So a couple of weeks ago I was soliciting new Quaz enlistees, and an alumni of this series—the super fantastic Jenni DeMilo—said, “I have the perfect person for you.” Or some words along those lines.
She told me about a colleague in the online sex industry who works as a “Jappy Princess.” Which immediately struck me as both odd and interesting—odd, because I’m Jewish and I’ve known my fair share of JAPs; interesting, because I’m Jewish and while I’ve known my fair share of JAPs, I’ve never known one who works as a phone sex conversationalist. But that’s what this week’s interviewee does and, according to Jenni, does well.
She also happens to be one of the cooler people I’ve met in nearly six years of Quazes. Although I’ll respect Jappy Princess’ requested privacy, I will say—away from the world of masturbatory avatars—she’s normal and funny and lovely and human. The obnoxiousness you might see in her Niteflirt pages? If not an act, probably a safe exaggeration of a decent person just trying to make a living in a most unique way.
Jappy Princess, take a break from the phones and enter the land of Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN:So I’ve had different people who work in myriad sex-related businesses do this Q&A, but never a “Jewish Princess”—mainly because I didn’t know such a thing existed in the phone sex world. So please, explain this fetish. What are people looking for? Why the Jewish element
JAPPY PRINCESS: When I started doing phone sex, I didn’t see anyone offering a Jewish Princess humiliation experience, and I thought that would be a really exploitable element. “Jewish” dredges up lots of weird feelings in Jews and goyim alike. I also knew that it would be important to speak knowledgeably, and I know a lot about Jews and Jewish Princess culture – it’s a part of me. My callers are looking for the stereotype they see on TV, or someone they have met in real life. I hear from a lot of them that I remind them of a girl from their youth who rejected them. They get to relive that humiliation when I reject them again. Most of my callers aren’t Jewish, but have a thing for Jewish women, and know that we tend to stick with the tribe. That’s the allure
J.P.:There’s a question I always ask people in the sex business, so I’ll ask you: What does your family think about the work? How open are you with them? Are they cool with it? Angry? Thrilled? Embarrassed? And does it come up in regular conversation?
JAPPY PRINCESS: No, my family doesn’t know. I live in Hollywood where everyone is a writer, director, actor or life coach, so it’s pretty easy to make something up that no one understands. All they really care about is that I’m making money and not soaking off of them. My mom has better things to worry about anyway, like redecorating her Palm Beach condo.
J.P.:In your bio you write, “my boyfriend is a member of the tribe.” And I wonder why you even mention a boyfriend, because I would think—probably incorrectly—that part of the appeal for men is along the lines of, “Hey, she’s hot, maybe she’ll be interested in me …” No?
JAPPY PRINCESS: What kind of loser would I be if I had no man? It really doesn’t matter, since many of them still think they have a chance anyway. They like to tell me they have more money, are better looking, etc. I love when my callers get jealous of him; it’s pretty hilarious. Others want to hear all about the “real man” who gets the woman they never could, and want to pay for our dinners and vacations. It’s a smorgasbord of neuroses.
J.P.:I have this image of phone sex professionals being on a call, the person on the other end getting all hot and horny while you’re filing your nails, half listening, watching an episode of The Real Housewives of Atlanta. No? Yes? How engaged do you have to be
JAPPY PRINCESS: I’d imagine that your vision is probably correct for many phone sex ops, but for a good call, you have to be engaged. When I get a caller that’s not engaging, I let him know he’s totally fucking boring me, and that I’m barely paying attention. The type of caller I get eats that up. That’s what’s so fun about calling me, I’m really honest and super bitchy. I also take calls while I’m hiking, shopping, on the treadmill, or getting my nails done.
J.P.:What’s your path? Like, birth to now, how did this happen for you? How did you enter the phone sex business?
JAPPY PRINCESS: I’ll get this part out of the way first: I have a great relationship with my father, Whatever any armchair psychologist might want to be true, I don’t do this because I’m looking for male attention or some shit. I do it because my chosen career was destroyed by file-sharing. Also, I’m fucking good at it, and I make more money sitting at home in my Lululemon than I would as a Senior VP at some label, which is where I would likely be right now. The other relevant thing you should know about my father is that he has a disgusting, foul mouth, and never stopped telling dirty jokes. The sharp tongue I got from him has come in handy in both my careers. My mother is an unrepentant JAP, where all my worst qualities come from, and largely why I’m good at what I do.
Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself. summer camp, got kissed at 13, fucked at 18, blah, blah, blah. There’s nothing to note because I was a good girl, who got good grades, played the violin, and was focused and ambitious. I always wanted to be in the music business since I was young, and I was largely focused on music to the exclusion of all else through school. My parents were very supportive, but when I moved out to California, it was sink-or-swim quickly. I was persistent and lucky and soon got a job working at a major record label in radio promotions. Things were going great and I was moving up, and then Napster; then panic; then layoffs. A friend told me I should do phone sex because I was great on the phone with these loser radio program directors. (Seriously, the absolute bottom of the entertainment barrel.) Really, spending my days on the phone pimping the crappy singles at our label was not very different than what I do now except I feel cleaner at the end of the day now. At first I tried doing the regular “ooo-baby-baby” stuff, which is not for me, and I just started telling the guys how fucking disgusting they are. Then I realized that some callers like that sort of thing, and will also pay more for it. Up is down! Black is white! Day is night! Specialists are the best; they pay more and never complain.
J.P.:What’s the story of the strangest client experience you’ve ever had?
JAPPY PRINCESS: So many strange ones, I’ll just give you the most recent. A few weeks ago I had a new caller, and he ended up falling in love with me. Like, for real. He didn’t care that I had a boyfriend, and he was determined to win me over with talk of being a millionaire, and how great life would be if I were with him. He told me he was going to come to Los Angeles, and I told him he probably shouldn’t expect to hang out with me. The next thing I know, I get a call from him that he’s here at a hotel in Beverly Hills. Many callers fantasize about coming to LA to meet me, but this guy was serious and really thought I would come on down to his hotel. When I told him to settle down, he went crazy on me, sending hundreds of derogatory and threatening emails in the course of a couple of days. What I thought was especially funny was that he kept asking, “how many women get the chance to have a drink with a guy with a million dollars?” In LA? Just about all of them. What a douchebag. He ended up calling me about 20 times in a day, at $1.99 per minute, just to tell me what a bitch-ass loser I am. Of course, I listened and took his money, because JAPs take the cash, naturally. He finally stopped calling and that was that. Too bad he ruined it, I made a lot off him.
J.P.:You identify as Jewish—but this doesn’t seem like a particular spiritual or religious thing to be doing. I’m not condemning you … I’m just saying phone sex doesn’t strike me as especially Biblical. Do you care? Is it something you had to get past? Does it even matter?
JAPPY PRINCESS: Clearly you have never read the Old Testament. It is the most depraved text of all time. For example, just in the story of King David we have war, famine, plague, rape, incest, adultery, homicide, filicide, infanticide, regicide, genocide, and I’m probably leaving some stuff out. God punishes David for NOT killing everyone in a Philistine village. That’s some cold shit, God. But seriously, I never said I was a nice Jewish girl. In fact, as my URL plainly states, I am not a nice Jewish girl.
J.P.:How has Niteflirt impacted the careers of phone sex operators? In past Quazes I’ve had people complain about the service; say it’s more ripoff for people in the business than it is aide. Thoughts?
JAPPY PRINCESS: I think of Niteflirt as where I rent an office in a giant porny office building in cyberspace. Like any other business, you get out of it what you put in. If you provide a quality service and market it effectively, people will want to buy. Do I wish the site didn’t look like 1990s internet, had smartphone apps and other technologies to help us make more money? Yes, but it’s not my site so I work with what I’m given. The bottom line is that most phone sex has migrated to Niteflirt, so it’s a fact of life for all of us.
J.P.:When you’re on a call, are you truly in character. What I mean is—if it’s a guy who wants hypnosis, do you think of yourself as a seductive hypnotist? If it’s someone who wants to be brutalized, are you that person in the moment? Do you know what I mean? Like, do you need to sell yourself on the performance?
JAPPY PRINCESS: I guess you can say I’m a little like method actor that way, but not entirely. When I’m telling some piece-of-shit that he’s a piece-of-shit, I usually mean it. On the other hand, I’m no Daniel Day Lewis and I drop it once the call is done.
