and Catholic Students.”
How had the boys been demilitarized from wearers of “Make America Great Again” hats to “Catholic Students,” in less than 24 hours?
O, for a muse of fire.
It turned out that the “four African American young men preaching about the Bible and oppression” had made a video, almost two hours in length, and while it does not fully exonerate the boys, it releases them from most the serious charges.
The full video reveals that there was indeed a Native American gathering at the Lincoln Memorial, that it took place shortly before the events of the viral video, and that during it the indigenous people had been the subject of a hideous tirade of racist insults and fantasies. But the white students weren’t the people hurling this garbage at them—the young “African American men preaching about the Bible and oppression” were doing it. For they were Black Hebrew Israelites, a tiny sect that believes they are the direct descendants of the 12 tribes of Israel, and whose beliefs on a variety of social issues make Mike Pence look like Ram Dass.
The full video reveals that these kids had wandered into a Tom Wolfe novel and had no idea how to get out of it.
It seems that the Black Hebrew Israelites had come to the Lincoln Memorial with the express intention of verbally confronting the Native Americans, some of whom have already begun to gather as the video begins, many of them in Native dress. The Black Hebrew Israelites’ leader begins shouting at them: “Before you started worshipping totem poles, you was worshipping the true and living God. Before you became an idol worshipper, you was worshipping the true and living God. This is the reason why this land was taken away from you! Because you worship everything except the most high. You worship every creation except the creator—and that’s what we are here to tell you to do.”
A young man in native dress approaches them and gestures toward the group gathering for their event. But the Black Hebrew Israelites mix things up by throwing some dead white male jargon at him—they are there because “freedom of the speech ” and “freedom of religion” and all that. The young man backs away. “You have to come away from your religious philosophy,” one Black Hebrew Israelite yells after him.
A few more people in native costume gather, clearly stunned by his tirade. “You’re not supposed to worship eagles, buffalos, rams, all types of animals,” he calls out to them.
A Native woman approaches the group and begins to challenge their ideology, which prompts the pastor’s coreligionists to thumb their Bibles for relevant passages from Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. He asks the woman why she’s angry, and when she tells him that she’s isn’t angry, he responds, “You’re not angry? You’re not angry? I’m making you angry.” The two start yelling at each other, and the speaker calls out to his associates for Isaiah 58:1.
Another woman comes up to him yelling, “The Bible says a lot of shit. The Bible says a lot of shit. The Bible says a lot of shit.”
Black Hebrew Israelites believe, among other things, that they are indigenous people. The preacher tells a woman that, “You’re not an Indian. Indian means ‘savage.’”
Men begin to gather with concerned looks on their faces. “Indian does not mean ‘savage,’ “ one of them says reasonably; “I don’t know where you got that from.” At this point, most of the Native Americans who have surrounded—“mobbed” ?—the preacher have realized what the boys will prove too young and too unsophisticated to understand: that the “four young African American men preaching about the Bible and oppression” are the kind of people you sometimes encounter in big cities, and the best thing to do is steer a wide berth. Most of them leave, exchanging amused glances at one another. But one of the women stays put, and she begins making excellent points, some of which stump the Black Hebrew Israelites.
It was heating up to be an intersectional showdown for the ages, with the Black Hebrew Israelites going head to head with the Native Americans. But when the Native woman talks about the importance of peace, the preacher finally locates a unifying theme, one more powerful than anything to be found in Proverbs, Isaiah, or Ecclesiastes.
He tells her there won’t be any food stamps coming to reservations or the projects because of the shutdown, and then gesturing to his left, he says, “It’s because of these … bastards over there, wearing Make America Great Again hats.”
The camera turns to capture five white teenage boys, one of whom is wearing a MAGA hat. They are standing at a respectful distance, with their hands in their pockets, listening to this exchange with expressions of curiosity. They are there to meet their bus home.
“Why you not angry at them?” the Black Hebrew Israelite asks the Native American woman angrily.
“That’s right,” says one of his coreligionists, “little corny-ass Billy Bob.”
The boys don’t respond to this provocation, although one of them smiles at being called a corny-ass Billy Bob. They seem interested in what is going on, in the way that it’s interesting to listen to Hyde Park speakers.
The Native woman isn’t interested in attacking the white boys. She keeps up her argument with the Black Hebrew Israelites, and her line of reasoning is so powerful that it throws the preacher off track.
“She trying to be distracting,” one of the men says. “She trying to stop the flow.”
“You’re out of order,” the preacher tells the woman. “Where’s your husband? Let me speak to him.”
By now the gathering of Covington Catholic boys watching the scene has grown to 10 or 12, some of them in MAGA hats. They are about 15 feet away, and while the conflict is surely beyond their range of experience, it also includes biblical explication, something with which they are familiar.
“Don’t stand to the side and mock,” the speaker orders the boys, who do not appear to be mocking him; “Bring y’all cracker ass up here and make a statement.” The boys turn away and begin walking back to the larger group.
“You little dirty-ass crackers. Your day coming. Your day coming … ’cause your little dusty asses wouldn’t walk down a street in a black neighborhood, and go walk up on nobody playing no games like that,” he calls after them, but they take no notice. “Yeah, ’cause I will stick my foot in your little ass.”
By now the Native American ceremony has begun, and the attendees have linked arms and begun dancing. “They just don’t know who they are,” one of the Black Hebrew Israelites says remorsefully to another. Earlier, he had called them “Uncle Tomahawks.”
The boys have given up on him. They have joined the larger group, and together they all begin doing some school-spirit cheers; they hum the stadium-staple opening bars of “Seven Nation Army” and jump up and down, dancing to it. Later, they would say that their chaperones had allowed them to sing school-spirit songs instead of engaging with the slurs hurled by the Black Hebrew Israelites.
