I've had the privilege, some might say the misfortune, of working in two industries characterized by inordinate wealth and raging testosterone: technology and investment banking. Over the past two decades, the practitioners of these two businesses have operated along a fault line of socioeconomic disruption. Wall Street and Silicon Valley were joined at the hip. Those from old money did not understand how a twenty-something geek could be worth billions, but they were happy to share his winnings. As a card-carrying late Sixties liberal, I watched all this from a safe distance, smug in the knowledge that it was all just about money, that elegant thought would always prevail.
However, what they didn't teach us during the protests at Columbia, that the unenlightened sometimes accede to intellectual authority, has emerged as a palpable threat. We have always been tolerant of the rich dilettante who saves the cultural icon, so when Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes bought The New Republic, we applauded the move. But here is where the "we" diverge. Over the years, I read the TNR emails inviting me to subscribe, secure that the magazine would survive. Whether or not I agreed with its content, despite what some have called its increasing conservatism, I agreed with its existence and format.
But revolution is a two-way street. Hughes brought in a Valley hit man, determined to create a "vertically integrated digital media company." In the process of forcing a Sand Hill Road agenda on the publication, he skewered its sensibility past the point of no return, alienating editors and writers alike. After the resulting mass resignations, TNR has had to postpone its next issue. To say the brand has been diluted is an understatement.
The causality, however, is more complex than the conflict. Literary journalism has been roiled along with the rest of the established arts and letters. While the Buzzfeed model does not, and should not, satisfy everyone, the tectonic changes induced by technology cannot be ignored. There is no going back, wherever "back" might be.
In a self-promoting condemnation of the Hughes crew, the editor in chief and publisher of MIT Technology Review declared, “They’ve arrived from Mars with the typical arrogance of a tourist, over-noticing the wrong things...If there were a simple solution, smart people like me would have done it."
We applaud his humility.
The New Republic will survive in some fashion, because Valley guys hate to lose, but the damage is as clear as the message: Just as no venerable brand can sit on its reputation, no amount of technical hubris can take the place of quality.
I went to a reunion of war veterans and a panel discussion broke out. On a bone-chilling night just north of TriBeca (OK, it was above freezing, but I'm a curmudgeon who chills easy), I attended an event sponsored by CONSEQUENCE, the literary magazine focusing on the culture of war. The title of this event -Tip of the Spear: A Discussion on the Evolution of Special Operations, Intelligence and Counter-Terrorism Operations in the Media and Literature.
The conversation was bound to be lively because Bob Shacochis, the explosive novelist/journalist/soldier of fortune, was on the panel. Bob's new novel, The Woman Who Lost Her Soul, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, only the latest in a series of honors that includes a National Book Award for First Fiction and New York Times Notable Book. Two of his fellow panelists, Tony Schwalm and Eliot Ackerman, are distinguished veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Schwalm, a retired lieutenant colonel with the U.S. Army Special Forces, was a tank company commander in Operation Desert Storm, while Ackerman, a former Marine Corps Special Operations Officer and CIA Paramilitary Officer, served five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both men were awarded the Bronze Star for Valor. Ackerman also has a Silver Star and Purple Heart.
Why did I go? The nominal reason is that my essay on cyber warfare appears in the current issue of CONSEQUENCE. Over the past few years, I've blogged about network operations as offense and defense. Our country is at war, and I'm a firm believer in the best and brightest contributing to the national good. But there was another thread to this discussion, driven by comments that included references to someone's father or uncle being a Vietnam vet. The sense that these men and women served because of, and in some cases in spite of their parents' experiences made it all the more powerful for me. I turned down that little all-expenses-paid tour of southeast Asia, but I respect those who took the trip, and honor those who did not return.
Which leads me to the "real" war, not the police actions and last-ditch attempts to shore up brittle regimes overseas, but the continuing war on a segment of the U.S. population by those nominally sworn to protect the public. The images from Ferguson sustain the execrable values so rampant in a police force that must comprise its share of veterans. What veteran arrests a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor protesting the murder of Michael Brown? If the arresting officer did not serve in the military, it's likely that someone in his chain of command did. Where is the honor? Where is the valor?
As enemies overseas conspire to attack us in the electronic, as well as physical, theaters of war, we should ponder the ideological resolve amassed against us, and the moral hypocrisy which makes us the mother of all targets. Our military defends our entire population, despite the actions of its shadow elements. It's time to turn our attention to those who mock the service of those who protect the rights of society as a whole, and not just its lighter parts.
I don't watch much television. Except for the occasional sports event, newscasts are about it for me. A breaking story always gets my attention, but TV is often the destination of last resort, if I can't find what I need online.
Lately, though, despite my sporadic viewing, I've become too familiar with the trailer advertising "How to Get Away with Murder." In the weeks running up to its debut last night, I thought of the series as yet another branded exercise in race: a woman of color in an academic context purveying intrigue and danger. Since I haven't seen The Help, I didn't recognize Viola Davis. I knew that she was compellingly attractive, but not that she had played a role that some people, including me, might have found stereotypical.
Whatever my take on this new development, a character who seemed credible as a law professor, despite the entertainment value, I was unprepared for the grossly mishandled effort to tweet real-time PR for the show. Evidently, the person assigned this task was unable to see past Davis qua Mammy. The offensive parody went viral, along with speculation about the tweeter's sobriety. "Drunk intern" became a popular assumption, the idea being that no full-time employee could be so....stupid.
The fallout was also real-time, the tweet and ostensibly the tweeter disappearing soon after.
Unfortunately, this was not the first controversial media event concerning the show. A week earlier, the New York Times published a piece about Shonda Rhimes, the show's producer, whose previous characters (strong women of color) on the shows "Grey's Anatomy" and the wildly successful "Scandal" prompted this disingenuous lede: "When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called 'How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman.'”
The author of this piece, Alessandra Stanley, went on to loft such gems as "Ms. Rhimes has embraced the trite but persistent caricature of the Angry Black Woman, recast it in her own image and made it enviable."
To the hustings strode Dean Baquet, the Times' new executive editor, who happens to be African American. His statement, that Ms. Stanley "was trying to make a profound point," sounded as weak as Stanley's subsequent palliative: "I didn’t think Times readers would take the opening sentence literally because I so often write arch, provocative ledes that are then undercut or mitigated by the paragraphs that follow."
Brendan Behan once said, "There is no such thing as bad publicity except your own obituary." The show, in my opinion, was destined to be a hit, despite these predictable disasters. But the publishers need to understand that every such disaster portends their own, as readers and viewers turn away from brands that disseminate and defend the same old stereotypes.