To your question about hypnosis calls, you should remember that this is opposite-land. I don’t do sensual stuff, I leave that to the hordes of basic bitches who can’t do what I do. My hypnosis calls generally revolve around “straight” guys, many with wives, families or girlfriends, who want to “hypnotized” into being gay, or a girl, or a sissy. To be clearer, these are generally gay men who live straight lives, and use this as an outlet. Having a woman “hypnotize” them makes it less gay and acceptable to fantasize about giant cocks, I guess. There is a lot of self-disgust mixed up in all this. Human sexuality is bizarre, what can I say?
J.P.: What’s the difference between a great phone sex operator and a shit one?
JAPPY PRINCESS: I think that’s for the caller to decide. What one person might think is great, someone else might think is shit. I don’t do the typical “oh yeah baby do it to me” phone sex. I do only fetish-oriented calls and it’s never sensual. It’s bratty, dominating and humiliating, and there’s a ton of men who think I’m the worst. What makes me great is that I’m different than the usual basic bitches that answer these lines. I’m well-traveled, educated, and I’m knowledgeable about pop culture, politics, money, and food. I can have long conversations on many topics that my callers find engaging. There is an art to reading a person’s voice and knowing what they want.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH JAPPY PRINCESS:
• Seven greatest bands of all time: Beatles, Queen, T-Rex, Oasis, The Replacements, Prince and the Whatevers, The Clash
• Three most interesting people you know: My colorist. My stylist. My personal trainer.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): A Tribe Called Quest, house music, Angela Lansbury, Mike Pence, Trader Joe’s, Klay Thompson, prime rib, Twitter, skateboard parks, the San Diego Zoo: Angela Lansbury, Prime rib, A Tribe Called Quest, Klay Thompson, house music, skate parks, Trader Joe’s, San Diego Zoo, Mike Pence
• One question you would ask Buddy Holly were he here right now: Where did you get those glasses—I love them.
• Would you rather have sex with someone who has severe tuna breath or a festering zit atop his nose?: I’ll take the zit. Toss a paper bag over that face, and hope it doesn’t burst.
• Seven adjectives you’d use for Donald Trump: Sub-moronic, avaricious, monomaniacal, churlish, porny, douchey, fucking terrifying.
• What was your Bat Mitzvah like?: At Le Cirque in Manhattan. The rabbi wore leather Prada slacks, you can fill in the rest.
• Make a 16-word argument for canned soup: 17 syllables, in haiku form:
Sometimes, time is short.
Campbell’s says, “Soup is good food.”
I say, “Time for soup.”
• Three memories from your first-ever date?: His father’s chauffeur picked me up. He took me to a restaurant where his father had an account. He wanted to fuck me, so I asked him whether his father was going to do that for him as well. (No, it was not Jared Kushner. I don’t date Jersey boys)
• What’s the worst pickup line the world has ever known?: My name is Jared Kushner.
Actually, not merely a Republican. He was a precinct committeeman and campaign volunteer and worked his rear off to get John McCain elected president in 2008. He ran a website, GOPLifer, that was a regular read by Republicans looking for insight, understanding, verification.
Then Chris woke up. Eh, scratch that. He didn’t wake up, so much as he was stirred to awareness and anger by a once-great political party going, in his opinion, batshit crazy. The GOP Chris loved was one of fairness, economic principle, a willingness to engage and compromise. But with McCain’s defeat (and, oddly, Sarah Palin’s simultaneous rise), Ladd experienced a shift that horrified him. Reason was discarded, replaced by religious fundamentalism. Contemplation found itself tossed into the waste bin, overtaken by gut feelings and racially-charged decisions. In short, he felt abandoned.
Hence, Chris—a longtime political journalist who blogs for Forbes—started Political Orphans, a site for those who feel left behind. He has been a vocal critic of President-elect Trump, who he calls a “walking, talking cancerous mass,” and attributes much of the recent election results to a white America resisting diversity.
JEFF PEARLMAN:Chris, ever since the election I’ve had trouble sleeping, trouble staying positive. I keep reading these essays on the destruction of America; keep hearing about the awful future of the EPA; keep thinking about Muslims, Mexicans, etc. You’ve been around—is there any good here? Can this possibly work out?
CHRIS LADD: To be clear, there is no way this is going to be “OK” in any conventional sense of the word. We will, however, adapt. We will develop a new definition of normal. I am reasonably confident that the majority of your readers will survive to the end of the Trump Administration. So, at least there’s that.
Two forces are still working in our favor. The first, perhaps surprisingly, is bureaucratic inertia. The second is the fact that Trump won with barely 47 percent of the vote.
As Obama discovered after being elected with a massive Congressional majority—it is very difficult to make the US government do anything under any circumstances. Legislating is hard. And worse than legislating, getting a change of direction implemented by our dense, almost impenetrable deep-state institutions requires remarkable skill and insight. Trump’s ambitions will be limited by his own incompetence, disinterest, inattention to detail, and the blundering high jinks of the dumb, venal bastards in his entourage.
Whatever damage can result from inaction (think: climate change) could be severe and lasting. On the other hand, any potential damage that would depend on his effective use of executive or legislative power (think: a Muslim registry or mass deportations) probably will never materialize. Chances are, the bureaucracy will continue to do all the things it was already doing. New Trump and GOP initiatives will probably be slow to launch or fall apart under the weight of their own stupidity.
His historically weak electoral mandate plays into this inertia. At every step he will be dogged by legal action, silent resistance from bureaucrats and noisy resistance from a newly energized (and furious) American middle.
I still wake up some mornings and get a minute or so into my day before I remember what happened and my heart sinks. This is a tragic situation. Whatever hopes we may have had for ourselves and for our lives in the near term that depended on an effective, responsible central government should probably be … let’s just say, modified. I doubt we will be getting competent leadership in Washington anytime in the near future.
J.P.:There have been approximately 8,223,221 attempts to psychoanalyze the rise of Donald Trump, and I want to give you No. 8,223,222—because I’m at a loss. How do you explain Donald Trump, political phenomenon? Like, why do people listen to him? People with brains? And do you view him as some odd quirk in history, or as a scarier truth?
C.L.: In pursuit of an answer that makes sense, people seem to be sorting into two blocs. One blames the rise of Trump on pigheaded racists. The other pins the blame on the economic travails of blue collar and rural workers. I’m of the opinion that there is a little of both at work here, but it all rolls up into the meaning of race in America.
I wrote about that nexus between economics and race here. Race is the larger factor here, and not just in some kumbaya, ‘let’s all learn to love each other sense.’ America is built from the ground up on the assumed supremacy of white people—their culture, their religion(s), and their economic priorities. People will tolerate all kinds of “others”—including a black president—so long as they feel secure in the core supremacy of white culture. When that breaks down, they freak out in violent, catastrophic ways. The ‘economic insecurity’ logic for Trump is disastrously flawed unless we recognize the role of race in that insecurity.
Trump is not getting the bulk of his support from “the poor.” His hardest of hardliners are aging, lightly educated white people earning modestly above middle incomes. They are, however, pretty consistently “left behind.” These are whites who for reasons of choice or circumstances did not participate in the great boom of the past 30 years, the largest expansion of wealth in human history.
What these people have lost over the past few decades is not so much factory jobs or middle-class incomes. Much more importantly, political and economic liberalization has badly weakened the shadow social safety net that used to insulate white people, especially lower and middle income white men, from conditions everyone else had to endure.
If you actually listen to Trump supporters describe their reasons for supporting him, you get some version of this:
Nothing these people say about Donald Trump makes a lick of sense, from the Clinton email narrative to the claim that Trump “tells it like it is.” Their arguments make no sense because they aren’t going to talk about their genuine motivations. In fact, they probably don’t even understand their own motivations. Pretending that race doesn’t matter is more central to the American identity than baseball. That denial runs very, very deep.
For the Bernie wing out there looking for validation for their narrative, the nonsense spouted by Trump supporters is an invitation, a blank canvas. These Trump Whisperers are determined to translate this gibberish into a neo-Marxist story of working class angst. It takes a lot of work and a soft focus to pull this off, but they are trying.