And then you hear the sound of drumming, and Phillips appears with several other drummers, all of them headed to the large group of boys. “Here come Gad!” says the Black Hebrew Israelite excitedly. His religion teaches that Native Americans are one of the 12 tribes of Israel, Gad. Apparently he thinks that his relentless attack on the Native Americans has led some of them to confront the white people. “Here come Gad!” he says again, but he is soon disappointed. “Gad not playing! He came to the rescue!” he says in disgust.
The drummers head to the boys, and keep playing. The boys, who had been jumping to “Seven Nation Army,” start jumping in time to the drumming. Phillips takes a step toward the group, and then—as they part to admit him—he walks into it. Here the Black Hebrew Israelites’ footage is of no help, as Phillips has moved into the crowd.
Now, we may look at the viral video—or, as CNN chyron called it, the “heartbreaking viral video”—as well as the many others that have since emerged, none of which has so far revealed the boys to be chanting anything about a wall or about making America great again. Phillips keeps walking into the group, they make room for him, and then—the smiling boy. One of the videos shows him doing something unusual. At one point he turns away from Phillips, stops smiling, and locks eyes with another kid, shaking his head, seeming to say the word no. This is consistent with the long, harrowing statement that the smiling boy, would release at the end of the weekend, in which he offered an explanation for his actions that is consistent with the video footage that has so far emerged, and revealed what happened to him in the 48 hours after Americans set to work doxxing him and threatening his family with violence. As of this writing, it seems that the smiling boy, Nick Sandman is the one person who tried to be respectful of Phillips and who encouraged the other boys to do the same. And for this, he has been by far the most harshly treated of any of the people involved in the afternoon’s mess at the Memorial.
I recommend that you watch the whole of the Black Hebrew Israelites’ video, which includes a long, interesting passage, in which the Covington Catholic boys engage in a mostly thoughtful conversation with the Black Hebrew Israelite preacher. Throughout the conversation, they disrespect him only once—to boo him when he says something vile about gays and lesbians. (Also interesting is the section at the very end of the video, in which—after the boys have left—the Black Hebrew Israelites are approached by some police officers. The preacher had previously spent time castigating police and “the penal code,” so I thought this would be an lively exchange, but the Israelites treat the cops with tremendous courtesy and gratitude and when they leave, the pastor describes them as “angels,” so let that be a lesson about the inadvisability of thinking you can predict how an exchange with a Black Hebrew Israelite will end up.)
I have watched every bit of video I can find of the event, although more keep appearing. I have found several things that various of the boys did and said that are ugly, or rude, or racist. Some boys did a Tomahawk chop when Phillips walks into their group. There is a short video of a group who seem to be from the high school verbally harassing two young women as the women walk past them. In terms of the school itself, Covington Catholic High School apparently has a game day tradition of students painting their skin black for “black-out days,” but any attempt by the school to cast this as innocent fun is undercut by a photograph of a white kid in black body paint leering at a black player on an opposing team.
I would not be surprised if more videos of this kind turn up, or if more troubling information about the school emerges, but it will by then be irrelevant as the elite media has botched the story so completely that it has lost the authority to report on it. By Tuesday, TheNew York Times was busy absorbing the fact that Nathan Phillips was not, apparently, a “Vietnam Veteran,” as it had originally reported, and it issued a correction saying that it had contacted the Pentagon for his military record, suggesting that it no longer trusts him as a source of reliable information.
How could the elite media—The New York Times, let’s say—have protected itself from this event, which has served to reinforce millions of Americans’ belief that traditional journalistic outlets are purveyors of “fake news?” It might have hewed to a concept that once went by the quaint term “journalistic ethics.” Among other things, journalistic ethics held that if you didn’t have the reporting to support a story, and if that story had the potential to hurt its subjects, and if those subjects were private citizens, and if they were moreover minors? You didn’t run the story. You kept reporting it, you let yourself get scooped, and you accepted that speed is not the highest value. Otherwise, you were the trash press.
At 8:30 yesterday morning, as I was typing this essay, TheNew York Times emailed me. The subject line was “Ethics Reminders for Freelance Journalists.” (I have occasionally published essays and reviews in the Times). It informed me, inter alia, that the Times expected all of its journalists, both freelance and staff, “to protect the integrity and credibility of Times journalism.” This meant, in part, safeguarding the Times’s “reputation for fairness and impartiality.”
I am prompted to issue my own Ethics Reminders for The New York Times. Here they are: You were partly responsible for the election of Donald Trump because you are the most influential newspaper in the country, and you are not fair or impartial. Millions of Americans believe you hate them and that you will causally harm them. Two years ago, they fought back against you, and they won. If Trump wins again, you will once again have played a small but important role in that victory.
More than a million people have sought refuge in Europe over the past few years; some will eventually become citizens. Still more have moved for work and the promise of ultimately securing a permanent place. But a select group does something else entirely: They pay. A lot.
Over the past decade, some European Union member states have earned tens of billions of dollars overall by selling residency and, in some cases, citizenship to the super-rich. But critics say the opaque nature of these schemes make them vulnerable to money laundering and corruption. Now, the EU is getting involved, telling its member states to increase scrutiny of applicants vying for these “golden visas.”
An individual with residency in an EU member state can travel across much of the bloc without additional paperwork, while those with citizenship can work and travel anywhere within the EU, as well as to non-EU countries that have visa-free arrangements with the its members. In its first report on golden-visa schemes, the EU said Wednesday that elements of the programs heighten the risks to security, and open the door to money laundering, tax evasion and corruption across the bloc.
Supporters of the programs say most of the applicants are not untoward. Perhaps more importantly, the visas have been a financial boon for the EU countries that operate them. In all, golden visa schemes have pulled in an estimated 25 billion euros, or $28 billion, over the past decade, according to a joint report released last October by Global Witness and Transparency International. Of the bloc’s 28 member states, 20 sell residence permits for prices ranging from the hundreds of thousands of euros (A Greek residence permit can be had for a 250,000 euro investment in property) to millions (British residency starts at 2 million pounds, or 2.3 million euros). Three countries—Bulgaria, Cyprus, and Malta—also sell citizenship. But the screening requirements for the potential investors vary drastically by country, prompting worries in Brussels, and beyond.
