In which I become the first (probably) and last (possibly) person to use the phrase “dripped out” in the Financial Times:
Back in the sixties, a prescient essay from the British historian Eric Hobsbawm stated that “explosive” spikes in union support could only occur after what he termed “qualitative innovations in the movement”.
Bad conditions alone weren’t enough of a driving force to galvanise workers into unionising, he argued, unions had to also move with the times: introducing modernised ways of thinking, new demands, and fresh leadership.
In 2022, it could be said that this reinvention quite literally hangs off the shoulders of Chris Smalls, the leader of the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), and an aficionado of what has come to be known as “union drip”.
Amazon workers at a second facility in New York have rejected efforts to form a union, dealing a blow to a grassroots labour movement that hoped to capitalise on momentum from its surprise victory at a larger warehouse last month.
Employees at a sorting facility in Staten Island, known as LDJ5, voted by 618 to 380 against joining the Amazon Labor Union, the organisation led by Chris Smalls, a former worker at the ecommerce giant.
I must admit, after the Amazon Labor Union’s triumph at JFK8 last month, I did think the momentum would carry them through this vote at LDJ5, which just over the road.
What does this mean for the ALU? There’s a danger, of course, that its progress could be completely unravelled. Amazon squashed the vote at LDJ5, and it may be able have the JFK8 thrown out. Testing times for Chris Smalls and his grassroots org.
This picture is from an absolutely wonderful piece about Bruce Lee’s life and influence in San Francisco, written by Lee biographer Charles Russo, published by SF Gate, and brought to my attention by the SF Minute).
His candidacy as our most famous San Franciscan has gone strangely unacknowledged over the years. Despite his popularity around the world, many San Francisco residents don’t know that he was born here. In fact, he didn’t even make the cut when the Bold Italic ran an article in 2014 listing our city’s “most famous natives.” In this sense, much of Lee’s Bay Area origin story has existed in a hazy urban mythology that perennially teeters between obscurity and hyperbole.
The harshest thing about the Silicon Valley “bro” trope, I think, is that the people who create technology products don’t realise, or aren’t compassionate about, the problems that arise when those platforms are unleashed on the public.
For the most part, they do care. But in the same way not all of us are good at math, or writing, or singing, or the long jump… different humans possess different skillsets, some of which necessarily contradict each other. By and large, the hierarchies in the tech industry reward engineers first and foremost, people who — through no fault of their own — are often characteristically not as well-equipped to deal with challenges that fall outside the binary decisions laid before them in code. When extraordinary brains that build products and solve problems based on IF/THEN/OR come face-to-face with a however or maybe–the results can be less than optimal.
I’m minded of this as Elon Musk uses “simple” tweets to lay out how he plans to fix Twitter. Here’s one:
He’s pinned that to his profile, perhaps signaling it as a mini-manifesto of sorts. This is his view on free speech and its parameters. Ok. But those familiar with the content moderation space consider it naive to the point of parody, as though a moderation algorithm is as straightforward as: IF very against law THEN delete tweet.
It’s a classic case of “engineer’s brain” in action. But you can hardly blame Musk for that. After all, he has engineered his way to being the world’s richest man by solving almost exclusively engineering problems: how to securely send money over the internet (PayPal); how to create a high-performance EV and then make it affordable (Tesla); and how to reuse a rocket (SpaceX). None of these are problems in which the great complicator, the human condition with its whims and inconsistencies, are a factor. Nothing on Musk’s CV comes remotely close to the credentials required to know what’s best for Twitter.
In reporting out this story, I spent some time on the anonymous workplace messaging app Blind, where employees — verified using work email accounts — can sound off. It’s been lively on the Twitter board since the Musk news broke, and it’s by no means an entirely anti-Musk environment. But this comment details what Musk is up against — it is an angry response to another Blind user saying Musk’s idea of sharing “the algorithm” is a good one:
Let me clue you in on a little secret, “the algorithm” (which is not a giant if else statement but a neural net) is retrained regularly. And tweets come in all the time. To figure out how something will perform you need almost the entire backend of Twitter. And then YOU are going to try to determine if it is fair? I’ll tell you right now that you can pick a measure and a slice for which it won’t be, not because the algo is evil (ML is morals neutral) but because it is an extremely complex problem. I am sure we don’t have political leaning as one of the thousands of features we train on. But it doesn’t mean that it will be unfair in 3 days or even 1 day after retraining. What does having the algorithm help you with? Moderation policies should be open, I agree 100%, but there really cannot be a world without moderation. I agree that sometimes Twitter probably overenforces and sometimes we underenforce. We probably do both on both sides of political spectrum. Not because we hate one side but because it is a hard problem and we don’t always do it right. One side is more vocal in complaining. And I know you will pull all the incidents they cite because you are completely ignorant of what happened on the other side. Remember when we were going to get level 4 self driving Tesla every year for the past 8 years? Expect a Tweet from Elon in 5 years or so admitting that the social media that allows healthy open conversation is much harder problem than he thought. Jack was a free speech absolutist too. Anyway, I appreciate small minds debating problems they know nothing about, but you have no idea what you are talking about, neither does Elon.