For someone raised blue collar in East Texas who has listened to Trumpers when they feel comfortable enough to tell the truth, a clearer picture emerges that has nothing to do with “economic anxiety.” You’ll hear clarity from Trump voters under one circumstance, and only one circumstance—if they feel safe enough (or drunk enough), to tell you “What I think about The Blacks.” Sometimes they’ll substitute Mexicans or in a rare case even The Jews. And increasingly, you might hear what they think about “radical feminists,” which is code for their wives (or ex-wives).
Want to see an antidote to the Trump Whisperers? Read what people from white working backgrounds say once they’ve escaped that world. Kevin Williamson at the National Review drew fire for his cold assessment of the Trump phenomenon back in March. Williamson is no alien to Trumplandia. A native of Amarillo, a place where I spent my holidays and summers in a trailer park, he sees this scenario pretty clearly. Speaking of the Trumpsters, he explains:
“Nothing happened to them. There wasn’t some awful disaster. There wasn’t a war or a famine or a plague or a foreign occupation. Even the economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence—and the incomprehensible malice—of poor white America. So the gypsum business in Garbutt ain’t what it used to be. There is more to life in the 21st century than wallboard and cheap sentimentality about how the Man closed the factories down.”
There’s a clean, mathematical test available to determine whether white angst is about economics or race. Voters in the primaries had an opportunity to nominate a Democratic candidate who devoted his entire campaign to a Rooseveltian program of democratic socialist economic outreach. Alternatively, they had an opportunity to vote in the Republican primary for a race-baiting Fascist. Look closely at primary results from smaller counties across Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin. Guess which guy white voters picked in greater numbers in the primaries?
Stories written by soft-core sociologists about the plight of white people hit me in a particularly personal place. I grew up white trash in one of those forgotten hellholes in Trumplandia. Most of these places were hellholes decades ago in their imaginary prime. They were hellholes 80 years ago when writers like James Agee came to ogle their inhabitants and muse on their simple virtues. Now they many of them remain hellholes with fewer people and less going on.
Nothing about these places has changed apart from the fact that the rest of the world got better, a lot better. And most importantly, the world has gotten better for people like African-Americans, Hispanics, and women; people whose suffering and enforced weakness used to give Trump voters some relative comfort.
These voters chose Trump because regardless of the outcome, this election wasn’t going to change much of anything about their lives. The place where they live would continue to be left behind under a president named Trump or Clinton. Trump isn’t offering them a chance to improve their town, he’s offering a chance to destroy better places; a chance to turn everything into the kind of rundown, abandoned places they are content to inhabit.
Mealy sympathy-pieces about backwater towns in thrall to Trump offer a certain comfort to everyone else. We would all be relieved to discover that this national nightmare was just a big misunderstanding, another example of “elites” failing to listen to the common people. We could just hug it out.
Sorry. I’ve been listening to these people my whole life. We are not facing some new problem born of globalization or capitalism or trade. We are facing America’s oldest problem.
When white people feel their hold on power slipping, they freak out. And it always starts with the folks lower down the economic ladder, because they have the highest relative investment in what it means to be white in this country. There’s not a damned thing we can do about it other than out-vote them and, over time, out-evolve them until this crippling and occasionally lethal national glitch is slowly worked out of our bloodstream.
Politics in a democracy hinges on an openness to understanding, the quest for empathy. As the Trump Whisperers are demonstrating, that quest can go wrong, especially when both understanding and empathy are stunted by cultural distance. Our drive to find common ground can end up legitimizing or even romanticizing toxic ideologies. All values are not equal. Some values deserve to be aggressively marginalized. Some values should inspire more anger than sympathy.
J.P.: I would think writing on politics would be ultimately depressing as all fuck. I mean, it’s nonstop squabbling, little gets done, it’s uglier than ever. How do you not want to stick a knife in your temple?
C.L.: Tell me more about this knife …
This may sound odd, but I sort of hate writing this stuff and I’m not completely sure why I continue. It feels like a duty I cannot escape.
This country has done a lot for me. People who came before us made enormous sacrifices to build something unique in human experience. Then they handed their work to us. I feel a duty to take what they gave me and do what I can to preserve and improve it for the people who come after me.
Serving in the military was never really an option. I’m too scrawny to march around with a backpack and I’m too ornery to take orders. Running for office is unrealistic. You need to be likeable on at least some level to win elections. However, I’m reasonably bright and I write words good. So that seems like the best contribution I can make.
The effort feels futile, it is often depressing, and it promises to earn me a lifetime total of $0, but it gives me a chance to make a payment on that debt. So I keep writing and speaking.
J.P.:How did you wind up going from Republican to largely anti-Republican? Was there a moment? A light bulb? What happened?
C.L.: This year’s RNC marked a clear bright line. The party I served as a precinct committeeman and campaign volunteer endorsed a fascist. Democracy depends on compromise and openness to ideas, but I’m gonna take a hard pass on lining up with Nazis. A lot of my thoughts on this situation are in my resignation letter to our local chairman.
For decades I have belonged to a Republican faction that lost much of its influence when Bush II became President. Pragmatic, business-oriented, pro-civil rights Republicans in the Jack Kemp mold have long felt their influence eroding. I grew up in East Texas and I was living in Houston in the 1990s when a band of religious nutjobs took control of the GOP there. Their actions split the party—literally. For several years there were two separate organizations with different leadership claiming to be the Harris County GOP. I found myself aligned with the losers in that struggle, as a particularly ugly and corrupt band of religious fundamentalists won the right to set the party’s agenda.
John McCain offered hope for a resurgence. His 2000 speech excoriating the “agents of intolerance” kept me engaged in the party. Plus, moving to the Chicago area placed me in a far more sane, tolerant and pragmatic local Republican organization which helped a lot.
I was volunteering on the McCain campaign from the beginning, making hundreds of calls into New Hampshire alone. When McCain nominated Sarah Palin it became clear that we were in serious trouble. When he lost the White House and she became the standard-bearer for the GOP it was time to start speaking out more forcefully against the party’s direction. Until last year I was still writing pieces about how the party might be reorganized to shed its dependence on white bigots and develop a sane policy agenda. Obviously, that’s over. I have no idea what to do now, hence the emergence of PoliticalOrphans as a successor to the GOPLifer blog.
C.L.: In short, we won. We prevailed in the cultural, economic and military/strategic challenges of the 20th century so comprehensively and enormously that our victory changed the landscape around us. Even happy developments can produce unintended consequences. Now we face pressures to adapt to a new environment shaped by our success. So far, this generation’s response has been a humiliating failure.
To my view, The Politics of Crazy is ultimately a story about the decline of social capital, that dense network of community institutions that once played a critical, stabilizing role in filtering the craziest ideas and people from the core of our culture. A vast and relatively sudden expansion of freedom, prosperity, and technological progress ate away at the foundations of our social capital institutions in ways we never anticipated.
We are more isolated from our communities, from our core institutions, and from each other than we have ever been. That isolation has weakened mediating institutions that used to keep the culture healthy. With the mediators too weak to perform their functions, there’s nothing to stop Sarah Palin from becoming a VP candidate or some random reality TV star and grifter from becoming President.
J.P.:Chris, what can we do about it?
C.L.: Our best responses probably need to happen on two levels, policy innovation, and reinforcing a sense of social obligation.
On the policy side I think we need to revisit the ideas of libertarian thinkers like Hayek and Friedman. Forget about libertarian fantasies of laissez faire markets solving all of our problems. That’s not what I’m talking about.
I’m referring to approaches that leverage carefully structured markets as ways to solve problems with less reliance on government. If elected institutions are likely to suffer from a chronic vulnerability to crazy, then maybe we need to find solutions to problems that place less emphasis on central government action. Maybe our lives would be better and safer if those institutions had less direct power over our lives.
In fact, the insurance mandate that formed the basis of the Affordable Care Act started out this way, inspired by thinkers influenced by Hayek and Friedman, working at the conservative Heritage Institute in the 90s. As another example, think of the cap-and-trade approach to carbon regulation. That’s an innovation from the right inspired originally by libertarian thought on pollution control. And it could work.
The right won’t adopt cap and trade because if Jesus cared about polar bears he’d build them an ark. The left won’t get behind market-based solutions because such simple policy mechanisms deprive them of the opportunity to deliver special Easter eggs to their galaxy of tiny interest groups and community organizers. Take a close look at the politics that doomed Washington state’s carbon tax initiative as an example. We cannot continue to operate this way, with the Democratic Party’s patronage engines blocking progress from one side and raving right-wing psychos on the other side promising to pray away our problems.
