Category Archives: Journalism

Interview: Detroit Would Rather You Not Take Pictures of Its Ruins

I did an interview with Drew Philp for The Billfold about what it’s like to live in Detroit.

I want to ask you about the ruin-porn thing, people coming to Detroit to take pictures of the abandoned buildings. Why do you think this is such an attraction for people?

So there’s this ruin-porn narrative where Detroit is just fucked up and crazy. And there’s also this narrative that white kids are saving the city. Neither one of them deal with the historical realities.

I live next to an abandoned house. Maybe it’s aesthetically beautiful. But the reality is that if that house burned down, it’s going to take mine with it. If I’m not home, it’s going to kill my dog. This is not an interesting thing to think about when you have to live here.

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An Interview With a Therapist Who Was Once Insane

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I’ve got another interview up at Longreads. Here’s a little leftover I couldn’t figure out how to work in:

What kind of issues do you work with in your practice?

Anxiety, depression, a lot of work with addiction—drugs, alcohol, love, sex.

So sexual addiction is a real thing?

Yes it is. People die because of compulsive sexuality. They contract AIDS, they go insane, they destroy their marriages, they spend all their money at strip clubs or on hookers. The definition of addiction is an individual decision about whether you think you’re an addict or not. It just means stuff you’re doing that you don’t want to do and that’s ruining your life. That can be playing online scrabble. Your brain can become addicted to online scrabble. And you’re up all night and losing your job because the chemicals in your brain are dependent on the excitement you get from playing online scrabble. So it’s not about what the behavior is specifically that makes it an addiction or not. It’s the experience of the person with the behavior.

 

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How to Write About Tax Havens

Cold Morning in a suburb of Torino, 1955 by Riccardo Moncalvo

I interviewed my buddy Nic Shaxson for Longreads. Here’s a clip:

Last year Shaxson published a Vanity Fair article, ‘A Tale of Two Londons,’ that described the residents of one of London’s most exclusive addresses—One Hyde Park—and the accounting acrobatics they had performed to get there. 

Here’s how it works: If you’re a Russian oil billionaire or a Nigerian bureaucro-baron and you want to hide some of your money from national taxes and local scrutiny, London real estate is a great place to stash it. All you need to do is establish a holding company, park it offshore and get a-buying. Here’s Shaxson:

These buyers use offshore companies for three big and related reasons: tax, secrecy, and “asset protection.” A property owned outright becomes subject to various British taxes, particularly capital-gains and taxes on transfers of ownership. But properties held through offshore companies can often avoid these taxes. According to London lawyers, the big reason for using these structures has been to avoid inheritance taxes. [...]

But secrecy, for many, is at least as important: once a foreign investor has avoided British taxes, then offshore secrecy gives him the opportunity to avoid scrutiny from his own country’s tax—or criminal—authorities too. Others use offshore structures for “asset protection”—frequently, to avoid angry creditors. That seems to be the case with a company called Postlake Ltd.—registered on the Isle of Man—which owns a $5.6 million apartment on the fourth floor [of One Hyde Park].

Shaxson argues that this phenomenon has taken over the U.K. real estate market—extortionate penthouses for the ultrarich sitting empty while the rest of us outbid each other for the froth below.

Now go read the whole thing!

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Five Stories About Sports for People Who Hate Sports


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I’m on Longreads again

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Reading List: Journalism’s Most Fabulous Fabricators

I’m blogging for Longreads now

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Nate Silver, Malcolm Gladwell and the Future of Journalism

Originally published on The Huffington Post 

 

I didn’t realize that Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise was one of the best books I read last year until about three weeks after I finished it. Why am I still thinking about this book? I would think, riding the bus, going over one of his examples in my head for the twelfth time.

It’s not that I’m so into baseball, or politics, or stock prices, or that I want to get better at predicting them. It’s that Silver’s book is an argument, and a challenge, for how I read stories in the future — and how I write them.

Silver’s core point is this:

Our predictions may be more prone to failure in the era of Big Data. As there is an exponential amount of available information, there is likewise an exponential increase in the number of hypotheses to investigate. For instance, the U.S. government now publishes data on about 45,000 economic statistics. If you want to test for a relationship between all combinations of two pairs of these statistics — is there a causal relationship between the bank prime loan rate and the unemployment rate in Alabama? — that gives you literally one billion hypotheses to test.