“People obtaining an EU nationality must have a genuine connection to the member state concerned,” Věra Jourová, the European Commissioner for justice, consumers, and gender equality, said in a statement on Wednesday. “We want more transparency on how nationality is granted and more cooperation between member states.”
Indeed, the sale of residency and citizenship to those rich enough to pay challenges the very idea of citizenship and immigration. From Britain and Germany to Italy and Hungary, Europe is mired in a debate over mass immigration and integration, but the super-rich have largely been left untouched. The beneficiaries of golden-visa schemes aren’t photographed walking across borders, jumping over fences, or crossing the Mediterranean. They are wealthy, welcomed by governments, and mostly anonymous.
The EU’s recommendations this week come with golden visa schemes under increased scrutiny. In Malta, for instance, the journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed by a car bomb in October 2017 while she was investigating her country’s own visa program for the rich, which she believed was rife with corruption. Last month, Britain said it was suspending its own program and said it would formulate new rules. It has since reversed its position, though the visas granted to 700 rich Russians are reportedly being reviewed. Portugal’s program is also under the microscope because of allegations of misuse and a lax requirement for residency (those who get Portugal’s golden visa only need to be in the country for seven days a year).
Proponents—like David Lesperance, whose firm, Lesperance & Associates, helps wealthy clients secure residency and nationality in countries like Canada, the U.S., and the U.K.—insist the overwhelming majority of residencies or citizenships obtained through these programs are legitimate. Applicants are coming, supporters of golden visas say, for many of the same reasons that less-affluent migrants cross borders: to escape political instability and for a better quality of life. And, according to Lesperance, because these visas are open only to the super-rich, the number of applications are tiny compared to overall numbers of immigrants, which means governments can dedicate more resources to screening them. (Over the past decade, the program has created 6,000 new EU citizens and about 100,000 residents.)
“If I’m a scoundrel, I would not be looking at an economic residence or citizenship program,” Lesperance told me.
The visas are especially attractive to the super-rich in countries with weak institutions or fickle rule of law: Indeed, China and Russia, in that order, account for the overwhelming majority of golden visas in the EU countries that provide such data. Global Witness and Transparency International said in their report that Chinese nationals were the top recipients of such visas in six countries (Britain, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Portugal and Spain), while Russians nationals were the highest number in two (Bulgaria and Latvia).
The EU in its report Wednesday said it planned to set a up a panel of experts who would recommend ways to improve the programs and develop common security checks by the end of the year. But the bloc’s ability to bring about change is limited—nor is it certain that the countries that have benefited financially from golden-visa programs will go along with recommendations. Nicos Anastasiades, the president of Cyprus, which sells its passports for 2 million euros, said the EU’s report singled out his country.
“At some point, these double standards must end,” he said.
By and large, marijuana legalization represents progress, argues writer Annie Lowrey. It’s well documented that prohibition has a tremendous fiscal cost, not to mention a far worse human cost. Researchers have also convincingly argued that cannabis is far less dangerous than legal substances such as alcohol. As a result, a solid majority of Americans support legalization.
But are there significant public-health risks associated with legalization? In a new animated video, Lowrey highlights some pitfalls of free-market marijuana, including how the current lack of federal oversight has led to the absence of safety tests and standards. Furthermore, marijuana dependence and frequency of usage is increasing, and knowledge of the negative health effects of cannabis is not widespread.
Judging for the 7th annual Ocean Art Underwater Photo Competition, organized by the Underwater Photography Guide, has wrapped up, and the winning images and photographers have been announced. Duncan Murrell took “Best in Show” with a photo of the courtship behavior of spinetail devil rays. The contest organizers have shared with us some of the winners and honorable mentions below, from the sixteen different categories of underwater photography. Captions are written by the individual photographers and lightly edited for content.
Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings” lets you know, in its very first verse, that it’s copying. “Breakfast at Tiffany’s and bottles of bubbles / Girls with tattoos who like getting in trouble,” she sings in place of the “Raindrops on roses / and whiskers on kittens”made famous by Rodgers and Hammerstein, who are listed among the 10 songwriters for the pop star’s latest single.
But this is not an Austrian-alps show tune. It’s a rap and R&B song, inspired by—or taking from—black artists. For the chorus, a marching-formation beat kicks in and Grande whispers, in a clipped rhythm, “I want it, I got it, I want it, I got it.” In the bridge, she raps in a kind of ranging, liquid style reminiscent of Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj’s “Flawless (Remix),” with a reference to The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Gimme the Loot.” When the single was released last Friday, two rappers—Princess Nokia and Soulja Boy—posted videos accusing Grande of stealing their flows. 2 Chainz suggested the music video ripped off the pink trap house he set up as a promotional and public-health effort in Atlanta, and other people noted similarities with his song “Spend It.”
Whether Grande has a serious plagiarism scandal on her hands is unclear. Rap flows—particular verbal rhythms and rhyme patterns—can be viral and collaborative things, bubbling up as one emcee’s innovation then quickly becoming ubiquitous. To my ear, Grande’s delivery and lyrics do recall all the songs “7 Rings” has been compared to, but not so precisely that you can bet on a slam-dunk copyright-infringement case against her. Then again, we’re living in the era after the “Blurred Lines” judgment, which determined that the “feel” of a song can be actionable. A lawyer just has to convince a jury.
What Grande is definitely facing, though, is that familiar pop-star chapter: a cultural-appropriation backlash. In addition to her extraordinary voice, neurotic charisma, and glittery bath-bomb aesthetic, Grande’s success has increasingly relied on elements of rap and R&B culture: its slang (last year, “issa” was every third word Grande said in public), its beats (Pharrell injected her 2018 album Sweetener with N*E*R*D-like thump), and its stars (all of the guest vocalists on 2016’s Dangerous Women, the album where she made a show of leaving behind child-star innocence, were black).