Along the same lines, what if we replaced the social safety net with its hundreds of thousands of enabling bureaucrats with a universal basic income? Why not replace the war on drugs with a few simple regulations on access? What if we replaced thousands of pages of largely unenforceable and useless gun regulations with a universal insurance mandate for owners? The same dynamics that have doomed carbon regulations have blocked these useful reforms.
I wrote about this at (even) more length in a piece at Forbes. We have to get used to the idea that a society this complex, this large, this diverse, cannot rely on a massive pool of experts in Washington to manage our affairs in minute detail. Markets give us a tool to solve critical public policy problems with a lighter, less expensive, less intrusive hand. These are the ideas I used to hope that Republicans might embrace. They didn’t and now they won’t. But these concepts are still sitting there, waiting for someone to leverage them to build a better future. Approaches like this are our allies in the fight against crazy.
On the social side, I think we need all individually have to get more engaged.
Coming to adulthood in the 90s it really felt like all of the important problems had been solved. Nothing remained but administration. That feeling left us all a bit complacent and drove a massive decline in local civic engagement. One silver lining from the Trumpocalypse is that we have lost our complacency. It looks like we may see a big uptick in public engagement going all the way down to the local level. Social media has a role to play in this process, and we are already seeing its impact.
J.P.: I used to love social media’s possibilities, but I’ve come to think it’s far more awful than beneficial. In other words, I feel like ignorance and unsubstantiated gossip spreads at the speed of light, and truth crawls. Agree? Disagree? Thoughts?
C.L.: Adaptation is an evolutionary imperative. Social media is a tool and a threat, just like every innovation. It has disrupted older methods of human interaction in ways no one could have anticipated. Look, mass electrification was a pretty unnerving innovation, but I think we can say with some confidence that it worked out.
Besides, social media is nowhere near as toxic as 24-hour cable news. CNN, Fox and MSNBC are a collective brain hammer.
As funky as social media has been up to now, it is probably the medium through which a truly powerful resistance to the Trump Administration is going to materialize. Granted, it remains the main channel through which my father and his generation consume disinformation and scams. But for digital natives, people who have grown up understanding the need to filter raw information, this medium might eventually be as politically important as the first printed books. Nothing inspires me quite as much as what I am seeing develop in communication technology.
J.P.: I know it’s asking you to guess, but 100 years from now what does history say of Barack Obama’s presidency?
C.L.: At the end of the Obama Administration I tend to think that the main critique of Obama from the 2008 campaign is still pretty persuasive. He seems to be a good, decent, admirable guy who was utterly unsuited by personality and experience to serve as president.
He had control of every lever of government power for two years. All he has to show for it are a bank bailout, no Wall Street prosecutions, the failure to deliver meaningful relief to ordinary people hit hard by the financial collapse, and a cluster-fuck of a health insurance reform that did almost nothing for middle-income voters but saddle them with a mandate. Don’t get me wrong, we’re gonna miss him, but mostly because he’s a pretty great guy on a personal level and he’s being followed in office by a walking, talking cancerous mass.
And 100 years from now? I suspect whatever remains of “history” that far out will recall little if anything from this period more significant than the development of the iPhone, the Cubs winning the World Series and Beyonce’s Lemonade. It feels like we are seeing government and politics eclipsed as a matter of importance in our lives and a vehicle for improving the human condition.
J.P.:Is it possible that this is merely a blip in American history? That Trump sucks so badly that, four years from now, a progressive Democrat trounces him and a more united, more diverse America emerges stronger? Or is that the spewing of a crack addict?
C.L.: Well, sorta. It seems likely that we are witnessing a phenomenon larger than Donald Trump, and even larger than the low-rent fascism he has fostered. We are probably living through the dawn of the idiocracy. Once upon a time, it was unusual to have a President who didn’t have a degree from a prestigious university. Over the coming decades I doubt we’ll have a single president who doesn’t own an Oscar, Emmy, Grammy or Heisman, or at least have their own TV show.
That’s not to say that we won’t adjust or that life in American won’t get better while this carries on. I just suspect that the presidency is likely to decline in relative importance after four unstable years of Donald Trump followed by the glorious eight-year reign of President Kanye West (Hail Pablo!).
We might be witnessing the end of government and politics as the main engine of human progress in the world. For the past 20 years, politics has given us almost nothing valuable, while markets and corporations have developed usable solar energy solutions, reusable rockets, a hand-held device with access to almost all human information, and made that device cheap enough that 12-year olds are carrying it around.
The death of politics as anything more than a persistent threat to more meaningful human endeavors might turn out to be an okay development in the longer run.
J.P.:You Tweeted something interesting: “To be clear, we didn’t underestimate Donald Trump. We overestimated American voters.” Are the American voters simply ignorant? Callous? Dumb?
C.L.: A lot of this came out in the lengthy, earlier answers, but basically Americans voters care a lot more about white supremacy than almost anyone in mainstream politics wanted to believe, including yours truly. A truly stunning number of American voters are outright assholes, willing to doom the entire national project because hipsters or celebrities or people who say “Happy Holidays” triggered their delicate little feelings. It was a mistake to imagine that a majority of voters care about things like patriotism or sacrifice in any sense that actually applies to their lives. We shouldn’t make that mistake again.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH CHRIS LADD:
• Five most noteworthy Ladds the world has known?: We are not a famous bunch. One uncle describes us as a band of vagabonds and renegades, which has largely been continued into the present. There are, of course, the actors, Alan and Cheryl. The world has yet to know five noteworthy Ladds. We’ll see what the future holds. My kids are awfully promising.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Andy Moog, The Cranberries, Pierre Trudeau, Anthrax, Super Glue, Jackie Chan, Emily Blunt, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” Don Cheadle, Pac Man, Paul Ryan: Jackie Chan, Super Glue (you gotta love stuff that works), Emily Blunt, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Pac Man, Andy Moog (I Googled him), Don Cheadle, Pierre Trudeau, The Cranberries, Anthrax, Paul “Vichy Republican” Ryan
• One question you would ask Herschel Walker were he here right now?: How much money do you figure you gave up in the end by betting your career on Donald Trump and the New Jersey Generals?
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Yes, and it was a remarkably calm moment. I felt deeply sad for my wife and my kids, but I felt like I had done what I could for them and they would be OK. I leaned back and prepared to go hurtling into some suburban Appleton backyard. Then the little plane leveled off and life carried on as normal. It was a strange experience.
• The most important thing a kid needs to know when it comes to learning to engage in politics?: Elected officials are surfers, not the wave. Don’t ever expect an elected official to be a “leader.” That isn’t how this works. If you really want to change things, stay away from Washington. Work in community organizations changing conditions on the ground. Washington is where change ends, not where it starts.
• What Whitney Houston song most moves you to tears?: Perhaps the remake of The Greatest Love of All by the underappreciated geniuses, Sexual Chocolate.
• What happens to Donald Trump in four years?: He’s wandering around his penthouse, the last property he still owns, alone, in a soiled bathrobe, with Kleenex boxes on his feet and jars of his own urine stacked up on the windowsill, shouting orders to invisible generals and aides, waiting for the sweet embrace of death which each day refuses to close around him.
• Coolest NHL uniform? Ugliest NHL uniform?: Having lived in Chicago for a while now, it has come my attention that there is a thing called hockey. That’s the most I can offer there. Apparently it involves ice and sticks or something
Cam Adair is addicted to video games, in the way one is addicted to gambling, to pornography, to sex, to overeating.
If that sounds strange, well … yeah, it sounds strange. I mean, video game addiction? I probably played 100,000 hours of Pac-Man as a kid, and I walked away unscathed. My son sits before the TV Saturday mornings and dominates Madden. Is he an addict? Of course not.
Unless … he is. Because, as Cam rightly notes, video game addiction is a worldwide problem. A huge worldwide problem. The numbers are staggering; the impact tremendous. At his lowest, Cam was sitting before a television 16 hours per day—jobless, listless, indifferent. He would lie to his family and friends, all in the name of mastering a meaningless game.
Now, however, Cam is fighting back. He is the founder of Game Quitters, an outfit devoted to helping people in need break the chain of video game addiction. He’s also a prominent (and dynamic) public speaker, as well as a lover of San Diego, Cam Neely and his Seahawks-loving uncle.