But the number of meaningful relationships in the data — those that speak to causality rather than correlation and testify to how the world really works — is orders of magnitude smaller. Nor is it likely to be increasing at nearly so fast a rate as the information itself; there isn’t any more truth in the world that there was before the Internet or the printing press. Most of the data is just noise, as most of the universe is filled with empty space.

This is not just a problem for Big Data. We’re not just surrounded by more quantitative information, more numbers, than ever before. We’re also surrounded by qualitative data too. From Longreads to UpWorthy, we’re have access to more stories, more characters, more anecdotes, more illustrations and examples than ever before. But just as more numbers don’t inherently produce more truth, more stories don’t inherently provide more lessons necessitating them.

Silver’s book reminded me of one of the worst books I read last year, Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.

In his most talked-about chapter, Gladwell profiles superlawyer David Boies, the dude who represented Gore against Bush at the Supreme Court, gay marriage against the Mormons in California.

Boies is dyslexic. It takes him hours to read a legal brief, and he foundered in odd jobs until his mid-20s, when he went to NYU Law School, then worked his way up through government and law firms to become a legal goliath.

Boies’s dyslexia, as Gladwell tells it, is a ‘desirable difficulty’. Being bad at reading volumes of case law made Boies focus on being good at listening and arguing, skills other lawyers neglected. Hollywood producer Brian Grazer, also at the top of his field, also dyslexic, became a great negotiator to compensate for his difficulty reading. Goldman Sachs CEO Gary Cohn grew up dyslexic and found that it made him an outsider, gave him the skill of presenting a persona. He used that skill to blag his way into his first job in finance.

“You wouldn’t wish dyslexia on your child,” Gladwell ominously concludes, “Or would you?” You can almost hear the music cue: Bum bum BUMMMM.

If all this sounds a bit too easy, that’s because it is. When Gladwell’s book came out, critics (most prominently Christopher F. Chablis in the Wall Street Journal) pointed out that dyslexia is, rather obviously, not a magic formula for success, decidedly not something you would give to your child if you had the choice.

Gladwell says “an extraordinarily high percentage of entrepreneurs are dyslexic.” A dyslexia researcher points out that this claim is based on a survey of 102 entrepreneurs and 37 corporate managers (out of 2,000 people contacted) and that it wasn’t even designed to detect dyslexia, only dyslexia-like traits such as difficulty with spelling.

Gladwell admits that dyslexics are over-represented in the prison population; Chablis, like a high school English teacher, says ‘develop this further’: It’s kinda sorta a major counterpoint to your argument. Gladwell points to a study where people did better on an intelligence test when it was in hard-to-read font (Lesson: difficulty makes you concentrate harder). Chablis says this test was on just 40 people, all Princeton students, and hasn’t been replicated on a larger scale.

The perennial critique of Gladwell is that his conclusions do not offer any new insights, only reformulations of what we already know. This seems unfair. As Silver says, there is only so much truth in the world, only so many insights to be pointed out and illustrated. Most people go their whole lives without coming up with a profound insight into anything. Gladwell can hardly be faulted for pointing out and reformulating the insights we already know.

The more generous critique of David and Goliath is, why didn’t Gladwell tell us all this himself? Why is his chapter, his book, written with this false certitude, these capitalized lessons? Boies’s story would be no less interesting, no less well-told, if it was juxtaposed with the story of one of those dyslexic prisoners. I might have actually enjoyed that chapter more if it was fortified with the contradictions and arguments in the academic literature, with bright orange caveats highlighting the places where Boies’s story is not typical, not indicative of something larger. Lay it on me, Gladwell, I can handle it.

Gladwell is a talented writer, a diligent researcher and interviewer, a monster intellect. If anyone could present the contradictions and paradoxes of the idea of ‘desirable difficulty,’ it’s him. Gladwell is too smart, too curious, too skeptical, to genuinely believe that parents should be giving their kids dyslexia because it is a surefire way to end up a Hollywood produces or a finance CEO.

