The national security state, unrestrained

Last week a French historian who specializes in the Holocaust was detained and interrogated for more than ten hours at George Bush Intercontinental Airport by agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

ICE agents have been conducting lots of raids lately. The NSA, presumably, is continuing its vast collection activities. The FBI is presumably continuing to sortie its flying dirtboxes. The Ring of Steel still encompasses Lower Manhattan, and now must cover most of New York City. It’s likely that even your encrypted communications are vulnerable to the great American national security state.

We don’t have to worry about the Deep State sabotaging Trump. We have to worry about the American national security state rallying around the neo-fascist Trump Administration and supporting and defending it.

Many of the people who join these institutions may be best described as “law and order conservatives.” They seem to welcome the order to take the gloves off.

They’re happy to detain a Holocaust scholar at the airport and threaten him with immediate deportation. They’re thrilled to be able to once again surveil mosques and innocent American citizens with impunity. They love the dopamine rush as the door splinters under the force of the battering ram as they rush in to deport 12 year old “illegals.”

The FBI once tried to blackmail Martin Luther King into suicide. They wrote him a letter.

A highlight:

No person can overcome the facts, no even a fraud like yourself. Lend your sexually psychotic ear to the enclosure. You will find yourself and in all your dirt, filth, evil and moronic talk exposed on the record for all time. . . . Listen to yourself, you filthy, abnormal animal. You are on the record…

King, there is only one thing left for you to do. You know what it is. You have just 34 days in which to do it (this exact number has been selected for a specific reason, it has definite practical significance). You are done. There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.

The FBI’s surveillance powers today are much greater than they were in 1964. Today’s national security capabilities make the methods of COINTELPRO look like the dawdling gameplay of schoolboys playing at spies.

Presidents George W. Bush and Barrack Obama built these capabilities to fight radical Islamic terrorism. They authorized the flying dirtboxes, the mass compromise of SSL, the blurring of the Constitutional lines. The Bush Administration famously tried to get an ailing John Ashcroft to authorize illegal domestic espionage from his hospital bed. Ashcroft refused.

But the programs did not stop. The capabilities were not rolled back. We know this.

The great threat of these programs was always this: they might fall into the wrong hands. You might trust George W. Bush to use them appropriately. You might trust Barrack Obama to use them appropriately. You are unlikely to trust Trump to use them appropriately.

President Trump refers to the media as the enemy of the people. This is an odd choice of words for an American president. As the Times writes:

“The formula ‘enemy of the people,’” Mr. Khrushchev told the Soviet Communist Party in a 1956 speech denouncing Stalin’s cult of personality, “was specifically introduced for the purpose of physically annihilating such individuals” who disagreed with the supreme leader.

An American president is now using a Stalinist phrase that is designed for “annihilation” to describe the free press of the United States of America. And this man sits at the top of a national security infrastructure so vast and so powerful that it makes the capabilities of the NKVD, the KGB, the Stasi, the Gestapo or even the FBI of 1964 look like child’s play.

The modern American panopticon can peer into every living room, every phone call, every “encrypted” e-mail and sext. We are now relying on the ethics of the men and women leading our law enforcement and national security apparatus to protect us.

The Trump Administration is unlikely to restrain the national security state from investigating its enemies, or the enemies of the people. We are relying on the FISA Court to protect us and on the intelligence community to respect the law and use the FISA Court.

Unfortunately the Obama Administration already gutted the FISA Court:

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Court is no longer serving its constitutional function of providing a check on the executive branch’s ability to obtain Americans’ private communications. Dramatic shifts in technology and law have changed the role of the FISA Court since its creation in 1978 — from reviewing government applications to collect communications in specific cases, to issuing blanket approvals of sweeping data collection programs affecting millions of Americans.

Under today’s foreign intelligence surveillance system, the government’s ability to collect information about ordinary Americans’ lives has increased exponentially while judicial oversight has been reduced to near-nothingness.

This is where the battle must be fought. In the courts and in Congress. We must find a way to deny Trump unfettered use of the national security state to pursue his enemies, to blackmail them, to silence them. This is the most dangerous possible future of American government. This is the dystopia we invited.

We allowed the tools to be built. We have allowed them to fall into the wrong hands. We must now act before it becomes too late.

The information bubble

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing about filter bubbles lately, but not information bubbles.

Information bubbles exist when people inside an institution have access to information that’s very different from the information available from the outside. Information bubbles cause people within them to make decisions differently than those outside, and they frequently cause the institutions to be popularly misunderstood.

A common feature of information bubbles is that people within the affected institutions often find reporting about them to be inscrutably wrong.