As Twitter employees digested the most turbulent week in the company’s 16-year history, the message from top leadership was: sit tight.
In the immediate aftermath of the news that Elon Musk had clinched his $44bn takeover bid for the platform with Twitter’s board, staff at a virtual emergency all-hands meeting were told there would be no lay-offs “at this time” and that little else would change until the deal closes later this year, pending shareholder approval and any further dramatic twists.
But then what? Twitter’s workforce is divided and apprehensive.
San Francisco’s Moscone Center is best-known as the site where tech companies stage blockbuster events. It was here in 2007 that Steve Jobs unveiled the original iPhone with the words, “Every once in a while, a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything.”
I used to be a regular visitor to Moscone but, over the past two years, I’ve been there just three times: twice for vaccine jabs and, more recently, for the Game Developers Conference, a gathering of video games creators, known as GDC. It was the largest event I’ve been to since the great re-emerging, with 12,000 people attending.
The man told Carlson simply: “You are the worst human being known to mankind.”
I mean, there are probably stronger contenders, granted. But it’s a comment that’s easy to understand: Carlson’s show is a regularly hateful display, riling his viewers into misinformed furies on vaccinations, immigration, race and gender, delivered in sneering tones. Lately, Carlson’s been talking about tanning testicles with Kid Rock, in a series addressing an apparent crisis of falling levels of testosterone in the modern American man. (I’d focus on brain cells, personally.)
The path that led Carlson there—talking literal bollocks with Kid Rock—has been a long, controversial, but very deliberate journey, during which he has learned how to cultivate the grievances of (largely) white Americans, turning discussion around their anger and fears into a highly-profitable art form.
Most Americans will be very familiar with his schtick. British people perhaps less so. They should pay attention. The Carlson formula is ripe for imitation, and there’s one man who I am certain knows that very well.
Or to put it another way: Piers Morgan has a new TV show.
Now, contrary to (what I think is) popular opinion, I’d argue that Morgan is one of the most talented people in British broadcasting. He has a track record of knowing when the wind is about to turn, especially when it’s against him, and he makes decisive and bold moves. You don’t get to the level of power and influence Morgan has amassed without skill and judgement.
Some would argue he is just a loudmouth. I think it’s more accurate to say he’s very good at playing one when it’s convenient and lucrative. The opposite is true too — Morgan’s more personable side can be seen in his interview series Life Stories, which lasted 12 years, and was a consistent example of high-quality TV interviewing, lowering the guard of celebrities and making even Cliff Richard seem interesting.
These controversies would typically show themselves every few months. With his new show, Piers Morgan Uncensored, that outrage machine will need to be in full swing every single day.
“Its mission statement is to cancel ‘cancel culture’,” Morgan told Ros Atkins on the BBC’s Media Show this week, warning about the “woke brigade” apparently stifling British life. It’s a good interview, not least because Atkins has become a leading figure in British media on account of being something of an anti-Morgan in style.
When asked who might make the ideal guest on his show — someone who has been cancelled — Morgan mustered JK Rowling, due to her highly-criticised perspective on transgender rights. Multi-millionaire author Rowling, Atkins duly pointed out, could of course ring up any show in the world and likely be invited on to talk. Cancelled? Hardly.
That, of course, doesn’t generally matter. Just as Fox News, comfortably the most watched news channel in the US, rails against what “the media” won’t tell you, the definition of what constitutes being “cancelled” is highly fluid.
But it does always rely on one thing: a villain. On his show, Carlson has learned these villains can come from a variety of sources. The playbook is effective, but it’s a beast that needs constant feeding for a daily show.
Politicians are the easiest and arguably most deserving (or least undeserving, maybe) low-hanging fruit. Sometimes it’s journalists — like Taylor Lorenz — using arguments that often constitute both bad faith attacks on the reporter or columnist but also against the act of journalism itself.
Sometimes it will go after revered cultural bodies classified as “liberal” or “elite”, such as universities or schools, or long-established scientific or health institutions. Each segment serves to undermine, or weave paranoia about who is “really” in control. When a single person can be identified and blamed, a political motive will be placed front and center as the irrefutable reason for his or her actions.
Least deserving of all will be the regular members of the public, perhaps in minor positions of authority, whose worst, most ill-judged moments — or often just out of context ones — get filmed, uploaded to social media, and then dissected as being one example of the bigger, sinister picture. Viewers are told: this is what the “woke brigade” wants for you, so watch out. Many seem to believe it.