This history hasn’t led to the sort of controversy that, say, met Miley Cyrus when she made herself over as a gold-toothed twerker in 2013. But it has been remarked upon in ways positive and negative. Patti LaBelle lovingly called Grande a “little white black girl” while presenting an award to the star in December. But some commentators have grumbled that her “blaccent” and even her spray tan seemed part of an old story about white people profiting off of black aesthetics to project a sense of edge without feeling any of the associated struggle.
Appropriation remains one of the hardest-to-talk-about phenomena in pop culture, which is, fundamentally, a hodgepodge of widely circulated ideas that originated in specific subcultures. One line of thought puts it in economic terms: Are marginalized creators being materially harmed and erased? But on another level, there are questions of aesthetics and tastes. Does the pop star draw upon her influences in a way that feels original? Does her work disrespect or honor those influences? Is there a double standard in how her work is received?
Grande teetered the line on those questionswithout much incident till now.But “7 Rings” is raising hackles because it regresses to a more cartoonish, and imitative, use of black music than she’s done before (not to mention the video’s evocation of Japanese kawaii). She’s wearing the culture as a costume—or even as a joke—not unlike white frat guys putting on fake grills for a “ratchet” party.
The lyrical concept for “7 Rings” originated from Grande coping with her super-public breakup from the comedian Pete Davidson last year. After calling off their engagement, she went with seven of her best friends to Tiffany’s, got drunk on champagne, and bought everyone in her posse her own engagement ring. It’s a tale of mega-wealthy indulgence that’s both charming and sickening, a combination that Grande tacitly acknowledges with this song. She’s bragging, not apologizing, about doing something wasteful—an empowering rebellion, supposedly. “Whoever said money can’t solve your problems must not have had enough money to solve ’em,” she sings.
Grande and her fans would say that this materialist flex is earned defiance for someone who has faced a series of profound public setbacks in recent years, and who’s been underestimated time and again for being a young woman. They would also say that men get to conduct themselves this way in public all the time. True enough. But the song exploits hip-hop signifiers so insistently that the gap between Grande’s experiences and the cultures she’s taking from are as glaring as a De Beers product.
The video may or may not reference 2 Chainz’s pink trap house, but it does channel the notion of a pink trap house via spray paint, beat-up cars, and barking dogs (just look at the album art). The song’s defining lyric goes, “you like my hair? / gee thanks, just bought it,” which also—combined with the rest of her chorus—recalls 2 Chainz’s refrain “it’s mine / I spend it.” But “Spend It” was a victory lap for someone who’s had to deal drugs since he was a teenager: “I’m riding ’round my side of town / Boxin gloves, I beat the trial.” On Princess Nokia’s“Mine,” the chorus, “It’s mine, I bought it,” referred to the hairpieces of black and brown women—which, Nokia complained in song,are regularly ridiculed.
Grande’s hair lyrics, by contrast, are about her famous ponytail and the extensions she buys to create it. That’s certainly a reference that’s authentic to her, but also one that draws a shaky connection to a white pop star’s branding move, former drug dealers having escaped poverty, and women of color showing pride in the face of marginalization. Of course, drawing shaky connections is how all pop music works: Singers’ specific stories offer metaphors that are scalable for all sorts of lifestyles. You can be white and still draw a sense of empowerment by listening to trap. But most listeners at home don’t then project their fantastical appropriation of someone else’s struggle to the masses in a hit song about their mega wealth.
Grande has now had to acknowledge the backlash, if not fully reckon with it. On Instagram, she reposted the podcast host Aminatou Sow’s message “White women talking about their weaves is how we’re gonna solve racism” and then apologized for doing so, writing about the original post:
I think her intention was to be like… yay a white person disassociating the negative stariotype [sic] that is paired with the word ‘weave’… however I’m so sorry my response was out of pocket or if it came across the wrong way. Thanks for opening the conversation and like… to everyone for talking to me about it. It’s never my intention to offend anybody.
It’s a weird apology. If it helped black women to have a famous white woman brag about her weave, then it’d stand to reason that Miley Cyrus’s butt-shaking phase might have prevented Cardi B and City Girls from being slut-shamed for twerking—a story that unfolded in the past few days. What culture-jacking often does is simply take advantage of the racist way that different people receive different treatment for the same activities. “When black women wear weave it’s ghetto and trash and we’re bald,” tweeted one listener, “but now miss Ariana says that corny ass line everyone and their mom is hype [about] it.”
Appropriation critiques often incite their own backlash from people who talk about “online mobs” looking for the next target to “cancel.” But the truth is that even in the face of controversy, “7 Rings” is a streaming smash, and Grande’s most forceful critics say they’re not out to destroy a career. “Accountability doesn’t automatically mean cancel,” wrote the blogger Erin Dyana. “It’s literally informing said person of their wrongdoings and offenses, bringing it to their attention and other people’s attention as well, since we’re talking about celebrities.”
Indeed, depending on how Grande handles this situation, she should be fine. She’s not someone like Iggy Azalea, who built a career on racial drag. But the fact remains that a sound and attitude that black artists used to articulate specific things about their lives in a racist societyis being pushed further into the realm of catchall cliche. The average, non-black listener, after being exposed to “7 Rings,” may be less able to discern the particular meanings—and social circumstances—of the original documents. In a very real way, Grande has taken other people’s shine.
Terrorism haunts the Middle East, targeting Americans as well as their allies, with civilians bearing most of the pain. A major bombing in the region threatens to derail a top administration priority. The U.S. president declares a state of emergency.
