Category Archives: Journalism

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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Filed under Books, Journalism, Serious

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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Filed under Essays, Journalism, Personal, Serious, Work

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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Filed under Food, Journalism

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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Anthony Weiner Wants You To Know He’s Not a Dick

I find it a bit difficult to judge the Anthony Weiner story in the NYTimes on its merits. It’s clearly a professionally produced feature, well-written, easy to read, captivating subjects, check check check. But it’s also clearly a marketing vehicle for Weiner. The story even says

By agreeing to be interviewed, Weiner and Abedin [his wife] would seem to be trying to give voters what they want — and gauge public reaction. […]

Weiner and Abedin have realized, it seems, that the only way out is through. So they have agreed to talk — and talk and talk — for the first time about what happened and why and what it looks like from the inside when your world comes crashing down because of, as Weiner puts it, “one fateful Tweet.”

Weiner is planning a comeback to public life, and ‘get a feature in the NYTimes’ is obviously a bullet point on his to do list. He and his wife must have carefully planned what they were going to say, the story they wanted to tell. The fact that the journalist was aware of this doesn’t change the story’s fundamental purpose.

But what’s even more interesting is the tone of sombre bewilderment everyone in the story uses when discussing what Anthony Weiner actually did.

On Friday night, May 27, a photograph of a man’s torso wearing gray boxer briefs and an obvious erection appeared on Weiner’s official Twitter account. […]

It was a sex scandal without any actual sex — more creepy than anything else. But it was hard for people to get their heads around: an affair is one thing, but sending crotch pictures to a virtual stranger? Mike Capuano, a congressman from Massachusetts and Weiner’s roommate in Washington for many years, spoke for a lot of people when he told me, “He obviously did something incredibly stupid that, honestly, I still don’t understand.” […]

Weiner fielded a lot of calls from friends and colleagues, many of them offering advice. One prominent state politician called to confess that he was a sex addict and urged Weiner to join his support group. […]

Is what he did really so extreme? We live in a world where 16 year olds get tips on sexting from talk show hosts, where ‘manage a trois’ is familiar to more Americans than ‘café au lait’, where ‘cyber’ is a verb. Is it really so hard to believe that sending strangers naked pictures of yourself is a turn-on?

But despite the occasional flash of anger or lingering disbelief, [his wife] told me that she had forgiven him. When I asked how long it took for her to think she might be able to get over what her husband did, she said, “That’s a really good question,” and then took a minute. “At the time, we were very early in our marriage, but it was an old friendship. He was my best friend. In addition to that, I loved him. There was a deep love there, but it was coupled with a tremendous feeling of betrayal.”

It took a lot of work, both mentally and in the way we engage with each other, for me to get to a place where I said: ‘O.K., I’m in. I’m staying in this marriage.’ Here was a man I respected, I loved, was the father of this child inside of me, and he was asking me for a second chance. And I’m not going to say that was an easy or fast decision that I made. It’s been almost two years now. I did spend a lot of time saying and thinking: ‘I. Don’t. Understand.’ And it took a long time to be able to sit on a couch next to Anthony and say, ‘O.K., I understand and I forgive.’ It was the right choice for me. I didn’t make it lightly.”

Committing to someone who’s embarrassed you in public is one thing. But I hope people aren’t throwing away otherwise good marriages over a few text messages and a fetish that is, at most, one standard deviation away from vanilla.

Ultimately, though, the most interesting thing about this story is that it exists at all. It’s 8,300 words of a politician talking not about his policies, his experience, his goals, but his marriage. This is what redemption looks like in America in 2013. Don’t convince me to vote for you, convince me you’re a good husband. Convince me you’re in therapy.

By that criteria, the story works. It takes two faroff people, public figures, and puts them into a familiar story of love tested and renewed. It takes something strange and makes it relatable. That’s what all the best commercials do.

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Why Don’t Newspapers Take Unsolicited Submissions Seriously?