JEFF PEARLMAN:OK, Cam, so to be totally honest, I was unaware of the issue of video game addiction until I randomly came upon your Twitter feed. I obviously know of drug addiction, alcohol addiction, porn addiction, food addiction. How big of a problem in the world is video game addiction, and how is it different from other addictions?
CAM ADAIR: It’s bigger than we think. Today over 1.2B people play video games worldwide, including between 70 percent to 90 percent (or more) of American youth, and the industry shows no signs of slowing down with projected growth by as much as 5 percent annually through 2020. When it comes to video game addiction, research varies between 1-11 percent of gamers, so in my estimation, we’re looking at between 10-50 million people right now who struggle with this problem. To share one example of a consequence of this, Erik Hurst, a macroeconomist at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Busines,s has found that employment rates among young (early twenties) non-college educated men have dropped sharply—more than any other group. So what are they doing with their time? He found they are playing video games! Not only speaking to the health of the individual, but what about supply for the labor market? These young men are part of our future, and yet they are living with their parents or relatives playing video games, and they are content with it.
I believe there are similarities between all addictions, but one of the ways video game addiction is unique is that people start playing at a very early age—as young as 2-to– years old. So by the time they are coming out of high school and entering university, it has been the central force in their life, and because of it, they likely have not developed other hobbies or the intangible skills (independence, spontaneity, social skills, amongst others) that you develop when you’re forced to go outside and play.
Many of the people who join our Game Quitters community don’t only struggle with a video game addiction though, but also an addiction to the Internet and porn, of which I have dubbed the “three-headed dragon” of addictions. Only half kidding.
J.P.:According to your bio, you were addicted to video games for more than 10 years. You played more than 16 hours per day, dropped out of high school, never graduated, never went to college. But how did this happen? What I mean is, what causes someone to go from, “This game is fun!” to “I can’t stop!”? How did it happen to you?
C.A.: It’s different for everyone, but in my case, after I dropped out of high school I was at home all day with nothing to do. At the time I was depressed and completely apathetic about life, so I had no desire to do anything other than whatever could help me escape from this reality. Gaming made that really easy. Eventually my parents told me that if I wasn’t going to school I had to get a job, so I started to pretend to have one. Every morning my dad would drop me off at a restaurant where I was a “prep cook,” and as soon as he drove off I’d hop on a bus back home and sneak in through my window. My parents were at work during the day so they had no idea. Of course after a few weeks they would expect a paycheck so I would make up a story about getting fired and then find a “new” job. I repeated this cycle a few times before they finally just gave up. Personally, at that point I was against anything that took me away from gaming. I loved “living” in that world.
One of the factors that can lead to you becoming addicted to video games is when you have extended exposure to the difference in stimulation that gaming provides. There’s a brain chemistry side to this, which if anyone is interested I would encourage you to watch this TEDx talk by Gary Wilson, but environmentally, when the contrast for me between video games (being awesome) and real life (not so awesome) became apparent, I saw no reason to do anything other than continue gaming, and would go to great lengths (deception, etc) to fulfill that.
J.P.:You grew up in Canada, and you write of being mercilessly bullied. Specifically, you talk of lying down on the back of a bus in a fetal position, being spit on. With as much detail as possible, what the hell happened? And how did you feel?
C.A.: Yeah, that was fucked up. I was on an elite level hockey team for my age, I was 14 or 15 at the time. It was the beginning of grade 10 and our team was playing a game in Red Deer, Alberta, which is two hours from our city of Calgary. For the past few weeks I had become the person who was being picked on, teased, all that stuff. You know how teenagers can be when they identify someone they can take advantage of. So after the game we got back on the team bus to head home, and I was just laying in the backseat minding my own business, listening to Good Charlotte or something hilarious like that, when one of the sons of an assistant coach started to come and kind of taunt me. He was just poking fun at me or something. I remember taking a headphone out to hear him and after a few minutes, I just put it back in and tried to ignore him. At this point in my life, having been bullied consistently for the past two years, I was just over it. As he realized he wasn’t getting a reaction out of me (his intention), he started trying to taunt me further—being louder, poking me, that sort of thing. I just continued to ignore him hoping he would go away. He didn’t, and things escalated to the point where he literally started to spit on me. I think I just went into a complete state of shock. I froze. I had a picture of a girl I had a crush on at the time in my hand and I just held onto it hoping it would give me the strength to get through this. This went on for about 45 minutes before we finally got back to our city and he had to stop.
I remember it was around 1 in the morning and my father was picking me up from the arena. We were driving a teammate of mine home, and I was still just kind of frozen in the moment, quiet, not saying much. The second my teammate got out of our car, I started crying hysterically. My dad was asking me what was wrong and I wouldn’t say anything. The next day I refused to go to practice and told my parents I was quitting the team. Thinking about this right now, the first time they heard about this was when I shared about it on stage at TEDx. They ended up convincing me to stay with the team and things calmed down for the most part after that, but it’s definitely a night I’ll never forget.
Looking back, I wish I would have just smacked that kid so fucking hard in the face, and I’m sure doing something of this nature would have stopped this behavior toward me for good, but I was a teenager who didn’t know better. And I mean, I was listening to Good Charlotte, so I probably deserved it.
Do I need to add a disclaimer that I don’t condone violence? smh.
J.P.:You wrote a suicide note. Why? When? How close were you to acting on the note? And why didn’t you?
C.A.: Around the time I was depressed, living in my parents basement pretending to have jobs and gaming 16 hours a day. As much as gaming allowed me to escape and avoid dealing with my depression, it didn’t fix it and my depression continued to get worse and worse. I had suicidal thoughts many times but never got too serious about it, but that too continued to spiral further and further until I did start planning for it. For me it was really simple. My life was fucking shit, I hated the world, and I wanted the pain I was feeling to end. I stopped seeing any value in continuing to live, and hated myself for feeling like a fucking coward to not follow through with it. What is more pathetic than torturing yourself with the idea of suicide and not being serious about it? So I started committing to the idea and planning it out. I know, this sounds really fucking dumb. Anyways, I planned to drive my car really fast into a big truck that was parked a few blocks from my place. That or off a cliff. On the night I planned to do it, I wrote a suicide note on my computer, individually addressing the various people in my life and what the final thing is I’d like to say to them. To my father I wanted him to stop hating video games so much. Ironic, isn’t it?
An hour or two later a friend called and asked if I wanted to go see the movie Superbad with a few friends. I said yes, we smoked a bunch of pot, and I laughed my ass off during the movie. Laughing and having a good time snapped me out of my depressed state for long enough for me to realize that I was actually pretty close to ending my life. I no longer felt safe with myself. I no longer felt like I could trust myself to make decisions in the best interest of my health and well-being, and I needed to ask for help. So when I got home I asked my father to come speak with me, and I told him I needed to get professional help, and asked if he would help me find a counselor. He did, and that’s when things started to turn around for me.
J.P.:Should my kids not be playing video games? I know you get asked this all the time—but, really, should they not? Would you let your kids?
C.A.: I’m not against gaming, but I do think we need to have more honest conversations about it. What I recommend is this: If they are gaming, then allowing them to play less time in one sitting, less often is best. The longer they play at a time, the more exposure they have to the level of stimulation in gaming (see the TEDx talk I referenced above.) This goes with the more consistent they play as well, so less time, less often.
I also think it’s incredibly important for them to have other activities they do and not just gaming. For many parents they focus on sports and gaming, but I would say having at least one or two other activities they do at home when they’re tired and bored is crucial. I also believe your kids going outside to play is important. Giving them the opportunity where they have no choice but to engage in the environment around them, to come up with games to play, to be social, to be creative, and to be spontaneous … those are just a few of the intangible skills they need to develop that we withhold from them by using an iPad as a babysitter.
I will let my kids play, but probably a lot less than most. That extends to TV as well. I mean, that’s the best we can do with all of the options our world offers us? In my opinion, kids who are gaming or watching TV also have parents who come home from work and just sit around watching TV themselves. I have greater ambitions in my life than that. I just came back from a three-week trip to Tanzania where I spent time in a rural village where they do not even have electricity. The energy of the kids was amazing! I don’t even think they knew what the concept of boredom even was. It was inspiring.