The article Daniel Ellsberg, Edward Snowden, and the Modern Whistle-Blower in the New Yorker describes information bubbles exceedingly well.

In the article the author quotes from Daniel Ellsberg’s auto-biography about preparing Henry Kissinger for his time in government:

You will feel like a fool for having studied, written, talked about these subjects, criticized and analyzed decisions made by presidents for years without having known of the existence of all this information, which presidents and others had and you didn’t, and which must have influenced their decisions in ways you couldn’t even guess…

It will have become very hard for you to learn from anybody who doesn’t have these clearances. Because you’ll be thinking as you listen to them: “What would this man be telling me if he knew what I know? Would he be giving me the same advice, or would it totally change his predictions and recommendations?” And that mental exercise is so torturous that after a while you give it up and just stop listening. . . . The danger is, you’ll become something like a moron.

This resonates. When I worked at Facebook almost everything I read about the company was wrong. Mots of the “facts” reported about the company were wrong unless they were cribbed directly from earning announcements. Strategy analysis was almost always off the mark. The tone of coverage had more to do with the reporter and our relationship with them than the company’s actual actions. When the company’s actions were responsible for the tone of coverage it was usually due to how we communicated our actions rather than the actions themselves.

This must also be true of governments. Who knows what’s going on behind the Russo-American election drama. We have no way of knowing what other actions have been taken, or what information either side is acting on. We have only reportage and tweets from the Russian Embassy in Washington.

Is the US government stealing Putin’s money from his bank accounts? Disabling oil pipelines? Messing with Putin’s own upcoming election? We won’t know for a generation.

Similarly, we can’t know what it’s like to be inside Apple as it’s lapped by Google, or what it was like to be inside Microsoft as it was lapped by Apple. We can’t know why Musk really decided to have Tesla buy Solar City.

This does not mean we should give up on understanding the world around us. It just means that we should be humble.

It is worth repeating this adage frequently: “Everything you read in the newspaper is absolutely true, unless it’s about a subject you know something about.”

The Pixel has put my iPhone 7 in a drawer

Google Home is so good that it inspired me to try the Pixel.

I’m two weeks into using the Pixel and I don’t know if I’ll ever go back to iPhone despite having been a (mostly) loyal iPhone user for almost a decade.

The hardware is just as good

Pixel is the first phone to challenge iPhone on its own turf. Its build quality and software quality is as good as iPhone. Apple’s previously insurmountable advantage in product design and manufacturing has been bridged.

Pixel’s hardware feels solid and expensive. The screen is at least as good as iPhone’s. The camera is also as good or better. The fingerprint sensor is faster and more reliable. Battery life is longer and better managed.

The software is better

Pixel’s software is excellent. It’s better than iOS. Android has matured, and Google’s finishing layer that’s unique to Pixel is also excellent. Pixel’s OS is tasteful and well thought through. The jank previously native to Android has been excised.

More importantly, a lot of the software is materially better than iOS:

  •  Notifications are excellent. You manage them in the notification tray, on the notification. This is the paradigm that makes most sense. You can also take myriad actions directly from notifications. You can reply to messages, upvote a location in Foursquare, or look at a snapshot from your Nest cam in your notification tray. Apple tried to copy this functionality in recent versions of iOS but their copies are poor substitute’s for Google’s real thing.
  • The OS share dialog  on Android is also better. The share dialog offers the ability to share through apps, but also directly to people. You can choose to open WhatsApp or share directly to a frequently contacted friend on WhatsApp. Totally brilliant.
  • Google Now integration is very good. Like with notifications, Apple’s attempt to copy this functionality in its left drawer and in the notifications tray falls far short of the real thing.
  • Google MapsGmail and Google Calendar are all better on Android.
  • GBoard is phenomenal. I’m swipe typing for the first time, and it’s awesome. Integrated GIF search and the like is also epic. Again, Apple’s attempts to copy this functionality fall far short.
  • Assistant is epically good. Moving from Siri to Alexa felt like moving from an Apple II to a Lisa. Moving from Alexa to Assistant is like moving from Lisa to a Mac.
  • Even small things are good and well thought through. Two factor authentication with Google services works with a fingerprint instead of a shared code from Google Authenticator. This is a very welcome and really nice flow that shows just how far Google has come in user experience design.

It’s also worth mentioning that I got a free Daydream View with the Pixel. It’s a better and less expensive version of the Gear VR. It’s still a novelty, but it’s also obviously part of the future.

But it’s really about machine intelligence

These things by themselves might not be enough to get you to throw your iPhone away for a Pixel. It’s the AI that’ll get you to do that.