Hedging against the challenge of ‘more information, same amount of truth,’ says Silver, requires giving predictions and conclusions with confidence intervals. We’re not certain that this hurricane will make landfall in Tampa, but there’s a 60 percent chance. Obama is not a surefire bet to beat Romney, but he has more plausible paths to victory. These statements don’t remove certainty, but they reduce it.

Gladwell’s cardinal sin, to me, is not crediting his readers with enough intelligence to disclose his confidence intervals. Does he really think that the ‘desirable difficulty’ of dyslexia explains 100 percent of Boies’s success? Probably not. If Gladwell is making the argument that dyslexia explains 5 percent of his success, or 20 percent, why not just tell us? It’s as if Gladwell is trying to avoid the unfair criticism of his work — these insights are profound, I swear! — and in doing so steps right into the more compelling criticism. There’s nothing highbrow hates more than middlebrow, and nothing says middlebrow like massaging complicated phenomena into chicken soups for the soul.

In 2012, when Jonah Lehrer was caught fabricating quotes and misrepresenting scientific findings in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works, Ta-Nehisi Coates, (one of the best working practitioners of journalistic uncertainty — I mean that in a good way) wrote:

Great long-form journalism comes from the author’s irrepressible need to answer a question. Fictional long-form journalism comes from the writer’s irrepressible need to be hailed as an oracle. In the former fabulism isn’t just wrong because it cheats the reader, it’s wrong because it cheats the writer. Manufactured evidence tends not to satiate an aching curiosity. But it does wonders for those most interested in oraculism.

I’m not implying that Gladwell fabricated anything. His sense of curiosity is palpable in everything he writes, and a major component of what makes his best work so interesting.

But Silver’s book is a justified, albeit indirect, criticism of Gladwell’s approach. Silver is arguing for more curiosity and less certitude, not just for people who predict events, but for those who explain them afterwards.

Ultimately, the fault may be ours. Gladwell is under pressure from publishers, from readers, to write books of big ideas, to deliver conclusions, to expand stories into insights that make us feel like we are reaching them ourselves. Book buyers and magazine readers may not tolerate an investigation into adversity, or creativity, or decision-making that finds them too complicated for capitalized lessons, one that concludes there is nothing to conclude.

But maybe that is changing. In the same way Silver has changed what we expect from political forecasts, maybe next generation’s Malcolm Gladwell will be someone who dips into subjects, guides us through contradictory evidence and leaves us with no certitude, with more questions than when we arrived. I’m ready to read that kind of journalism. I hope someone out there is ready to write it.

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Zimbabwe: The Director’s Cut

I have an essay in The New Republic about my trip to Zimbabwe last year, and my weird obsession with how expensive everything was there.

One of the things they tell nonfiction writers is ‘employ holy shit details’, and in Zimbabwe there is almost no other kind. A lot of insane statistics ended up in the piece, but even more ended up on the cutting room floor. Here are some of them:

  • In 2003, Zimbabwe was out of foreign reserves to import paper and ink to print more money, and had to switch to ‘bearer checks’, thin pieces of paper in increasingly outlandish denominations. Banks limited withdrawals, and anti-riot police had to be dispatched to prevent bank run.
  • Fleeing the cratering economy, Zimbabweans almost singlehandedly raised retail sales in South Africa by 10 percent between 2006 and 2007. Emigrants in South Africa paid bus drivers 20 percent commission  to take envelopes of cash, sacks of groceries, back home.
  • In 2007 a government order required shops to reduce the prices on basic goods by 50 percent. Instead of stabilizing the economy, it simply reversed the direction of the arbitrage. People bought milk in Mutare for 33,000 Zimbabwe dollars, drove it across the border to Mozambique and sold it for the equivalent of 350,000 Zimbabwe dollars.
  • All this time, the government maintained an ‘official’ exchange rate that was orders of magnitude lower than the black market rate. If you wanted to do anything legally—import goods, change money at the banks—you had to use the government rates. ‘I know a guy who worked at a luxury car dealership,’ my friend Colin told me. ‘These generals would come in and say “I’ll buy this car” and he would have to give it to them for the official exchange rate. He was selling cars for $8, $9.’
  • Between 2006 and 2009, the government slashed 25  zeroes off the currency. I ask Zimbabweans the prices they last remember at the supermarket and they tell me that a loaf of bread was 22 billion dollars. Which doesn’t actually matter, because you had to be connected to secure one anyway.
  • Bank teller wages rose with inflation, and they were partly paid in fuel coupons.  They could also ‘burn money’—buy US dollars at the official exchange rate, then sell them at the black market rates. Bank employees were flying to Dubai, buying electronics and coming back to Zimbabwe to sell them on.
  • These days, Zimbabwean banks are the opposite of too big to fail, they’re too small to succeed. As of January 2013, the entire banking sector held just $3.8 billion  in assets, more than half of which were short-term deposits. While the banks are lending out more than they used to, the loans are riskier, since no one has quite figured out how to run a business profitably here. In March 2010, 2 percent of bank loans didn’t get paid back. By December 2012, it was 14 percent .
  •  A 2013 survey of 150 store owners in a suburb of Harare found that 47 percent of them were using their own savings to raise capital and 13 percent were using their relatives and friends. Only 3 percent were using the banking system.
  • What Zimbabwe has gone through in the last 14 years is maybe the greatest loss of productive capacity and personal wealth in modern history. Per capita GDP fell from $644 in 1990 to $376 in 2011. South Africa’s GDP was 17 times larger than Zimbabwe’s in 1996. It was 58 times larger in 2012.
  • Almost 70 percent of Zimbabwe’s government budget goes to government salaries alone.
  • In 2009 Zimbabwe still had the highest 15-24-year-old literacy rates in Africa, but the aftershocks of the crisis are set to drag that down. As of 2012, only 67 percent of kids finished school, and only 50 percent made it from primary to secondary school.
  • The Zimbabwe stock exchange fell 20 percent after Mugabe’s victory was announced , and some estimates say $800 million in investment has left the country since then.

If you want to get a more full view of what Zimbabwe went through during hyperinflation and the challenges it faces now, here’s some publications that give a fuller picture than I was able to, written by people who know more about economics, about Zimbabwe, than me.

  • Here’s the Consultancy Africa Intelligence report, written by Tapiwa Mhute, who I spoke to a few times, on the causes and consequences of Zimbabwe’s dollarization.
  • Here’s a terrific overview of the path to hyperinflation written, rather randomly, by a graduate student in Japan.
  • Here’s a pretty devastating World Bank report on the problems with Zimbabwe’s infrastructure.
  • Here’s the report on remittance strategies by families in one neighborhood in Harare.
  • Here’s an anthology of articles about the hyperinflation. ‘Negotiating the Zimbabwe–Mozambique Border’ is a complete fucking stunner
  • The debate about what ‘really’ saved the Zimbabwean economy is ongoing and, like everything else in Zimbabwe, is totally politicised. Here’s an overview of some of the arguments.
  • Here’s an African Development Bank report from 2009, telling Zimbabwe how to fix the crisis. Most of it’s boring technocratic stuff but, like most of these reports, the ‘context’ section gives a great overview of the challenges.
  • Here’s the same sort of thing from the IMF and from the World Bank four years later, in 2013. They’re basically giving the same overview I am, only with less Grindr.
  • Here’s a Cato Institute (I know, I know) report from 2013: Why Is One of the World’s Least-Free Economies Growing So Fast?
  • Here’s Tapiwa Chagonda’s fascinating survey of bank tellers and teachers during hyperinflation.
  • Here’s Beyond the Enclave, Godfrey Kanyenze’s searing account of the political factors behind hyperinflation and dollarization.
  • And here’s Vince Musewe’s angry, moving columns for The Zimbabwean, giving a more up to date picture of the conditions in Zimbabwe

I mostly worked on the piece in August and September, and I’m sure more reports and statistics have come out since then, so apologies if anything in the story is outdated.

I’m not a journalist, I’m a human rights guy. One thing I’ve realized over the last 18 months, as I’ve spent more and more of my weekday mornings and Sunday nights working on these little longforms, is how dependent journalists are on the generosity and patience of their sources. For this story, I basically cold-called a dozen or so Zimbabwean economists, told them I didn’t know anything about their country or their field and asked if they could, slowly and monosyllabically, walk me through everything they knew.