President Bill Clinton declared terrorism a national emergency precisely 24 years ago, as a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel imperiled peace talks between the two sides. Executive Order 12947 named groups whose activities, he said, posed “an unusual and extraordinary threat” to U.S. national security. At first, that list was largely limited to Palestinian armed groups, but in 1998, Clinton added Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda to the list. Bin Laden is gone and the peace process is moribund, but a version of the state of emergency remains in effect. In fact, Donald Trump renewed it just last week.
Clinton’s declaration is a case study in presidential powers which, once activated, chief executives are often reluctant to roll back. The U.S. has roughly 30 national emergencies ongoing—one of them has been in place four decades, having been issued by President Jimmy Carter during the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979.
That most Americans could live in a “national emergency” for 40 years without noticing says something about the broad—some would say insidious—expansion of emergency powers. The U.S. has ongoing emergencies for everything from unrest in Burundi to the movement of vessels near Cuba. It’s not that Cuban maritime malfeasance will end in U.S. martial law, or even that Clinton was invoking the same kind of emergency Trump has flirted with to fund his border wall. But the basic legal concept—an emergency allows the president to exercise powers not otherwise granted to him by Congress—is common to all these scenarios.
Who really cares, you might ask? There’s still terrorism in the Middle East, and still no diplomatic relations with Iran, and emergencies invoked in contexts like this allow the president to impose sanctions even if the legislature hasn’t gotten around to it. Another ongoing national emergency, first issued under Donald Trump, declares foreign corruption and human rights abuses to threaten U.S. national security. Why wouldn’t you want to combat corruption and human rights abuses?
But many of these issues are probably more accurately described as a “state of problem” rather than a “state of emergency.” The common-usage meaning of emergency as something sudden, extraordinary, and above all temporary, should be an important prerequisite to letting the president bypass Congress. It’s useful for the executive to have access to emergency powers in cases, say, where the legislature doesn’t have time to pass a law to help deal with an immediate genuine threat or natural disaster. Over time, though, it undermines constitutional safeguards to keep giving the president extraordinary powers in circumstances that have long since become ordinary.
“States of emergency that last decades are not only a linguistic oxymoron,” Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, a professor at University of Minnesota School of Law who serves as special rapporteur to the UN Human Rights Council on countering terrorism, told me. “They function to degrade the rule of law, often consolidate executive powers imperceptibly but distinctly, and more broadly loosen the boundaries between the normal and the exceptional.”
Kim Lane Scheppele, a Princeton professor who has also studied states of emergency, put it another way. There are more than a hundred laws on the books with language built in allowing the president extra latitude or exceptions in case of emergency—extending far beyond foreign-policy sanctions powers, like those in Clinton’s 1995 declaration, and into domestic issues like, say, deploying the National Guard and federal funds to help with hurricane relief.
“There are some just perfectly sane things that you could only do” by invoking emergency powers, she said. Yet she noted there is also potential for grave abuse, and that case studies around the world suggest “emergencies” can start small and grow severe—even to the point of ending up in authoritarianism, as in Venezuela and Turkey.
In the U.S., that remains a remote possibility, though Elizabeth Goitein recently detailed for The Atlantic the many ways it could be realized under a president like Trump. Certainly the laws of the United States provide no shortage of opportunities for the president to seize more powers, perfectly legally. “There’s enough sharp knives hiding in the house there,” Scheppele said of such laws, “that you really wouldn’t want to leave a maniac alone with them.”
She paused, then clarified. “It’s just a metaphor.”
With a couple hundred dollars and a few minutes, you could go to a liquidation website right now and buy a pallet full of stuff that people have returned to Amazon. It will have, perhaps, been lightly sorted by product category—home decor, outdoor, apparel—but this is mostly aspirational. For example, in one pallet labeled Home Decor, available for sale on Liquidation.com, you could find: hiking crampons, shimmer fabric paint, a High Visibility Thermal Winter Trapper Hat, Mr. Ellie Pooh Natural White Paper List Pad, St. Patrick’s Pot O’ Gold Cupcake Decorating Kit, Spoontiques Golf Thermometer, a Feliz Cumpleanos Candle Packaged Balloon, and five Caterpillar Hoodies for Pets.
Every box is a core sample drilled through the digital crust of platform capitalism. On Amazon’s website, sophisticated sorting algorithms relentlessly rank and organize these products before they go out into the world, but once the goods return to the warehouse, they shake free of the database and become random objects thrown together into a box by fate. Most likely, never will this precise box of shit ever exist again in the world. On Liquidation.com, each pallet’s manifest comes with suggested prices for each product in a pristine state. If you add them up, the “value” of the box might be $4000, while the auction price might only come to $200.
While Amazon doesn’t publicly talk about how it chooses which returned products back up for sale, and which go to the liquidators, it does sell some products through “Amazon Warehouse” at a discount. If it sounds crazy to sell products at massive discounts, consider that goods sitting in a warehouse are a cost. So is the labor necessary to repackage something for resale. If Amazon and other retailers let another company pay them something, they avoid those costs and add some revenue.
So, Liquidity Services, operator of Liquidation.com, became a major (though not exclusive) handler of Amazon’s American liquidations. The company calls dealing with returns “the reverse supply chain” — a part of the retail business that has been growing in importance as online shopping becomes more popular. Liquidity Services now has 3,357,000 registered buyers on their various liquidation websites. In the last fiscal year, it sold $626.4 million worth of stuff.
Amazon represents a growing chunk of Liquidity’s business. In its most recent SEC filing, the company disclosed that it spent approximately $33.7 million on Amazon liquidation inventory, which it then turns around and sells it for maybe 5 percent of the supposed retail value. And, assuming the company is trying to turn a profit, it must buy the inventory for a fraction of that. Doing the rough math, we’re talking about inventory that once had a collective value reaching into the billions, before it landed in some box on a doorstep.