This past weekend Caroline and I were in Paris. We traveled home by way of the Eurostar at Gare du Nord, a Parisian train station. When we arrived at the station Android automatically pushed a card to me offering a translation of “Where do I buy train tickets?” from English to French. It also offered a convenient speaker button that I could use to have Google speak the phrase for me in French if I was unsure of my pronunciation.

Pixel knew that I was an English speaker, that I was visiting France, that they speak French in France, that I was in a train station, and that maybe I would like to be able to ask someone where to buy train tickets but might not have all the words to do so. That’s service.

This is only a small example of the machine intelligence baked into Pixel. Google Photos automatically organizes your pictures with facial recognition and other features.

The phone recommends coffee shops to you, tells you what museums to go to,  and tells you what time you need to leave for you next appointment. It tells you when your bills are due.

You can ask Assistant “Who is Mariano Rivera?” and then “What’s he worth?” and it’ll answer both questions perfectly.

Apple is trying desperately to copy this functionality and is failing. To use Pixel is to understand how machine intelligence should be integrated into a phone and into your life.

Android phones used to be poor copies of iPhone. Now iPhone feels like a poor copy of the Pixel.

There are only two reasons not to switch

There are only two reasons not to switch to the Pixel: services lock-in (iMessage, FaceTime and iPhoto) and concern about switching to an unfamiliar platform.

Services lock-in is hard to fight. WhatsApp, Messenger and SMS are poor substitutes for iMessage and FaceTime. Android doesn’t offer a competitor, which is why Google released Allo and Duo. Pickup of Allo and Duo have been disappointing, which means that Google is at a structural disadvantage in this department. They’ve got to catch up here in order to truly compete effectively.

But on familiarity, Google has a winning strategy. You’re already using Android apps on your iPhone. Google Maps, Gmail, Google Calendar, Chrome, Sheets, Docs and Gboard are all iPhone apps built by Google in the style of Android, using Material Design. They are identical to their Android versions, only not as good.

This means that once you’ve used the Google suite of software on an iPhone you’ll barely notice the change to Android. You’re already used to Material Design. And other apps aren’t a problem either. Almost all of the apps you use on iPhone are available on Android, and these days they’re just as good.

This is now Google’s game to lose

At some point you’re going to see something on a Pixel or another flagship Android phone that wows you. It may be Assistant, or it may be in Google Photos or somewhere else. It’ll probably be an application of Google’s lead in machine intelligence, although it might be better notification handling or something like that. You’ll say “I want that,” and Apple’s excellence in hardware design won’t be enough to outweigh Google’s excellence in software. You’ll switch.

I still believe that Apple is ending a super cycle and starting a new one. They’re at a low point from which they’ll likely recover. But after experiencing Google Home and Pixel I’m convinced that recovery won’t be easy. Google has colonized my pocket with Pixel and our home with Google Home. Our TVs might soon get Chromecast.

This game is now Google’s to lose. They’re executing like champs. They’ve gotten me to put my shiny black iPhone 7 in a drawer, next to my now useless Apple Watch.

I don’t think I’m going back, and I’m increasingly convinced that the next great businesses are going to be built on top of Google Assistant.

Living with two AIs

We have been living with Alexa since it came out. We have three Echos: one in the kitchen, one in our bedroom and one in our living room.

Over time our house has gradually gotten smarter, and Alexa has become more useful. We’ve gone from just using the flash briefing and occasional music streaming to using her to control our kitchen lights and the temperature in various rooms around the house using Tado smart thermostats and radiator valves.

For a while I was the exclusive user of Alexa in our house, but over time Caroline started using her more and more. Her use of Alexa was accelerated massively when Amazon formally launched  Echo in the UK and an English localization became available. Alexa suddenly understood Caroline’s mid-Atlantic accent better than before. The BBC led our flash briefing. Usage soared.

Then, on a recent trip to New York, I picked up two Google Homes. I put one in the kitchen and one in our dressing room.

We don’t use Alexa anymore. If you’d like an Echo, we’ve got one to sell you. Three, in fact.

Most reviews claim that Google Home and Echo are roughly equivalent, and that at the moment Echo is marginally better. We have not found this to be the case in our house.

Google Home’s lack of “Skills” — the little voice applets that populate Amazon’s Alexa app store — is more than made up for by support for Spotify, Philips Hue, Samsung Smarthings and IFTTT.