It’s no coincidence that the architect of both Carlson’s and now Morgan’s show is Rupert Murdoch. Morgan and Murdoch apparently long ago buried the hatchet after their falling out over Morgan’s departure from the News of the World in 1995. This, I believe, is their first project together since. Morgan calls him “swashbuckling”.
Where all three men are smart is in finding ways to touch on legitimately held frustrations felt by many reasonable people. Right now, that’s a feeling that we’re living in an era of over-zealous shutting down of views, a limiting of free debate, or comedy, and, to use Morgan’s words, an absence of “common sense”. Whether or not you agree with people who feel that way, it is undeniably there, and Morgan will be better than anyone at tapping into it.
But I’d like to think, on an optimistic note, that Piers Morgan is not Tucker Carlson. Indeed, Morgan said it himself. “I like his show, I like him,” he told Atkins. “I agree with about 75% of the stuff he says. Last time I checked, that’s fine.”
There are things I think are clearly in that 25%. I can’t see Morgan sharing words of support for Vladimir Putin, say, or trying to undermine an election. On that at least, he seems to have refused to play ball with Trump. (In the first interview of Morgan’s new series, Trump “stormed out“, a perfect result. Or was it?)
Trump is day one. To make this show a success, Morgan will need to push new buttons with weaker material, and emulate Carlson in boundary-pushing ways we’ve not yet seen delivered on British television, at least not by someone of Morgan’s calibre.
Where that takes us is worth following closely. I hope, and believe, the British people are on the whole not like the Americans who rate Carlson’s show, and will reject any effort to descend headfirst into the dreck of political discourse that’s so prevalent here. The lasting legacy of Carlson’s show, and the reason he was confronted that day in Montana, is that he pitched citizen against citizen and called it informative. I’d hate to see that happen in the UK.
“These people on this ascendant right don’t just have different ideas about the role and function of journalism; they don’t just believe journalists are biased liberals; they don’t just believe the media is too hostile to conservatives; they are hostile to the concept of journalism itself. As in, uncovering things dutifully and carefully and attempting to convey your findings to the public honestly. They don’t want that and don’t like it and are endeavoring to end it as a common practice. You are debating logic and facts with frothing bigots with a bone-deep opposition to your entire project.”
“[N]ews articles often focus on the people who die from gun violence, even though a person in Chicago is four to five times more likely to survive a shooting than die from their wounds. This has resulted in violence survivors being minimized or ignored completely — despite there being more than 24,000 of them in Chicago alone.”
“Twitter serves less as a town square than as a gladiatorial arena. It’s where competitors kill off one another while the crowd cheers, where teams compete in winner-take-all contests, where unending ideological demolition derbies go in circles. It’s where the spectacle lives, where attention can be captured, where people can be activated, because Twitter’s infrastructure has delivered a perpetually roiling crowd; to be on Twitter is to fight on Twitter, and often to fight about Twitter.”
Renee DiResta, writing in The Atlantic about the hostile approach to buy Twitter from you-know-who. DiResta’s perspective contains a nuance sorely lacking in Elon Musk’s TED fireside chat earlier on Thursday.
“I hope he demands a board seat. He’d be the first Twitter user ever to join the board.”
Great piece in the New York Times today looking at the new global media organisation being launched by Ben Smith, formerly of Buzzfeed and the NYT, and Justin Smith, former CEO of Bloomberg Media.
I’ve no doubt The Smiths, as they are now to be known in media circles, will create a compelling news org that justifiably breaks some of the outdated conventions in this industry. Great.
But reading this piece, I couldn’t help notice the reemergence of several tropes — the kind of comments you often hear from yet-to-launch media groups that pledge to cure the ills of every newsroom currently operating.
Let’s start here:
[Justin] Smith also shared his thoughts about what he called the end of an era when news outlets based in London, New York or Washington dispatched journalists to foreign countries to report on the goings-on there. He asked why foreign readers would not prefer a homegrown English-speaking native to report the news in their region.
“The idea that you send some well-educated young graduate from the Ivy League to Mumbai to tell us about what’s going on in Mumbai in 2022 is sort of insane,” Mr. Smith said.
He’s certainly not the first person to make this argument. Smith’s point is that by hiring strong English speakers locally you can not only expand more cheaply, but with more integrity since locals know more than outsiders. (It’s an argument also used by media executives when they’re slashing budgets, it’s worth noting.)
It’s hard to question this logic without sounding like a pompous arse. But I think it’s fundamentally wrong.
A foreign correspondent isn’t vital because he or she knows more than a local, but because he or she is representing the audience. An ambassador, essentially, with similar frames of reference and an instinct for what’s surprising, unique, shocking (or yes, entertaining) about a news event. Without being too blunt about it: it’s better coverage. Or to put it another way, there’s a reason the best and most honest books about places usually come from travel writers.