Of course, once people do buy all these unwanted goods, they rearrange them into more profitable configurations. It seems so easy: Sort the still-good stuff from the broken objects, the trash, the worthless, and then post that stuff to Amazon or eBay. Who couldn’t sell $4000 worth of stuff for more than $200?
My colleague Alana Semuels demonstrated in her story on the proselytizers selling get-rich-quick classes about retailing products on Amazon that the lure of the high-margin, online business is nearly irresistible. This is a variation on that hustle. Buy liquidation, sell high. This idea has won serious viewership for some YouTubers. It’s become a microgenre on the video service, where different personalities unbox dozens of things and oooh and ahhh at how much money they are worth relative to what they paid for the box of stuff.
The implication in most of the videos is that the value of what’s in the box far exceeds the cost. Of course, two Yahoo reporters did it for themselves and got soaked. There’s a difference between something having a suggested retail price of $40 and actually getting someone to pay you $40. The exchange value of most of these items is incredibly low outside the retail context in which they were purchased.
A level-headed Flint, Michigan liquidation reseller named Walter Blake Knoblock offered a more realistic assessment in a live video he posted last year. He proffered five rules for Amazon pallets. The first? “Don’t expect it all to be good.” “ Don’t get discouraged if you’re halfway through your pallet and it’s all trash,” he said. In his business, it’s typical to throw away a third to half of everything.
After other rules about electronics (“boom or bust”), shipping (“understand freight cost”), and sales strategy (“speed through your inventory, don’t squeeze it for every dollar”), he gave his final lesson: “Don’t invest money that you absolutely need. It isn’t like a savings account at your bank. You’re taking a risk.”
Staring into his camera from his warehouse in Michigan, the young entrepreneur implored his viewers to consider the bad things that could happen, not merely the potential profits.
“I don’t want to let anyone believe the fallacy that pallets are a guaranteed way to make money. They’re absolutely not. You’re going to see a bunch of videos of people making a bunch of money on pallets,” Knoblock said. “But just keep in mind that, just like everything else in social media, you’re probably only seeing the top 10? 5? percent of what they do.”
“I’m just pulling this number out of my ass, I don’t know,” he added. “But just like everything else in social media, always take people’s benefits and their profits with a grain of salt.”
But who wants to hear that? That video has just over 30,000 views, orders of magnitude fewer than the hype videos.
The people who seem to have decent success have to work hard and stay disciplined with their purchases and sales. Which is, more or less, the opposite of getting rich quick, or as Knoblock put it in the title of one video, “THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS PASSIVE INCOME.”
When Russell Baker imagined his own death for The New York Times, in 1979, it was because he’d just experienced something delightfully unsettling while taking a walk near his apartment on 58th street. There he was, about to re-enter the building, when something huge splatted on the sidewalk at his feet.
It was a raw potato. And, for a deadpanning humorist on deadline, the potato was a gift. Somebody had chucked the thing off the roof of the 48-story apartment building across the street. “After a certain age most people probably speculate occasionally on the manner of their ultimate departure, but the possibility of becoming a potato victim was one that had never occurred to me, and I did not like it,” he mused in his next column. “On a slow‐news day, it might merit a paragraph or two on the Associated Press wire: ‘Potato Mashes Man.’”
The truth was, Baker was tickled by this ridiculous brush with death. “If it had hit me it would have killed me,” he later told the writer Hal Gieseking. “And I was delighted. Here’s a column. What a way to die!”
Baker, who died this week at age 93, was the longest-running columnist in the history of The New York Times. He won his first Pulitzer Prize in 1979, for commentary, and was so beloved that he made the cover of Time magazine that year. He won a second Pulitzer, in 1983, for a biography about his Depression-era childhood, Growing Up. In the early 1990s, he became the host of Masterpiece Theatre. He announced the end of his “Observer” column at the Times on Christmas day in 1998. He’d been writing it since 1962. (“Don’t make too much of it,” he joked in an interview soon thereafter with The Baltimore Sun, where he’d started his career as a police reporter. “It’s only daily journalism.”)
About six years ago, I was working my way through the Times archive, rereading Baker’s columns from the 1970s and 1980s, and I got to wondering what he was up to. When I found him in the phonebook, and realized he lived a short drive away from me, I dialed. Had I reached Russell Baker the writer? Yes. Might he consider an interview? Well, okay.
So I drove to Leesburg, Virginia, a little courthouse town outside of Washington where he was living at the time. Baker and I met in the sunny library of his brick house. A grandfather clock kept time from the hallway. Baker had chosen to live a mile or so away from the countryside where he was born. In Growing Up, Baker recounted his earliest memory there, the moment that first startled him into consciousness, when a cow bowed its gigantic head through his open bedroom window.
The way Baker told that story was, like so much of his writing, deeply funny—marked by a mix of defiance and curiosity, and a deep appreciation for the absurdity of living. Here’s a lightly edited and condensed transcript of our conversation that day.
Adrienne LaFrance: We’re not far from where you were born.
Russell Baker: I came back in, I think, 1985. Forever ago. I worked at the Times for 30 or 40 years. Just endlessly. I came down here in 1985, but it was still fairly undeveloped, nothing like it is now. It was charming then. Strange kinds of cities nowadays, these little urb-oids. You think, “My God, there are enough people for a city but there’s no place to get a bottle of milk.” You’ve got to get in a car or charter an airplane or something.
It reminds me of places in North Jersey around Englewood. Leesburg has spread like an ominous growth. It’s just turned into a kind of place I wouldn’t have come to if it had been like this before. But it’s agreeable. I had to get out of New York. I kind of used up New York. I had written there for 12 years. With that kind of work, you use it up.
LaFrance: You wanted to have fresh eyes again.
Baker: Yeah. New York wears you out most of all. So I was ready to get out.
LaFrance: What have you been reading lately?