The IFTT integration is particularly sick: it allows you to hijack any phrase and use it to trigger an IFTTT recipe. You can even pass variables, so you can say things like “Make the bedroom 20 degrees,” and pass the values “bedroom” and “20” on to whatever heating system you’re using which is also IFTTT-compatible. It feels like magic, and it’s instant. It beats the hell out of developing a custom Alexa skill with Lambda “in under an hour.”

The Spotify integration is also excellent. “Hey Google, play music” starts playing your Discover Weekly. You can ask for any of your Spotify playlists. You can say “Play Willie Nelson” or “Play the Goldberg Variations” and it just works. Alexa routinely plays the wrong music and forces you to be very specific: “Play the album The Goldberg Variations by Glenn Gould.” Google needs no such specificity. You can talk about music with it like you would a friend.

Google Home is aware, unlike Echo, that your home probably has multiple rooms. You can ask it to “Play The Goldberg Variations in the bedroom.” Better yet, if you’ve got a Chromecast hooked up to your stereo, you can say “Play the Goldberg Variations on the stereo.” It just works.

And this is another key difference between Google Home and Echo. Alexa makes you feel like you’re typing at a command line. Your syntax must be perfect. Google Home is forgiving, and seems to legitimately get better at understanding you over time. “Hey, Google, what’s my day look like?” works. You’ll be told what the weather’s like, what your first meeting is, how long your commute will take and then Google will start your news report. Bam.

Alexa feels like a novelty that offers a glimpse of the future.

Google Home feels like the future. We actually use it. Often. It’ll even translate for you. “Hey, Google, how do you say ‘I don’t speak French’ in French?”

Google wasn’t kidding when they said that they were behind in releasing a home product but that their AI was much more sophisticated than anyone else’s and that they’d quickly catch up. This race is now Google’s to lose. And it’s making me want to get a Pixel.

Apple and Amazon have their work cut out for them. If you can’t even get AirPods to work as your ubiquitous interface to your sub-par AI then you’re really going to have a hard time competing against something as fantastically good as Google Home.

[The Alexa/Echo, Assistant/Home thing is weird, and so I’ve tried to write around it.]

Carney on the economic and political situation

You should stop what you’re doing right now and read The Spectre of Monaterism by Mark Carney, the excellent chairman of the Bank of England. It’s a short speech, with graphs.

Carney is calling for “building a globalization that works for all.” His is not a fully formed proposal, but it’s a at least one step forward in ending the intellectual bankruptcy of the opposition.

From his speech:

To address the deeper causes of weak growth, higher inequality and rising insecurity requires a globalisation that works for all.

For the societies of free-trading, networked countries to prosper, they must first re-distribute some of the gains from trade and technology, and then re-skill and reconnect all of their citizens. By doing so, they can put individuals back in control.

For free trade to benefit all requires some redistribution. There are limits, of course, because of fiscal constraints at the macro level and the need to maintain incentives at the micro level. Fostering dependency on the state is no way to increase human agency, even though a safety net is needed to cushion shocks and smooth adjustment.

Redistribution and fairness also means turning back the tide of stateless corporations. As the Prime Minister recently stressed, companies must be rooted and pay tax somewhere: businesses operating across borders “have responsibilities … in terms, for example, of payment of tax.” They must recognise “the role that they play in local communities and the responsibilities that they have in any country they are operating in to abide by the rules.”

Because technology and trade are constantly evolving and can lead to rapid shifts in production, the commitment to reskilling all workers must be continual.

In a job market subject to frequent, radical changes, people’s prospects depend on direct and creative engagement with global markets. Lifelong learning, ever-greening skills and cooperative training will become more important than ever.

Finally, in an age where anyone can produce anything anywhere through 3-D printing, where anyone can broadcast their performance globally or sell to China whatever the size of their business, there is an opportunity for mass employment through mass creativity.

It’s not everything, but it’s a start.

The intellectual bankruptcy of the opposition

Every Western country is struggling with the political far right.

I believe this is a reaction to a combination of economic stagnation and a degradation of our social fabric. Economic liberalism and humanism are failing us. No one has a solution.

On one hand you have regressive populists who seek to wind back the clock to a period of past glory. Nigel Firage promises that Brexit will roll back European political and economic integration. Trump promises to Make America Great Again. Marine Le Pen promises to make France safe for French people.

On the other hand you have liberal elites who promise more of the same. Cameron offered no great promise of British economic revival. Clinton offered no meaningful alternative to Trump’s nostalgia. Hollande is the most unpopular president in French history, and perhaps in the history of Western democracy.

The West’s progressive politicians are losing elections and face abysmal approval ratings despite supposedly being the best that the Western liberal order has to offer. It’s not their fault. Their support system — economists and philosophers — are failing them. Our students and theorists of political economy have gone bankrupt.