Amazingly, all of them obliged, and they were super patient with all of my follow ups and hang-on-explain-that-agains. Colin and Lovemore took a risk telling a foreigner about their economic tribulations the last five years, and trusted that I would represent them honestly and wouldn’t publish any details that identified them. Everyone I interviewed, I have nothing to offer them for their time and their trust except my sincere gratitude—and my crushing anxiety that I may have misunderstood or misrepresented them.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be good at this whole journalism thing, or feel like I have the right to be doing it. I tried really hard to fact-check this story, to avoid giving the impression that my experience was definitive. I arrived in Zimbabwe as an outsider, a tourist. No matter how many people I met, no matter how many reports I read or statistics I double-checked, I departed as one. There is a lot of complicated information out there about Zimbabwe, a lot of conflicting narratives. Mine is just one of them.

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Is It Possible to Prove You’re Not a Bigot?

As a gay person it’s probably illegal for me to say this this week, but poor Niall Ferguson.

A few weeks ago, in a Q&A after a talk at the University of California, Ferguson pivoted off of John Maynard Keynes’ famous line ‘in the long run we are all dead’ to imply that this was double-true for Keynes, since he was gay and didn’t have any kids. So he obviously doesn’t care about future generations! Get it?

This is a bad observation and a bad joke (Keynes himself might have marveled at the sheer productivity of offending the childless, the gay and the Keynesians all in one sentence), and Ferguson issued an apology admitting so:

My colleagues, students, and friends – straight and gay – have every right to be disappointed in me, as I am in myself. To them, and to everyone who heard my remarks at the conference or has read them since, I deeply and unreservedly apologize.

Case closed, right? Ferguson didn’t hide behind ‘I’m sorry for any offense I might have caused’, or any of the other tongue-twisters politicians issue when they get caught publicly saying stuff they privately believe. Ferguson admitted that it was a stupid comment, took responsibility, we’re moving on, right?

Not so fast, replied the internet. It turns out that in 1995, Ferguson published a paper where he argued that Keynes didn’t criticize German economic policy as hard as he could have because he was attracted to the German finance minister. And one of Ferguson’s books says WWI made Keynes unhappy because all the cute boys in London ran off to fight in it. Your move, Ferguson.

To be accused of prejudice is one of the occupational hazards of public life nowadays. There are a remarkable number of people who appear to make a living from pouncing on any utterance that can be construed as evidence of bigotry.

That’s Ferguson in the Harvard Crimson, defending his un-bigotry.

Only last year, though not for the first time, I found myself being accused of racism for venturing to criticize President Obama. This came as a surprise to my wife, who was born in Somalia.

The charge of homophobia is equally easy to refute. If I really were a “gay-basher”, as some headline writers so crassly suggested, why would I have asked Andrew Sullivan, of all people, to be the godfather of one of my sons, or to give one of the readings at my wedding?

It’s easy to laugh at Ferguson’s naiveté. Did he really expect the left-wing offendosphere to go ‘Wait! Ferguson has gay friends? Let’s call this off!’?

But Ferguson’s gaffe, and his apology, pose a real question that I don’t think we left-wingers take seriously enough: What is an acceptable defense for a charge of bigotry?

We all roll our eyes at the ‘but I’ve got plenty of gay friends!’ defense, which sounds patronising and tokeney, and often is. We scroll through Ferguson’s 30-year career, we find two instances of problematic analysis, we tsk and pull out our church fans. What a monster!

But what if we had found some articles Ferguson wrote in his youth where he argued for gay marriage before others did? What if we found an essay he wrote to his first gay friend, expressing empathy and solidarity? What if we found out that he had a gay sister, or parent? Would any of these things be enough?

I’m not trying to defend Ferguson. I’ve read three of his books, one of which was boring and two of which were wrong, and I thought his Newsweek cover story last year deserved the dismantling it got.

But this week we haven’t been debating whether Ferguson’s books suck, or whether his comment was homophobic. We’ve been debating whether he is homophobic, something we have no way of knowing.