J.P.:Random question—you’re a Canadian who now lives in San Diego, and our 45th president is Donald Trump. How do you view this from afar? What was the reaction among your friends? People you spoke with?
C.A.: I personally think the fear of Donald Trump is exaggerated (media driven) and he’ll probably be better than people think. I’ll also be the first person to admit I was wrong if I am (I doubt I’m wrong). I went to the Donald Trump rally in San Diego and met a ton of people who were very welcoming and kind. The protestors outside, not so much. As a Canadian, it’s bizarre to see anyone attacking police officers. I still can’t comprehend that one. But then again, Americans wear their shoes indoors and that’s pretty fucking weird too.
The majority of my friends were Hillary/Bernie supporters, so their reaction on the day after the election was quite amazing. I mean, honestly, has anyone ever seen people on Facebook hysterical like that? Don’t get me wrong, I love my friends, they are incredible people who have the best intentions in mind, but I feel little sympathy for people who spent no time trying to understand the other side. If you didn’t think Trump could be elected, you chose to stay in your bubble (is that called a safe space?) and refused to listen to the other side’s genuine concerns and issues. And then you pretend that you know exactly why it happened—RACISM! SEXISM! XENOPHOBIA! BUZZWORDS! Gimme a break.
Donald Trump has more support in Canada than people think, but Canada has also been treading in the dangerous waters of anti-free speech (see Canada’s Twitter Trial), political correctness, etc. Can we #MakeCanadaGreatAgain?
J.P.:What was your lowest moment, addiction-wise? I don’t mean the note. I mean, you’re playing a game, miserable, but unable to stop …
C.A.: At one point I moved to Victoria, B.C. looking for a fresh start. I had just spent two years not gaming (after the note), but I started to feel down in my life again and instead of escaping into games, I figured a change of scenery would do it. I moved in with two roommates and one of them, Ben, found out we both used to play Starcraft. He said we could play and I told him I didn’t really want to, because I quit. Later that night he came home with a big grin on his face and put the game in front of me. “Just one game.” I relented. He destroyed me. That night I committed to doing everything possible to make sure he would never be able to beat me like that again, and thus began a five-month binge of gaming 16 hours per day. I stopped working and barely left the house. Eat. Sleep. Game. The lowest moment for me was when my roommates left on a three-week trip, and to be honest, I was stoked. I no longer had anyone to notice how much I was playing. I no longer had anyone to invite me to get out of the house and make me feel guilty when I said no. Etc. That felt pretty shitty.
J.P.: I check my social media shit nonstop. All the time. Habitually. It’s an annoying distraction that’s hard to break. I need Twitter and Facebook to sell books, but I hate that need to look. Any advice?
C.A.: Fuck, I really don’t know. I’ve checked Facebook and Twitter 20 times just answering these questions. So far the only thing I’ve found that really works is this: Be somewhere where you don’t have your devices with you. So I go surfing, I put my phone on airplane mode, that sort of thing. Interestingly, when I don’t have access to being able to check, I have a lot less of an urge or craving to do it.
With that said, when you do have access to it, I try to embrace the habit by not resisting the temptation to open a new tab, but instead of opening the tab, hitting up Twitter and starting to browse the feed, I open the tab and then close it and get back to my work. Sounds kind of crazy but in my experience, my urge or habit is more to open the tab than it is to actually look at the content. It’s similar to when I have an article I “want to read.” I save it in Pocket and forget about it. But saving it to Pocket makes me feel like it’s still there, and available, but I don’t actually want to read it.
On a more serious note, a lot of the work I do around gaming and addiction comes down to identifying why you do what you do, and then finding replacements. Genius idea! For instance, if you’re browsing the Internet because you’re tired from the day, and you just want to relax at home, your desire to relax at home is genuine, but you don’t have to fulfill it using the Internet. It may just be that the internet is your “go-to”, your default. Finding alternatives such as reading, listening to podcasts, going to yoga, hanging out with a friend, learning a new language, and/or playing an instrument can fill the same need. Find why you do what you do, and then align alternatives with your goals and values.
If you want to read a great book that describes how social media sites keep you hooked, read Hooked by Nir Eyal.
J.P.:You’re bored in a mall. There’s a Pac-Man machine. You have a quarter in your pocket. Would you even consider giving it a go? Could you without trouble?
C.A.: Probably wouldn’t even notice the Pac-Man machine, but if I did, I’d have no problem playing—I just have little interest in it. If it’s a chessboard that’s a whole different story. Who wants to go?
J.P.:Are the video game manufacturers aware of this problem? Is there any thought that they might knowingly take advantage of addictive personalities? Or is it mere accidental byproduct?
C.A.: Are they aware that it’s a problem? Absolutely. Nobody involved in the gaming industry doesn’t know at least someone who has a serious problem with gaming. How many people who don’t even work in the gaming industry know someone with a problem? Probably at least 40 percent of the people reading this right now know someone. Now are they aware of the extent of the problem? I’m not sure. I met the CEO of a game development company from Canada recently and he was shocked that the games he loves to make could be causing harm to some of his users. I know his heart was in the right place. They are definitely aware of their intention to make games as “good” (engaging/addictive) as possible.
It’s important to note that with the introduction of mobile devices games have changed a lot. “Back in the day” games had a clear beginning and end. Today they continue on forever. And in mobile games you have new features of game design that were never there before, such as turn-based delays and in-app purchases.
Imagine if you sat down to watch a movie and after five minutes it stopped and said you either had to pay $5 now or wait 24 hours to watch the rest. You would think that was a total scam. But that’s exactly what’s happening in mobile games. They let you play for a bit and then they make you wait for 24 hours. But in the moment you’re engaged in the game, maybe you’re waiting at the bus station, or you’re trying to take your mind off something stressful. For $1 you can continue to play, do you do it? Of course you do. And that adds up to a lot over time.
I’ll end on a positive note. This year I went on a tour speaking at problem gambling conferences, and the hot topic was about virtual goods you could win in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO). Long story short, a feature in the game allowed you to bet on matches and earn virtual goods, which you could turn around and sell on third-party sites for real money. Because the virtual goods had no real monetary value in the game, they were unregulated which allowed anyone of any age to bet and win them. A total gray area. I was receiving emails from kids as young as 13 saying they had placed their first bet and were concerned they would do more—all of their friends were doing it! Naturally the problem gambling industry was outraged over this. A few months ago STEAM (the owner of CS:GO) came out and said they were shutting down access to these third-party sites. Honestly, I was blown away. A corporation did the right thing for the health and well-being of their users. Who would’ve guessed!
Maybe there’s hope for our world after all …
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH CAM ADAIR:
• Five shittiest video games ever?: Starcraft 2, Counter-Strike: Source, Cookie Cutter (the only game Elon Musk won’t let his kids play, because “You literally tap a f#@#ing cookie.”) I know that’s only three, but fuck.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Every time I fly! Let me explain. Shit this is rapid fire. Ok, I’ll be quick. My personality responds to anxiety with flight (no pun intended), and the most extreme version of flight is suicide ideation. So throughout my life when I’ve been suicidal, it’s actually been because I’ve felt anxious and I’ve wanted to escape from it, not because I’ve genuinely wanted to do it. What a breakthrough! So every time I fly I have a moment where I hope the plane crashes because then I won’t have to actually go and accomplish all the stuff I want to. It’s fucked up, but it’s true.
* If you ever feel like you’re serious about committing suicide, don’t fuck around and get some help, call or text the crisis hotline.
• Three memories from your first-ever date: No idea when my first date was. I promise I’ve been on one though! I don’t even remember my first kiss. Is that weird?
• You live in San Diego. How and why did that happen?: It was a cold blizzard day in Calgary. -22C or something insane. Humans are not designed to live in such conditions. Anyway, I walked from my house to my car, and while shivering waiting for it to warm up, I said … I fucking hate this … Why do I do this?. .. And then I had what I describe as The Next Thought: I should move. So I did, and I’ve been retired from winter ever since.
• Would you rather lick Mike Tyson’s left armpit after a two-hour workout or eat Christina Aguilera’s sneeze residue?: That is disgusting. Christina Aguilera no doubt. Think she’d go out with me after? Can someone put in a good word?
• Five things you’re very bad at doing: Chores. Chores. Chores. Chores. Chores.