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Originally posted on The Huffington Post

A telling paragraph in Michael Lewis’s review of ‘Why I Left Goldman Sachs':

The author recounts how he spent most of the six months leading up to last March working at Goldman by day while writing up his deeply felt grievances against Goldman by night. When he finished he had a 1,500-word counterblast but no place to put it: he e-mailed it to the general address for blind submissions to the Times op-ed page. He heard nothing for a month, and so finally dug out the e-mail addresses of four Times editors, and sent his piece to all of them. The next morning the Times got in touch with him.

It’s great that ‘Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs‘ eventually got noticed and published, but I can’t help thinking about all the other pieces submitted to that blind submissions address that weren’t.

A lot of people are sitting on fascinating stories about the places where they work, where they live, what’s happening in their lives. This is what journalists, what journalism, is supposed to be concerned with. But sometimes it seems like newspapers are only interested in great stories when their own reporters get to tell them.

Earlier today I read this New Yorker article about ‘slow journalism’, the kind produced by reporters who are embedded, walking a beat, just hanging out until something happens so fascinating the rest of the world needs to know about it. Newspapers don’t have the money for foreign bureaus anymore, the article laments, so now reporters have to parachute into financial reform, scientific debates, economic indicators, write it up and whoosh on to the next one.

In Beijing, the joke among hacks is that, after the drive in from the airport, you are ready to write a column; after a month, you feel the stirrings of an idea-book; but after a year, you struggle to write anything at all, because you’ve finally discovered just how much you don’t know.

That’s probably true, and probably sad. But I wonder if what it really means is that, in a world where anyone can write a blog post or take a photo or make a documentary, we need reporters less than we need harvesters. 

Thousands of people live in fascinating places, are experts in their fields, work in fucked-up and hilarious institutions. Many of these people can tell you their story, and why it matters, better than a reporter ever could.

I’m sure the New York Times gets all kinds of cranks sending them op-eds from curtained rooms, but I’m sure they also get thousands of  stories that are one editor away from fascinating, thousands of people who can’t tell a new story every week but have one great one they’re struggling to tell.

Newspapers are supposed to teach us what’s true in the world. Sometimes a professional reporter is the best person to do that. Sometimes not. I hope that, as journalism becomes whatever it’s becoming, it finds time not just to tell us stories, but to find them.

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‘What It Takes’ and the Weirdness of Politicians

Last weekend Richard Ben Cramer died. Here’s an excerpt from his seminal 1992 book, What It Takes, describing a ‘light’ weekend in the life of Senator Bob Dole:

The Senate was winding up its tem for the fall, and Dole wouldn’t get away till Saturday morning—just in time for a flight to Akron, a press conference and a fund-raising breakfast for two Congressional candidates, then a speech to a rally in the airport; then a quick flight to Sandusky, O., for a press conference and another speech at a luncheon rally; then a flight to Cleveland for a rally speech and a joint press conference on behalf of four GOP hopefuls; then a flight to Findlay, O., for another press conference and a mix-and-mingle for Congressman Oxley; then a flight to Cincinnati for a press conference with gubernatorial candidate James Rhodes at the home of former Senator Taft; then an hour-and-a-half flight east to Monmouth, New Jersey, followed by a twenty-minute drive to a Hilton, where Dole was scheduled to get in about midnight for his Saturday night’s sleep.

Sunday he’d start with a twenty-five-minute ride to a country club in Manalatan Township to do a press conference and a speech at a buffet breakfast; then another drive, another flight, this time to Jamestown, New York, near Buffalo, for a joint news conference with a House candidate; and a drive to another country club for the candidate’s funder-brunch, where Dole would make a few more brief remarks; then another drive to another speech, this to a Chautauqua County veterans’ group, a photo op with members of the Country Veterans Council and the dedication of a bridge in honor of the nation’s veterans; than another flight to State College, Pennsylvania, for a speech to five hundred Penn State students, and another press conference with a Congressman, Bill Clinger, and another drive to another hotel for another speech at a fundraiser, and then another drive and a wheels-up for Washington, National Airport, where the Lincoln Town Car would be waiting in the dark to take him back to the Watergate—unless he decided to stop at the office to get ready for the Senate Monday.