Baker: I’m reading old books mostly. I’m reading The Mauve Decade by [Thomas] Beer, which is a literary critic’s take on the 1890s. But it’s sort of a sociological view. He wrote it in the 1920s. So the book is almost 100 years old. It’s an interesting view of how people in the ’20s looked at the ’90s. I’m also reading This is How You Lose Her. He’s just damn good. The stories aren’t that interesting, but really well written. Let’s see, what else? I’ve been reading another book on [former Washington Post editor] Ben Bradlee because I know Ben. It’s not special, not very good. There’s nothing in it that I don’t know. We rehash Watergate endlessly, over and over.
LaFrance: Enough already.
Baker: Having lived through Watergate, I don’t need to go there again.
LaFrance: Which writer do you most admire?
Baker: You know, I did Masterpiece Theatre for a long time and I read the Victorian novels, which I should have read when I was in college. I took a degree in English. I was supposed to be reading Victorian novels but never did, of course. I was in the period that read Hemingway and Fitzgerald.
LaFrance: They still assign those.
Baker: I have a granddaughter who was assigned The Great Gatsby a few years ago. I think teachers assign it because they love it. I said to my granddaughter, who was in junior high , I said, “Do you know what a bootlegger is?” She hadn’t the faintest notion. I said, “How can you read Gatsby if you don’t know what a bootlegger is?” But it’s a wonderful book, beautifully written. And I grew up in that era. I recently re-read Gatsby just to see how he did it. You learn a lot about writing from Fitzgerald, at least in that book.
LaFrance: What strikes you about the mechanics of it?
Baker: I’ve read it off and on over the years. It’s a short book. It’s an easy book. It’s really not much more than a long story. But this time I noticed something I hadn’t noticed before, which is how he handles conversation among a large group of people. If you’ve ever written any fiction, trying to create a big scene with a lot of people talking, you tend to do it by everybody talking, with a lot of quotation marks, which is extremely dull and wears out quickly. And you can’t get it right.
But he creates the sense of these big parties at Gatsby’s house where hundreds of people show up, and gives you a sense of what everybody’s talking about with a very sparse use of quotation marks. He’s sort of paraphrasing. It’s beautiful to see how he does it. Because you really know what these people’s minds are like in a very short space. It’s a gift to be able to do that, to write that way.
LaFrance: And you’re still writing for the New York Review of Books.
Baker: I do an occasional piece for them, just to keep my hand in. My mind is too slow now to do much. With age, everything slows down, your mind the most disconcerting of all. I don’t write with the glibness and facility that I used to. It’s a labor for me to write now.
LaFrance: Did it never feel like a labor before?
Baker: I’m writing because I love to write, of course. It was just a pleasure to write. I’d write things for fun and throw it away. Of course, once you start making money it becomes work and it ceases to be fun, but your writing gets better.
LaFrance: That’s true, isn’t it?
Baker: I’ve always found that when writing is fun, it’s not very good.
LaFrance: I’m afraid you’re right.
Baker: If you haven’t sweated over it, it’s probably not worth it. So it’s always been work. But it’s the kind of work you enjoy having done. The doing of it is hard work. People don’t usually realize what it takes out of you. They just see you sitting there, staring at the wall, and they don’t know that you’re looking for the perfect word to describe a shade of light. I did enjoy writing. Also, I’ve probably said everything I’ve wanted to say.
LaFrance: So much of your writing has been inspired by ordinary observations—and so much of your humor comes from articulating the absurdities that other people simply accept. I’m curious whether you’ve seen a change over time in the kinds of things you notice. How has the way you observe the world changed?
Baker: I don’t think my view of the world has changed much since I was probably 10 or 11 years old. I look at things very critically. I’m one of those awful people who’s looking for flaws. Everybody has flaws. This son of a bitch, he spots them right away. It’s an untrusting eye looking at the world. You try to make an argument to me, I immediately will spot the flaw in it. I loved covering politics because politicians are always telling you what they’re doing, and it’s easy to spot.
LaFrance: It seems like you still keep a close eye on politics.
Baker: I do. It’s a habit. I spent so much of my life covering politics and I still read the papers closely every day. I get the Times and the Post and various other little papers. I’m always reading politics. But what else is there to do in Leesburg?
LaFrance: When I covered national politics, the longest-serving senators would always tell me about how Congress used to be so civilized and bipartisan. You were around in those days. That’s not really true, is it? Because if you look back at the history, there’s always been fighting.
Baker: Well there has, but not like now. It’s another world. At one point I covered the Senate for several years. I knew everyone. The Senate’s easy to cover. There are only 100 guys. It’s just the right size.
But the Senate now has become something quite different than what it was when I covered it. It was an important body when I covered it. I started covering the Senate during the Eisenhower years. It was important in any number of policy matters. To be on the Foreign Relations Committee was to be a heavyweight. I mean, [Sen. J. William] Fulbright’s resistance to the Vietnam policy had real weight in the events that followed. And that was true on the financial side. The Finance Committee chairman really had influence.
Now, nobody has any weight. Nobody listens. As a matter of fact, they don’t have any respect for the job anymore. Trent Lott was the majority leader for the Republicans and chucked the job to become a lobbyist. If that had happened in the days that I was covering the Senate, he would have been disgraced. A senator giving up a Senate seat to become a lobbyist! That just wasn’t done. And they all do now. The decline of the Senate. That’s a big story.
When I covered the Senate, Lyndon Johnson was the majority leader and he was working with Eisenhower. Rayburn was the speaker of the House. They worked closely with Eisenhower to get things done. It’s inconceivable that any of those men would have taken it upon himself just to frustrate Eisenhower.
Politics is almost a nonstop activity now. There’s not much government that goes on. But with Rayburn and Eisenhower and Johnson and Kennedy —all those people—they governed. Governing is tough. Now they don’t spend much time governing. It’s mostly posturing.
LaFrance: Who were the most complex or interesting politicians to cover in those days?