• What’s the maximum reasonable amount of money to spend on a T-shirt?: $150. But I think spending less and replacing them more often is a better strategy.
• One question you would ask Brian Bosworth were he here right now: Who are you and why do I feel like people are going to be pissed at me for not knowing who you are? (So I just googled him, and yep, my uncle is probably going to be pissed at me. He’s a huge Seahawks fan. Shoutout to my uncle! Go Hawks!)
• What’s the worst smell in the world?: Probably Mike Tyson’s armpit after a two-hour workout.
Harvey Araton is one of the greatest newspaper writers of my lifetime, which immediately makes him one of the greatest Quazes of my lifetime.
Hell, just check out his blog. Or his clips. Read his takes on the U.S. Open, on Super Bowls, on the World Series. From the time he debuted as a New York Times columnist in 1994 until his recent retirement from the paper, Harvey has been one of my go-to reads; a man whose work makes other writers sit up and moan, “Shit, I can’t do that.” Along with decades of work on the New York newspaper scene, Harvey is the author of seven books, including the wonderful “Driving Mr. Yogi: Yogi Berra, Ron Guidry and Baseball’s Greatest Gift.”
Today, Harvey talks about newspaper highs and newspaper lows; about legacy and Bernard King and, in 1993, skipping a flight from Indianapolis to Chicago that ultimately crashed.
Harvey Araton, I hate that you’re better than me. But I love that you’re the 281st Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN:Harvey, I wanna start this with something that’s going to probably seem quite weird. So I was reading your New York Times blog, and I came across a really beautiful entry shortly after the death of Scotty Stirling, the former Knicks GM. Stirling was a big deal (for admittedly a short span) when I was a kid in New York. I mean, my memories of him are quite vivid. And when he died, well, it seemed to be a non-news story. I mean, it was noted here and there. But nothing large; nothing overly noteworthy. And I was thinking how fleeting fame truly is. How while we have our occasional Jordans and Gretzkys, what we really have are tons upon tons of Scotty Stirlings. And I wonder, with you having covered ceaseless Scotty Stirlings, if there really is a such thing as legacy in sports. Are people truly remembered? Is there such a thing as impact? Or will the vast majority of us (from athletes to executives to writers) simply have our existences turn to meaningless, forgettable dust?
HARVEY ARATON: I think most of us who perform or entertain in some public setting ultimately grapple with legacy or the more fundamental fear of being forgotten 20 minutes after we exit whatever stage we’re on or forum we have. It’s worse for the average athlete; it happens much sooner in life and in most cases without advance warning, though many do get to recreate themselves as managers, coaches, executives or broadcasters. That at least can create a renewed sense of relevance. But, OK, the truth is most of us wind up as Scotty Stirling, made to feel even worse if our last name is commonly misspelled. (I had to Google Stirling/Sterling when I wrote that blog and I covered the guy for a whole bunch of years). Leaving the Times after 25 years, I’ve been moved by so many people reaching out to say they have enjoyed my work and would miss it in the paper. But if I let myself for even a second think that makes me indispensable and wonder how the Times sports section will survive without me, I’d like my wife to dump a bucket of frigid Gatorade on my head to snap me out of my sad and delusionary state. I’m proud of the work. It is preserved in the archives. Enjoyed the run. Life moves on in another direction.
J.P.: I teach journalism out here at Chapman University. And I always debate something—can you teach someone how to become a writer? Put different, can I take someone with little skill, little experience and improve him/her? How about make him/her good? Or do you feel like this is a talent one is born with, to a certain degree?
H.A.: There are certain devices and constructive techniques that can be learned to improve one’s writing skills, for sure. I know that by looking at the dreck I turned in earlier in my career. But I’m not sure I was taught as much by academicians as I was impacted by those whose work I’ve read and tried to emulate some stylistically (Larry Merchant, Vic Ziegel and Henry Hecht come to mind from the old New York Post).
I have also done some adjunct teaching the past few years at Montclair State University. The most recent course has been called Column Writing & Analysis and I begin each semester by asking students to name the columnists they regularly read. I typically get back blank stares or the name of some obscure hockey blogger. So I have a prepared response now: You want to write columns you but don’t read any columnists? That’s like saying you want to be a rock star but you don’t listen to music.
I guess I do believe writing skills can be improved, otherwise why am I there? Or maybe what I should say is that students can be taught to be better reporters and journalists, which automatically makes the writing read better. But as for superior writing (which of course is such a subjective thing), I’d have to say, probably not so much. I’ve had few students who are just natural with the cadence of words, the rhythm of sentence structure and how paragraphs can flow from one to another with the use of transitions. That’s more innate. I’ve also known some brilliant people who speak more articulately and intelligently than I ever could on my most clearheaded day. Then I look at their writings. Really? It baffles me.
J.P.:I feel like people under a certain age don’t get what it was like to work for a newspaper when newspaper mattered; when the smell of print was floral; when you rushed to the newsstand to see what happened to the Knicks. Harvey, you started your career in 1970 with the Staten Island Advance, and stayed there until 1977. So (and this is admittedly wide open) what was the experience like? What do you remember? Was it thrilling? Awful? High? Low?
H.A.: When I was kid growing up in a Staten Island housing project, the son of a postal worker and grandson of a man who was functionally illiterate, I was the pitcher for my youth baseball team in the first game of our first season. I gave up five runs in the first inning but the coach, bless him, stuck with me and we won, 7-6. My dad remembered that the Advance ran line scores on every little league game with the winning pitcher’s name in agate. Next morning, he waited outside the candy store for the paper, jangling the coins in his pocket. He brought it home, beaming. From that day on, seeing my name in newspaper print was special. Before I knew it, and with some serendipity and kindness, I was making deli runs and wrapping the old ticker tapes for the Advance sports department. My career, by the way, was nearly aborted before it began when I attached tape to the copy of a newsbreak from Munich in ’72—the U.S. had beaten the Russians by one in the gold medal basketball game. Rushed it out to the composing room on first-edition Sunday paper deadline. Proud of my quick response, I didn’t bother returning to the wire room for another 20 minutes, by which time the result had changed: the last Russian possession was infamously replayed, the Commies had won, except not in the first few papers that rolled off the Advance presses. After that, I didn’t leave that wire room unless was my appendix was about to burst.
I came of working age still in the days of hot type (though I titled my one published novel about a newspaper strike in the early 1990s, Cold Type). I learned so much about nuts and bolts reporting covering high school games for the Advance. I loved working for both New York tabloids in the late 70s and 80s, hurrying to the newsstand on the morning after a big sports night, anxious to check out my competitors and ready to hate myself if I got beat on a story or if I decided I’d been out-written. I could have used a good therapist much sooner than I actually found one. But those were also days of growth and self-discovery. For better or worse, I was full of energy and excitement, immersed in the great and ongoing struggle for survival between the Daily News and the Post.
J.P.:Harvey, I’ve never had a one-on-one conversation with Mike Lupica. But I’ve been in a bunch of press boxes and press conferences with him—and I’m quite certain I hate him. Is that hatred misplaced? And what can you tell me about the Lip?
H.A.: I worked with Mike for several years at the News. We’re not what I would call friends but we mostly had a good professional relationship – we’re about the same age – and I have to say that I have always admired his pure writing skills, the speed at which he’s worked and his ability to produce prodigiously in multiple forums at what seems to be every waking moment. He is the best self-promoter I’ve ever been around and it amazes me that he never gets tired of it.
That always-on persona has made him the brand he is but is also what many find so grating. But hate, I think, is too strong for someone who ultimately doesn’t impact your life and can be tuned out by just walking away (unless you were the poor NCAA attendant on the receiving end of a tantrum over preferred seating at the Final Four).
Some believe that Mike had the very talented Mark Kriegel banished from the News years ago (Mark recovered, I’d say) because he saw him as a threat to his empire there. If so, shame, shame. And I will also say that I threw up in my mouth a little last year when the News laid off Filip Bondy – who went everywhere for that paper and wrote with a wonderfully informed and light touch — while keeping Mike, who, let’s face it, hasn’t for some time been piling up the Marriott points.
J.P.:You were at the New York Post in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I wanna throw two things at you here: A. What was it like, competition-wise, being a beat reporter in New York City during the newspaper heyday? And … B. How unbelievable was Bernard King? And what was he like to cover?