Ferguson’s body of work suggests that he has perhaps read too much into Keynes’s homosexuality, that he wants to paint a few too many of Keynes’ actions with that brush. That’s a legitimate critique of his work, and Ferguson could refute that charge with more evidence that Keynes’ homosexuality affected his beliefs on the post-WWI German economy.

But whether his public comments, his writing from 18 years ago, his friendship with Andrew Sullivan, evince that he is or is not a homophobe, that’s something neither he nor we can prove.

Ferguson’s statement that Keynes’s homosexuality made him incapable of caring about future generations was stupid and homophobic. He took a narrow fact and applied it to a broad range of Keynes’ actions. I can’t help but feel that when we use isolated comments to peer into the feelings and intentions of public figures, we’re doing the same thing.

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Malcolm Gladwell Says Proof Doesn’t Matter. Also, Football is Bad.

Gladwell’s core argument is that ‘what’s the proof?’ is often used as an excuse for those who profit from  a harmful activity not to fix it. It was obvious for 50 years that breathing  coal dust gave you black lung disease, but mining companies resisted change, claiming ‘There’s no proof!’ Nowadays, it’s obvious that football severely harms the mental health of  the people playing it, but the leagues refuse to fix it, claiming ‘There’s no proof!’

Last year I read a bunch of books about the Tobacco Wars of the 1990s. Everyone knows that tobacco companies still claim ‘there’s no proof’ that cigarettes cause lung cancer and emphysema. The most surprising thing I found in those books was that the tobacco companies are basically correct. To this day, scientists still don’t understand the exact mechanisms and pathways linking cigarette smoking and lung cancer.

What we do know, though, is that people who smoke get lung cancer and emphysema way more than people who don’t. This is consistent across age, race, wealth, age, location, religion, left vs right handedness, you name it. Cigarettes make you more likely to get sick and die. We don’t know precisely how this works—molecules are involved or something?—but that’s irrelevant. We know enough to tell people they’d be better off if they never smoked.

I’d argue that we’re at basically the same place with soft drinks. People who drink more soda have higher rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. People who stop drinking soda see their risk for all these things drop. 

And yet, the mechanism whereby soft drinks lead to obesity isn’t comprehensively understood. Maybe soft drinks mess with your satiety signals, making your body ‘forget’ that it’s just consumed 300 calories. Maybe all that sugar leads to tolerance, or even addiction. Maybe liquid sugar is converted to fat more efficiently than food. Maybe a vengeful God has cursed mankind by making everything that tastes good slowly kill you. 

These unanswered questions aren’t an excuse not to act. A 20-oz. bottle of Coca-Cola contains 16 teaspoons of sugar. A kid that drinks an extra soda every day has a 60 percent higher chance of becoming obese. Kids shouldn’t be drinking soda, and neither should adults. Period.

Starting in the 1990s, governments around the world started taking tobacco prevention seriously. They removed vending machines, taxed  cigarettes, banned smoking in bars and prevented marketing anywhere kids might see it. These steps weren’t driven by  incontrovertible new proof of tobacco’s perniciousness. They were just our actions catching up to our common sense.

I think in the next 10 years you’ll see the same thing with soda. Cities are already banning soft drinks from schools and daycares. Soda taxes are appearing on ballots like red on Big Gulps. Bloomberg’s large-cup ban is spreading to other cities.

There’s still no ‘proof’ soda causes obesity. Or cigarettes cause cancer. Or football causes CTE. But some things are so obvious, proving them is what you do after you fix them.

Update: This is now on The Huffington Post.

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I Feel Dirty For Reading This

Check out this final paragraph of a super-gossipy New York Times story about the ‘Today’ show:

Earlier this month, Lauer sought advice from his former co-host Meredith Vieira. On April 3 they met for lunch around noon at Park Avenue Spring, an upscale restaurant on East 63rd Street. They swapped stories about their children and then, according to another diner, talked about work in hushed tones. Vieira urged Lauer to tough it out, promising that the bad press would subside. Dessert arrived at the table by 1 p.m., but they lingered until 1:40, bantering the way they used to on television. Lauer held the door for her as they walked outside, and she embraced him, rubbing his back reassuringly and saying in his ear, “It’ll be O. K.” 

That ‘according to another diner’ is pretty gross.

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