Baker: You cover Lyndon Johnson, you don’t need to cover anybody else. He was such a gross character. He was like somebody out of a bad novel. He had Shakespearean depth. He was a comedian. He was an ass. He was brilliant. He was aggressive. He was dangerous. He was a fool at times. There was always a show with Johnson. He dramatized himself and he enjoyed the drama. Tough guy.
LaFrance: I wonder if you know [former Washington Post reporter] Jules Witcover. You must have been hanging around Washington at the same time.
Baker: I know Jules well.
LaFrance:I once interviewed him about how presidential campaign coverage has changed. He told me about covering the Eisenhower election in 1956, how the copy boys on the trains would collect copy and rush off at the next stop to transmit it back to the newsrooms.
Baker: It’s true. Traveling with Eisenhower, you’d file by Western Union and Western Union always had a guy on the plane or train wherever you were. You’d pound this stuff out on a typewriter and give him a page at a time. How it all got to New York, I never knew. I left it to the Western Union guy. I don’t know how people do it nowadays. Reporters, they seem to do everything. They take pictures, they interview people, they transmit. The reporting is really terrible, isn’t it?
LaFrance: Some of it is. But how you transmit your work isn’t what makes a difference, quality-wise. There has always been bad reporting and there is still some exceptional reporting.
Baker: There is. Most of the exceptional reporting is in magazines, though. What I find about reporting now is you don’t know what you don’t know because there aren’t reporters there anymore. There’s nobody covering closely the things they used to. The real valuable reporter is the guy who goes to the beat every day.
That’s the only way to do it. It’s the guy who goes every day and says ‘Hi,’ talks to the secretaries, bumps into people in the corridors, urinates beside them in the men’s room, they wash their hands together. And pretty soon he knows. You want to know what’s going on in City Hall? We don’t have many of those guys anymore. They’re the people who have taken the buy-out. We have too many stars now. I was aware of that when I started doing the [New York Times] column. I had to give up reporting and I hated it. I loved reporting. I just loved bumming around the Senate and talking to those people.
LaFrance: You mentioned your column, so I want to get your view on comedic writing generally. Do you think that humor is more parts truth or more parts absurdity?
Baker: I don’t know! I don’t know what it is. You know, you laugh, it’s humorous. I am curious about the decline of wit in humor. That may be a cyclical thing. But humor’s much cruder than it was when I was working in that area, when humor required certain cleverness. Whereas now you say a nasty word and the audience will break up. It’s a nervous tic. You just say a four-letter word.
Everyone watches Jon Stewart, right? And they have the bleep thing when he really obviously says “shit,” or “fuck,” and he’s cute about it. It’s a cheap laugh. It’s not funny. But the audience reacts. When you’ve got to do as much work as he does, I can understand why you go for the cheap laugh.
LaFrance: Which contemporary writers do you find funny?
Baker: It seems to be a dying form, doesn’t it? But the guys that you think of were never really that funny with any consistency. I certainly wasn’t. In fact, I thought it was a mistake to try to be funny.
Are there any humor columnists left? There must be. The Post carries a lot of columns. Richard Cohen strains at it now and again but it’s just not his thing. [Maureen] Dowd has a sharp tongue, and she had a gift for phrase-making, cruel stuff. But I wouldn’t say that she’s a humor columnist.
Poor ole Art Buchwald, he went on forever. He hated to give it up. At some point he was moved out of the Style section. Ben [Bradlee] said Art had called him up nearly weeping and said, “You’re killing me. You’re killing my column.” But he always knew what Art was going to do. No one’s ever funny in the newspaper. It’s too ephemeral.
LaFrance: I want to ask you a little bit about Baltimore because I was born there and—
Baker: Oh, you were born there?
LaFrance: Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Baker: I spent a lot of time hanging out at Hopkins when I was a police reporter. Haunting the emergency room, watching people die, and flirting with the nurses.
LaFrance: And you worked at The Baltimore Sun. You know, when I first learned what a newspaper was, it was the Sun.
Baker: It was a pretty good newspaper when I worked for it. Not because of me, but before I came. The Sun! Baltimore. I love Baltimore. Of course I have a lot of connections to it. I went to school there, I went to high school, I went to college there, and went to work at the Sun. My mother’s house was there. I met my wife in Baltimore. Mimi, I met her on a blind date one night. She was not the blind date but I got an introduction to Mimi through the blind date. They lived down around the Peabody Institute. I love Baltimore. I’m still an Orioles fan.
LaFrance: I remember Memorial Stadium.
Baker: Memorial Stadium! A terrible place to take a car. You go to the game and they’re playing the Yankees. The Yankees score 10 runs in the first inning and you can’t move your car for three hours. But the Sun was a really good paper. They put a lot of money into journalism. I really learned the trade in Baltimore. It took me 30 years at the Times to learn what I learned at the Sun in maybe a year.
LaFrance: Of all the jobs you’ve had, which did you like best?
Baker: Well I’ve had such good jobs, it’s hard to say. There’s nothing like being a columnist for The New York Times. That’s childhood’s dream of paradise, is it not? I loved being London correspondent for the Baltimore Sun. I was foolish to come back. They lured me back with the White House. We used to sit in the lobby of the West Wing, just outside, most of us sleeping. These great reporters like [makes exaggerated snoring noise].
LaFrance: What magazines do you read? I see The Nation over there.
Baker: The Nation, they seem to publish twice a day now. Every time I look up, there’s The Nation again. I still subscribe to TheNew Yorker. That’s a childhood habit. And [editor David] Remnick has done a great job. He’s brought it back from the grave, I think. They have very good reporting. Jane Mayer is a wonderful reporter, well-edited. But magazines tend to promise more than they deliver. Vanity Fair is like that. That’s where journalism is now. I don’t envy you.
Baker: Hardest thing in the world to make any sense of a conversation like this. I contemplate it and I’m grateful I gave up reporting.
LaFrance: I know we’re running out of time. Is there anything I should have asked you but didn’t?