The establishment is staring at the future and offering more Keynesian stimulus and more trade. The prescription to systems failure? More of the same.

Voters are not fooled. They want an alternative and, failing a progressive one, they’ll vote for a regressive one.

Capitalism won the great intellectual debate 25 years ago. Capitalism has worked. It has lifted tens of millions out of poverty. It has also led to a massive transfer of wealth from the developed world to the undeveloped world. It has also created the largest wealth disparities in developed countries on record since the Gilded Age. These effects would be acceptable to voters if Capitalism were also offering fast enough growth that it covered for these wealth transfers and disparities. It is not offering that growth anymore.

In normal times Capitalism would have intellectual competition. Capitalism won the Cold War so definitively that there is no alternative political or economic philosophy available. Neoliberalism has taken over.

Our universities are more concerned with cisgender oppression of the queer than with questions of economics or economic justice. There is no new Chicago School. Picketty and his lot describe the symptoms, but not the disease. I want gender freedom as much as anyone, but not at the expense of economic growth.

Politics get nasty when economic growth stagnates or regresses. The problem now is not that people are inherently more nativist this year than last, or that they are more racist, or that they are somehow worse people. The problem is that they’re simply being rational.

Voters are asking for the wealth transfer from their developed pocketbooks to Chinese and Indian and African pocketbooks to stop, or at least pause. They’re becoming nativist and anti-immigrant because they feel that it doesn’t make sense to add more people to a country that can’t grow its economy fast enough for the people already in it.

When economic growth slows trade and immigration quickly become zero-sum games.

These twin facts of slow growth and the lack of a positive and progressive answer lead to the election of dangerous politicians. The people who are now being swept into office are scary. They conjure nightmares of the aftermath of the Great Depression, which was last time the economic situation was this stagnant. In the 30s politics gave us a great battle between Facists and Communists.

Even in America we had a president who railroaded Congress, tried to pack the Supreme Court, interred immigrants based on their heritage and declared that the thing that most mattered was “a chicken in every pot.” Roosevelt scared the hell out of a lot of people.

In the aftermath of 2008 we have Trump and May. We face the rising spectre of Le Pen’s National Front and Alternative for Deutschland.

There is no meaningful political opposition. The British Labour party is led by an unreconstructed Soviet mole. America’s Democratic opposition is being led by Senator Chuck Schumer. In America every politician gets to pick which industry they are bought by. Schumer picked the banks. Not the best patron for a man who is charged with fighting against the populist backlash to a systemic banking failure.

Progressives are out of new ideas.

Trump cannot be defeated, Brexit cannot be reversed, Le Pen cannot be stopped, until we have new ideas. We need more to offer than poorly disguised, barely warmed over Marxism. You can do all of the community organising you want, but without a new political and economic philosophy, you will lose.

False equivalence: white nationalism edition

Liberals have long complained about false equivalence in news coverage. An example of such equivalence that might bring rage: reporting that frames the statements of climate deniers as having equal weight as statements from legitimate climate scientists.

Paul Krugman, writing in the New York Times, did a lot of pre-Election hand wringing about how false equivalence might win Trump the election:

If Donald Trump becomes president, the news media will bear a large share of the blame. I know some (many) journalists are busy denying responsibility, but this is absurd, and I think they know it. As Nick Kristof says, polls showing that the public considers Hillary Clinton, a minor fibber at most, less trustworthy than a pathological liar is prima facie evidence of massive media failure.

In fact, it’s telling that this debate is usually framed as one of false equivalence and whether it’s a problem. It’s a lot better to have this debate than a continuation of the unchecked media assault on Clinton. But it’s actually much worse than that. The media haven’t treated Clinton fibs as the equivalent of outright Trump lies; they have treated more or less innocuous Clintonisms as major scandals while whitewashing Trump. Put simply, until the past few days the media have had it in for Clinton; only now, at the last moment or possibly after the last moment has the enormity of the sin begun to sink in.

Donald Trump is president now. That hasn’t stopped the Times from engaging in some heavy-handed false equivalence of their own lately.

Take the recent article Alt-Right Exults in Donald Trump’s Victory With a Salute: ‘Heil Victory’. I’m not sure that you could find a more incendiary or left-baiting headline.

An excerpt from the breathlessly reported article:

Earlier in the day, Mr. Spencer himself had urged the group to start acting less like an underground organization and more like the establishment.