Cramer’s book is totally great (as in large, but also as in awesome), and confirmed my lifelong impression that being a successful politician basically requires you to be a sociopath-caliber extrovert.

Bob Dole was sixty-five when he was living this schedule. The only way to do this, to keep this up, is if you genuinely get energized by constant handshakes, nonstop chit-chat, giving the same old smile to different new people every waking moment. Cramer writes with a deep admiration of these guys, how they keep a million names in their heads, how they can recite legislation by rote, how they can tell the perfect back-slapping joke with the perfect handshake timing. But I read it with a kind of dread. Is this who we’ve outsourced the running of our country to?

But that’s probably just me failing to relate to people who are different than me. Cramer’s book is a powerful reminder of the greatness, the weakness, the weirdness of the people who run our country. And by writing it, he might have achieved greatness himself.

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The Only Thing You Need to Read About Guns in America

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is Erik Larson’s ‘The Story of a Gun‘, from 1993.

He traces one small-scale school shooting (ew what a yucky phrase) back to the shooter, retailer, manufacturer and, ultimately,  culture that created it.

What’s most fascinating about the article is how it tracks the constituents we don’t often hear about. The company that manufactured the gun. The store that sold it.  The background check that asks would-be gun buyers ‘are you mentally ill?’ with a tick-box. The understaffed and overstretched regulators.

I’m sure—I hope!—a lot of  the specifics are out of date (Does the ATF have more than 400 inspectors by now?), but it’s a chilling demonstration of how gun manufacturers and sellers have gotten off the hook for America’s violence problem.

To be a gun dealer in America is to occupy a strange and dangerous outpost on the moral frontier. Every storefront gun dealer winds up at some point in his career selling weapons to killers, drug addicts, psychos, and felons; likewise, every storefront dealer can expect to be visited by ATF agents and other lawmen tracing weapons backward from their use in crime to their origins in the gun-distribution network.

One must be a cool customer to stay in business knowing that the products one sells are likely to be used to kill adults and children or to serve as a terroristic tool in robberies, rapes, and violent assaults. Yet gun dealers deny at every step of the way the true nature of the products they sell and absolve themselves of responsibility for their role in the resulting mayhem.

Guns used in crime are commonly thought to have originated in some mythic inner-city black market. Such markets do exist, of course, but they are kept well supplied by the licensed gun-distribution network, where responsibility is defined as whatever the law allows.

If you were trying to reduce car-accident fatalities to zero, you’d definitely make driver’s license requirements stronger, obligate people to take more driving lessons, prove their eyesight, etc. But you’d also make sure every single car had airbags, you’d require manufacturers to prevent ignition unless seat belts were fastened, you’d make dealerships confirm that every car buyer knows how to drive. You’d also change the way you build roads, and how you patrol them.

I know gun manufacturers and retailers aren’t free from restrictions, aren’t entirely ignored in the debate over gun control. But reducing gun crime doesn’t mean you take the guns away from everybody who owns one. It means you prevent guns from being made, and from being sold, in the first place.

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The Best Longreads of 2012

Originally posted at Longreads.com

I read news when I want to be entertained. I read features when I want to learn something. Here’s nine articles I read this year that changed the way I look at the world, and made me wonder how I seem when it looks back.

“Diary of a Mad Fact-Checker,” James Pogue, Oxford American

It’s been a bad year for truth. From Mike Daisey and Jonah Lehrer to Rush Limbaugh and Mitt Romney, 2012 felt like a yearlong debate about the role of exaggeration, hyperbole, fact-checking and outright fabrication in the pursuit of an argument. Pogue’s piece, a kind of letter from the extreme-pedant end of the spectrum, illustrates how fidelity to facts can obscure the truth, and how embellishment can reveal it.

“Lost in Space,” Mike Albo, Narrative.ly

Maybe I only feel like I learned something from this essay because I’m in essentially the same position as Albo. I’ve been single for almost 10 years, and I’m realizing that that if I had applied all the hours I’ve wasted on the promiscu-net to something useful, I could have knitted a quilt, learned French, mastered Othello and read all of Wikipedia by now.