Now, is there a risk of “parachute” journalism, where the typically white and male reporter flies in one day, stands on a hotel roof, and pretends to know it all? Yes. But that’s just bad reporting–not an indictment of the foreign correspondent as a concept.
The very best at the job, the likes of Lyse Doucet or Steve Rosenberg, combine their knowledge of their audience with an ability to harness the right sources on the ground. The current coordination between the BBC’s core English news service and the teams from BBC Russia and BBC Ukraine is perhaps the best example of pairing the two pools of expertise.
Come to think of it, if there’s an ignorance problem that needs to be solved, The Smiths should look closer to home. The editorial agenda of a global news org isn’t determined in the overseas bureaus, but in the morning conference. Improving diversity of thought and worldview in that room is the real progress that needs to be made in foreign news. To their credit, I think they know this.
Ok, next thing:
[Justin Smith] also argued that many foreign news readers were ill served.
“You maybe went to school in the U.S., you’re pretty well educated, you’re connected to your network and your family all around the world — and the quality of your local media is not amazing,” Mr. Smith said. “It’s either state-censored or, it’s just, the journalism’s not great.”
“So what do you do?” he continued. “You say, OK, well, let me let me pick up The New York Times, or let me pick up The Wall Street Journal, or let me pick up The Washington Post. And what do you get? You get exactly what you’d expect if you read something that had the word New York in it, or something that has the word Washington in it. Or you go to CNN and you get a feed from Atlanta, some regional story from the Midwest, and you’re sitting in Singapore.”
He has a good, if limited, argument here. The point he’s making — I think — is that local media in some countries is of poor quality or worse, whereas The Smiths could expand globally, offering on-the-ground coverage in the same places as the audience, raising the game and doing important work.
Sure, I can buy that, because I’ve seen it: the BBC’s Nairobi office, the corporation’s biggest bureau outside of the UK, caters specifically to the local market as well as acting as an outpost for the wider BBC. Its impact has been huge. (Again, it has been done using a mixture of outsiders and insiders to the region.)
A couple of problems here. First, this is far more expensive to do well than I think Smith appreciates–unless he’s happy to settle for a highly-disjointed news organisation with inconsistent styles and standards in each market, a confused identity that will soon feel like several separate publications rather than one global brand.
Second, the danger is that in attempting to create a news organisation for everybody, it ends up being for nobody. Or, at least, nobody thinks it is for them–which is just as bad. BBC World has this problem, I think, as has the BBC World Service. It’s always struck me how quiet the inboxes for listener feedback were for even flagship World Service shows, compared to the breakfast show on, say, BBC Radio Shropshire. The degree to which an audience feels ownership over the media they consume is hugely important.
Hell, even the tiniest things can distance local readers. The newspaper I work for is positioned as a global newspaper, but that didn’t stop someone once saying to me: “It’s British, though. You use ‘s’ instead of ‘z’.” It was a joke, but it also rings true–an audience picks up on these subtleties and cares about them.
This is all to say: The Smiths are creating an American news organisation, and the audience will never forget this, even if it doesn’t say so on the masthead.
“All journalism is an attempt to bring readers things they do not know, and all interviews with heads of state involve getting them to say things they wish they had not said. To elicit these utterances, one must approach the subject sideways—and, most of all, keep him talking, and reveal more than he intends to say. “Giving a platform”—to use the cliché that imprisons the minds of those who don’t know how journalism is done, or what its purpose is—is not a favor bestowed on important people. It is an invitation to walk the boards and fall through trap doors. And that is exactly what Saudi officials themselves, whose past two days have been spent desperately fluffing pillows for a soft landing below, seem to think their ruler did.”
Graeme Wood defending his recent profile of Mohammed bin Salman in The Atlantic. It’s a spirited defense, timeless in its observations about what good journalism is. Wood’s profile was terrific: startling and uncomfortable, a glimpse into a terrifying and powerful mind. The idea that this kind of journalism should somehow be avoided over some misguided fear of providing a ‘platform’ to those we hate is an embarrassment to those who uttered it. As Wood puts it: “Anyone who tells you otherwise does not understand the purpose of journalism.”
“They made quite a racket, quite a noise. It was all guitars and distortion — and so I would pretend to play for weeks on end and Thom would say, ‘I can’t quite hear what you’re doing, but I think you’re adding a really interesting texture because I can tell when you’re not playing’. And I’m thinking, ‘No, you can’t, because I’m really not playing.’ And I’d go home in the evening and work out how to actually play chords and cautiously over the next few months, I would start turning this keyboard up. And that’s how I started in with Radiohead.”
Radiohead keyboardist Jonny Greenwood, in an interview with NPR, describing one of the most audacious acts of “fake it ’til you make it” I’ve ever heard.