But now his tone changed as he began to tell the audience of more than 200 people, mostly young men, what they had been waiting to hear. He railed against Jews and, with a smile, quoted Nazi propaganda in the original German. America, he said, belonged to white people, whom he called the “children of the sun,” a race of conquerors and creators who had been marginalized but now, in the era of President-elect Donald J. Trump, were “awakening to their own identity.”

As he finished, several audience members had their arms outstretched in a Nazi salute. When Mr. Spencer, or perhaps another person standing near him at the front of the room — it was not clear who — shouted, “Heil the people! Heil victory,” the room shouted it back.

This is legitimately terrifying and this kind of conference and this kind of behavior has no place in American civic life. But note the number of attendees: two hundred. There were only two hundred people there.

Contrast this with the annual NAACP Convention, an event that Trump has declined to address, despite an invitation. The NAACP Convention draws around 10,000 attendees every year.

The Times‘ false equivalency here helps no one. It doesn’t help American political discourse. It doesn’t help readers of the Times. It doesn’t help the effort to defeat “White Nationalism.” It doesn’t help undermine Trump’s potentially racist agenda. It’s just counter-productive noise. It’s crying wolf.

It’s possible that the time will come that we need a strong, independent, trusted media to rally the country to the defense of our Constitutional rights in the face of a dangerous, racist demagogue who’s occupying the Oval Office. It would be nice if that media didn’t squander whatever credibility it had left by writing stupid click-bait articles about “the children of the sun” celebrating Trump’s election with Nazi salutes.

Misunderstanding media

The traditional media failed the American people this past election in several specific ways:

  • The media failed spectacularly in its job of predicting the outcome of the election;
  • The media failed to report on Donald Trump’s character and policies in a meaningful way, preferring instead to poke fun at him;
  • The media failed to report on the underlying cultural tension that led to Trump’s victory, preferring instead to report on fringe characters in order to portray all of his supporters as a basket of deplorables.

These failures were a direct result of changes in the media landscape in the late 20th and early 21st centuries that have been fundamentally misunderstood by the great institutions of American journalism.

For the past 25 years the means of media production and distribution have been democratizing. I believe that the process of democratization is now essentially complete. Smartphones and social media have turned every individual in the developed world (and many in the developing world) into media agents.

The traditional media have interpreted this sort of media democratization as a fundamental threat to their existence. Before democratization they’d understood their role in society to be as the collectors, packagers and distributors of facts. Of Truth. Opinion was for the op-ed pages. It was second to facts.

Democratization threatened to make facts commodity. If everyone in the world could capture the facts on a smartphone and distribute it instantly to everyone in the world, what was the purpose of CNN? Of the New York Times? What value was a “paper of record” that printed only every twenty-four hours?

The media decided to get out of the fact business. They decided to get into the opinion business.

The New York Times didn’t cover the 2016 election as the “paper of record.” They didn’t live up to their bold slogan of “all the news that’s fit to print.” They didn’t seek out Trump voters and try to explain who they were and why they were voting for him.

The New York Times instead decided to play into the coastal elite’s stereotypes of Trump voters with sensationalist, scare-mongering, liberal-baiting stories like A Militia Gets Battle Ready for a ‘Gun-Grabbing’ Clinton Presidency:

When Mr. Trump says he wants to make America great again, a message that has appealed to a broad segment of the electorate, Mr. Hill and his roughly 50 local militiamen are particularly enthralled. They long for an America they believe has been stolen from them by liberals, immigrants and “the P.C. crowd.” Their America is one where Christianity is taught in schools, abortion is illegal and immigrants hail from Europe, not faraway Muslim lands.

This changing approach to journalism was a conscious reaction to what the Times perceived to be a changing landscape.

A Times strategy memo from February described it this way:

The digital news marketplace nudges us away from covering incremental developments — readers can find those anywhere in a seemingly endless online landscape. Instead, it favors hard-hitting “only-in-The New York Times” coverage: authoritative journalism and information readers can use to navigate their lives.

Jill Abramson, a former executive editor of the Times, talked about this in terms of “contextual reporting.” The New Yorker profiled her and quoted a paragraph from her review of Game Change, in which Abramson criticizes the authors for just reporting facts:

Woodward is famous for his flat, just-the-facts-ma’am style, if one can call it that. It is the old-fashioned newspaperman’s credo of show, don’t tell. He rarely pauses in his narratives to synthesize or analyze, let alone to judge his powerful subjects, especially those who have been his sources. He has only one angle, the close-up.

It’s a revealing paragraph. It tells you everything you need to know about how the media viewed itself in an age of digital transformation. The facts don’t matter anymore. Interpretation does. The Times’ job is not to report facts, anyone can do that! The Times’ job is to teach you how to think!