If our society has learned anything from the first 20 years of internet access, it’s that looking for what you want isn’t always the best way to get it, and that getting it is a great way to stop wanting it. Albo’s essay couldn’t have been written by any gay man in America because they’re not as good at writing as he is, but I get the feeling it’s been lived by most of them.

“The Innocent Man,” Pamela Colloff, Texas Monthly

and

“The Caging Of America,” Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker

OK, so it’s not exactly earth-shattering news that America’s prison system is problematic and that “Texas justice” is an oxymoron. But this year brought a new impetus for action, partly due to new numbers (the widely reported stat that 1% of America’s population is incarcerated), legislative action (Obama’s plan to combat prison rape, scorchingly reported in the New York Review of Books) and, qualitatively but no less essentially, longform pieces like Gopnik’s and Colloff’s.

People are always quoting the MLK-via-Obama line “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice,” and articles like these—one a macro view of the problem, one micro—is what that bend looks like.

“Does Mitt Romney Have a Soul?” Wells Tower, GQ

It’s easy now to forget that this was an election year, and that we spent basically all of it squabbling, speculating and pontificating about its outcome, which we now say we knew all along.

Most election reporting is disposable, either gaffe play-by-plays (“Binders Full of Women: Interactive Timeline”), instantly obsolete hypotheticals (What if Romney picks Christie for VP?) or politically orchestrated profiles (“Obama’s audacious plan to save the middle class from Libyan airstrikes”). If you remember these articles past ctrl+w, it’s only until events catch up, and then they poof out of your consciousness forever.

Towers’s Romney profile is one of the few still worth reading after the election. Nominally a standard “let’s hang out in the campaign bus!” piece, it transcends its premise by capturing the conflicting forces tugging at the hem of the Republican party, and how Romney’s sheer empty-vesselness managed to please, and displease, everyone at once.

“Gangnam Style, Dissected: The Subversive Message Within South Korea’s Music Video Sensation,” Max Fisher, The Atlantic

Maybe it’s just the ubiquity of its subject, now the most-viewed-ever video on YouTube, but no article stuck with me this year quite like Fisher’s. In a culture that strains to call itself postracial, sharing “Gangnam Style” on Twitter and Facebook was a safe, quiet way to shout ‘look how weird Koreans are!’ and invite your friends to gawk alongside you.

According to Fisher, “Gangnam” isn’t an expression of Korean culture, but a satire of it. Psy was saying the same thing we spectators were, only in a visual language (and, obviously, a verbal one) we couldn’t understand. He was laughing at his culture too, he just had no idea how easy it was to get the rest of the world to join him.

“The Truck Stop Killer,” Vanessa Veselka, GQ

It’s all in the execution, they say, and nothing demonstrated that this year better than Veselka’s harrowing investigation into whether the guy who kidnapped and then released her on the side of the road in 1985 was a serial killer.

She never finds the answer to her question. But who cares! It’s a great piece, super interesting, suspenseful, creepy, introspective in all the right places. We all know that compelling stories don’t always need happy endings. In this case, it doesn’t need one at all.

“The Bloody Patent Battle Over A Healing Machine,” Ken Otterbourg, Fortune

and

“How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work,” Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher, New York Times

I admit it: I have no idea how the international economy works. I used to feel about this the way I feel about not being able to describe asexual reproduction, or the Spanish Civil War, or how to grow tomatoes. I can see why somebody’s got to do it, I just can’t see why it’s got to be me.

Since the 2008 crash, though, knowledge of economics has gone from nice to have to can’t miss, and things like competitiveness, productivity and efficiency have taken a place in politics previously reserved for life-and-deathers like sports doping and the Ground Zero Mosque.

Patent trolling and outsourced manufacturing aren’t the only issues facing the US economy, of course, but both these articles demonstrate how businesses, governments and consumers have made the wrong thing too easy, and how the hard thing might not be the way back.

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