Sulzberger hired Abramson as Executive Editor to transform the Times for the age of social:

Unlike Howell Raines, who wanted to transform the newsroom, Abramson preached newsroom continuity. She would create a new leadership team with “some new people.” But her real innovations, she vowed, would be digital.

That’s what Sulzberger wanted to hear. He told me that he needed an editor who understood “the move from search to social and what that means for us. Increasingly, people are learning where they want to go, what they want to consume, how they want to engage with news or games or a variety of different things from each other.”

Abramson did what she was asked.  She designed and built a newspaper for the age of the filter bubble.

And as the Times went, so did CNN. And MSNBC. And everyone else. They became part of the problem. Divided media talking to a divided country. So that they could get more clicks.

The Times went so far as to give the entire newsroom real-time feedback on how their stories were performing by building a real-time analytics dashboard called Stela.

Nieman reports:

Stela pulls in data from the Times’ desktop and mobile websites, as well as all of the Times’ mobile apps (though not articles hosted off-platform, such as on Facebook’s Instant Articles). In addition to elementary metrics like pageviews and referrals (a section of the dashboard helpfully titled “How did readers find this story?”), Stela breaks down other data points such as the percentage of readers coming to each story from different countries (Nick Kristof uses it to see where readers of his international columns are coming from) and how many readers are subscribers, registered users, or anonymous traffic. It also pulls top comments and shows the social posts that are doing best, so that editors can see which Facebook or Twitter posts have been shared or retweeted most widely. Social media editors monitor Stela and can reuse language from the posts that have performed best, rather than trying to eyeball various Twitter or Facebook accounts for what appear to be popular posts.

It isn’t just used to change headlines, although it’s used for that a lot. It’s used for new story ideas too:

“We’re excited to be hearing that this tool can be used to help develop story ideas,” Mayne said. “Often times, we’ll do a story and there will be a lot of comments, a lot of interest, and before you might have to pay attention to separate Twitter feeds or to the article comments. Stela highlights them for you, and editors can use that to think about whether they want to do a sidebar or a followup story.”

So the New York Times now edits itself based on its readers. Who find it based on ranking algorithms. Who read it because it tells them what they want to hear. All so that it can survive and thrive in a digital, democratized, social age. So much for All the news that’s fit to print. So much for the paper of record.

The Times has been turning itself into Buzzfeed.

This is tragic because the true mission of the Times in an increasingly digital and democratized world should be to tell fact from fiction. It should have embraced its role as the paper of record and constantly and consistently sought to report the truth and the facts. Just as it had before. The “incremental developments” it refers to are not incremental and they are not commodity. They are the facts. And the mainstream media decided to abandon its commitment to facts.

They were wrong. It turns out that the true impact of a democratized media isn’t a commoditization of facts, but exactly the opposite. Democratization gives everyone a platform to peddle lies and half-truths. Info Wars and The Huffington Post and Drudge Report and Buzzfeed and FOXNews and Little Green Footballs and worse. They don’t deserve the italics. They don’t report facts. They don’t compete with the old Times. They lie to people and make it hard to sort the fact from the fiction.

And now that the Times and its peers have decided to become Buzzfeed, there’s almost nowhere to turn for real news. These days the only place you can go to get facts are in the financial press. Bloomberg News and The Financial Times are still good for facts because their reporting either makes or loses people money. People who use information to make a living still care about the facts. But everyone else cares more about their filter bubble.

Facts have become a luxury good, only available to the global elite who value them because they’re highly-leveraged means to a financial end. The proleteriat — the electorate — have been left with Buzzfeed and The New York Times trying to be Buzzfeed and FOXNews and CNN and MSNBC trying to be FOXNews.

This is the media story of Coming Apart. This is the failure of the media. This is part of the reason why America can’t have good presidents. Because our news media has failed us.

[This is part of a series. The first post was Coming Apart, which was about a decades’ worth of warnings that Trump would win. This post is about the media’s coverage and editorial process. I think my next post will be about the collapse of America’s social fabric and how technology of increasing richness — from radio to broadcast television to cable television to the Web to social media to Call of Duty — has eroded America’s cultural institutions and sense of civic space and responsibility.]

Coming apart

We were warned. We should have known. No one has any excuse.

Brexit showed that polls are useless when one option is less socially acceptable than the other. People were ashamed to tell pollsters they were going to vote for the crude, lewd, unqualified Trump. They lied in telephone polls and they lied in exit polls. But they didn’t lie in the voting booth. Brexit should have taught us this lesson, and shame on the pollsters for ignoring it.

But more importantly, Charles Murray called yesterday’s election a couple of years ago in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. In Coming Apart Murray talks about the decay of white working class life in America. He also talks about how the “winners” in American society are increasingly sorted from the “losers,” such that they barely touch. The losers are aware of the winners. The winners are not aware of the losers.

Murray explores the increasing homogenization of individual neighborhoods: the spread of super-rich and super-poor ZIP Codes. He talks about Washington, DC and Virginia and New York City in one breath and Michigan in the next. He compares, he contrasts.

His conclusions are inescapable:

The top and bottom of white America increasingly live in different cultures, Murray argues, with the powerful upper class living in enclaves surrounded by their own kind, ignorant about life in mainstream America, and the lower class suffering from erosions of family and community life that strike at the heart of the pursuit of happiness. That divergence puts the success of the American project at risk.

Murray was not ignored by the political class or the mainstream media.

David Brooks wrote in the New York Times that “I’ll be shocked if there’s another book this year as important as Charles Murray’s Coming Apart.”

Bloomberg Businessweek wrote “Charles Murray has written an incisive, alarming, and highly frustrating book about the state of American society.”

Publisher’s Weekly: “A timely investigation into a worsening class divide no one can afford to ignore.”

Murray warned us. The elite praised his book but ignored its content. 

Murray wasn’t the only one. While Murray wrote about the growing segmentation and alienation of American society and the decay of rural white America, Robert Putnam wrote about the decline and fall of American civic society in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, all the way back in 2001.

Here’s a jacket quote for Bowling Alone from Amazon:

The conclusions reached in Bowling Alone rest on a mountain of data gathered by Putnam and a team of researchers since his original essay appeared. Its breadth of information is astounding–yes, he really has statistics showing people are less likely to take Sunday picnics nowadays. Dozens of charts and graphs track everything from trends in PTA participation to the number of times Americans say they give “the finger” to other drivers each year. If nothing else, Bowling Alone is a fascinating collection of factoids. Yet it does seem to provide an explanation for why “we tell pollsters that we wish we lived in a more civil, more trustworthy, more collectively caring community”. What’s more, writes Putnam, “Americans are right that the bonds of our communities have withered, and we are right to fear that this transformation has very real costs”. Putnam takes a stab at suggesting how things might change, but the book’s real strength is in its diagnosis rather than its proposed solutions. Bowling Alone won’t make Putnam any less controversial, but it may come to be known as a path-breaking work of scholarship, one whose influence has a long reach into the 21st century.

Putnam wasn’t ignored either. The Washington Post called him “The de Tocqueville of our generation.” The New York Review of Books wrote “Rich, dense, thoughtful, fascinating…packed with provocative information about the social and political habits of twentieth-century Americans.”

Cass Sunstein sounded the alarm about social media and the Internet’s impact on our civic life in and Republic 2.0. From the Amazon jacket: 2.0 highlights new research on how people are using the Internet, especially the blogosphere. Sunstein warns against “information cocoons” and “echo chambers,” wherein people avoid the news and opinions that they don’t want to hear. He also demonstrates the need to regulate the innumerable choices made possible by technology. His proposed remedies and reforms emphasize what consumers and producers can do to help avoid the perils, and realize the promise, of the Internet.

Again, Sunstein wasn’t ignored. The New York Times Book Review wrote that the book “Raises important and troubling questions about the effect of the Internet on a democratic society.”

The Financial Times wrote “Cass Sunstein sounds a timely warning in this concise, sophisticated account of the rise of the internet culture. He argues that it is our very ability to wrap ourselves in our own tastes, views, and prejudices with the aid of technology that constitutes a real threat to the traditional democratic values.”

Those three books sum it up:

  • The 21st Century economic order has been kind to an elite few but unkind to most;
  • Institutions of civic society that once brought us together — from fraternal organizations to bowling clubs to churches — have disappeared;
  • The Internet has pulled us apart rather than pushed us together.

But something even more important is at play here: Millenials are making less than their parents. American productivity growth is stalled. The great promise of liberal western democracy and economics is, for the first time in modern history, failing to deliver the goods. This is what you get.

And make no mistake: This situation is global. It’s true in America, in Britain, in France. A lot of people have been left behind by the 21st century. God is dead. Humanism as our new religion doesn’t give people the safety and security that Christianity did. The factory is no longer employing the town. Global elites are increasingly segregated and isolated in Paris, in London, in New York, in San Francisco. Yesterday it was Brexit. Today it is Trump. Is tomorrow Le Pen?


I would just like to point out that I disliked Comey long before he tried to throw an election.