H.A.: My first full year as the Knick beat reporter, I wrote a piece out of Seattle quoting Willis Reed, asking MSG president Sonny Werblin for some relief from rumors that Werblin wanted to replace him as coach. “Am I in or out?” Reed said, maintaining the clarity was necessary for a young team. The quote, presented in my story as a plea, was rewritten by the desk into a back-page ultimatum. I called Werblin to explain what Reed’s intention was but it was too late. Werblin seized the opportunity and fired Reed a few days later. When he was the hub of the championship Knicks teams of the early 70s, Reed was my fucking hero. Welcome to tabloid beat life and especially Murdoch World.
Truthfully, occasional excess muckraking aside, I loved my years writing for the Post and the News. We had a great cast of characters, none more fun than Jerry Lisker, the Post’s former executive sports editor – which brings me to the next part of your question, Bernard King.
I always said while covering King that he was one of a few special players that were singly worth the price of admission. His game face scared the shit out of me and his focus and intensity in that relatively short period between dealing with his alcohol and drug issues and tearing up his knee was remarkable. He was pretty much un-guardable and so intent on cleaning up his life and image that he wouldn’t so much as loosen his tie on the plane while playing cards with the guys.
A very bright guy who could be absolutely charming but also unpredictably difficult. I did the first interview with Bernard when he finished a stint in rehab after trouble with police in Salt Lake City. When he was joined the Knicks from the Warriors, he again addressed his issues with substance abuse but then said he was done talking about his past and, on top of that, warned the beat writers from dwelling on it in the paper. So then he really starts tearing up the league and the Post assigns me to write a comprehensive King piece. I tell his agent, Bill Pollak, my plan and he says, “Bernard will talk to you but not about his past, and if you write about it, there will be problems.” I write the piece, portraying him as the man who conquered his demons. Pollak calls the Post and demands to speak to Lisker. (I happen to be in the office, sitting nearby). Pollak explains that I had been warned, had betrayed my relationship and what was the Post going to do about it? Lisker told him to hold a second, then gets back on, tells him we’ve talked about the situation, and “You should go fuck yourself.” Then he hangs up.
With Billie Jean King.
J.P.: You were a tabloid guy until 1991, when you left the Daily News for the New York Times. And I wonder, did you at all feel like you were (for complete lack of a better term) “selling out”? What I mean is, at the time the News and Post were thought of as pure grit, grease, grime, fight, heart. And the Times was caviar and bubbly. So … how did it feel? And why did you make the move?
H.A.: I left the News following a brutal five-month strike (90-91) after my first son was born, my wife quit her job and we bought a coop we could barely afford in Brooklyn Heights. Back then, the Times was thought to be an impregnable force in an already wobbly industry, and I would have been nuts to pass up a job there to stay at a paper that had just been sold by the evil, union-busting Tribune Company to a British press lord, Robert Maxwell. (Maxwell lasted a year, then got busted for siphoning money from the pension funds of his holdings and retired to the sea head-first from his yacht).
I also knew why Neil Amdur, the Times’ sports editor then, hired me: his mandate was to expand his section and quicken its metabolism in order to compete with the tabloids (including Newsday, which was pushing into the city from Long Island). So while I had to lower the stridency of my voice – something I wanted to do anyway — I never thought I was competitively sacrificing anything.
J.P.:This is sort of random, but why do you think Derek Jeter was pretty universally beloved while Tom Brady is pretty universally (outside of Boston) reviled? They’re both handsome, well-spoken winners with sexy female companions and major marketing mojo. So what’s the difference?
H.A.: To start, I’d say that Jeter from early on was tethered to Joe Torre, who for a dozen years was the benevolent, paternal face of New York sports. Brady was tied to Bill Belichick, a man who would mumble the eulogy at the funeral of his best friend. More importantly, Jeter came to represent something baseball desperately needed a half-dozen years into his career: a player who was so much above suspicion of doping that people routinely would say: if I found out that Jeter was using that would be it for baseball.
Brady, conversely, had no such context. No one seems to care what football players put in their bodies, as long as they can tackle and block. Add the attachment and his contributions to the notion of the Patriots as cheaters and it is what it is. I will say that I kind of liked Brady (and Belichick, for that matter) but that ended when I heard that he is for Trump. Now I hope the Jets’ front four chases him out of the end zone and into a sedentary life cutting up and pasting photos for his wife’s scrapbooks.
J.P.:I know you’re from Montclair, N.J.; know the newspaper that employed you. But how and why did this happen? Why journalism? Why sports journalism? Was there a moment? A spark?
H.A.: Montclair has been my family’s home for 23 years. Growing up I was an outer borough kid. Growing up in an extended family of civil servants and people who didn’t go or even think of going to college, I originally thought my chances of having a professional career were only slightly less than succeeding Walt Frazier as the Knicks’ lead guard.
Moving to Staten Island from the Brownsville section of Brooklyn (yeah, Mike Tyson’s neighborhood), we lived in the West Brighton Houses, a city housing project. The basketball courts in the center of the development were our paved oasis and escape from our harsh economic (though not hopeless) financial reality. I was an OK player for a 5-8 kid. Spent most of my free time there. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar worked a clinic there when he was Lew Alcindor. I loved the game so much and I’m guessing I just gravitated to anything that would have kept me around it. After I had some experience covering high school sports, I begged the Advance’s sports editor to let me cover Knicks games at the Garden on Saturday nights. Then my childhood pal Phil Mushnick connected me to Lisker at the Post for a clerk’s job and when the Knicks beat opened a year later, Pete Vecsey – already the NBA columnist — told Lisker to send me out with them (mainly because he didn’t want to get stuck with doing windows himself). I suddenly had a life that I couldn’t possibly have foreseen. Eternally grateful.
J.P.:What are the keys to writing great columns? Construction? Approach? Etc?
H.A.: I’ve always thought of sports writer as something of an insult, a way to separate what we do from what everyone else in the newsroom does. We’re all reporters, storytellers, and that includes or should include the columnists. And those that aren’t, while they may brilliantly entertain in their commentary, ultimately become pontificators. The best columns are invariably – if not always — the ones with information in them and the best columnists are those who get around, call people, all of that.
Adrian Wojnarowski is terrific at writing basketball columns because he knows so much by being a great reporter. Bill Plaschke has long been a destination read in the L.A. Times because he is gifted writer and storyteller with the knack for getting out of the office. When I was young in the business, covering a lot of Celtics playoff games, I couldn’t wait to get off the plane to grab the Globe for Leigh Montville’s columns. You never knew what you were going to get from him but you were sure it would be different from what you got elsewhere.
I will also say this: when I first wrote Sports of the Times, the column was anchored on the left side of the first sports page, which gave us about 775 words, and that, I believe, was when I was at my best. The hole forced you to write crisply, making careful use of information and quotes. No overwriting! When they moved the column for design purposes, all of a sudden we started stretching out to 1000-1200 words, just because we could. Didn’t make the columns better, just longer and lazier (writing wise).
J.P.:Is journalism fucked? I know I’m supposed to be optimistic and peppy, and I usually am. But … man, newspapers are dying, ad revenue is gone, corporations increasingly own the messengers. Is our industry a corpse?
H.A.: Obviously – and sadly — there is no model right now that holds up economically, print or digital, as long as the goal is to provide real journalism, which costs plenty, and not shitty aggregation. I get the question a lot from students – as I imagine you do as well: Professor, can I get a good job doing this? I try to be honest. I don’t know what the future is, only that there is a greater need now for smart content than there’s ever been, and more exciting, fun ways to present it.
But I do wonder what the future of the full-time job is, at least as we’ve known it. Will there be a middle-class for journalists – full-time salaried jobs with health benefits and 401Ks (I have a defined Times pension coming but few places offer that anymore)? Or will the uncertainty mean a class of industry multi-forum one-percenters – in sports, for example, the likes of Bill Simmons, Tony and Mike, Stephen A. – while most scavenge for part time work, finding a little here, a little there, while dreaming of a big score, akin to aspiring actors and novelists?
I hope not. But given the trend of newspapers and the limited advertising revenue for digital only publications, I don’t see how they support as many decent-paying jobs as there will be deserving reporters with traditional benefits going forward. I hope I am as wrong about this as I’ve been about most prognostications.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: When I was made a columnist at the Times late in 1993, I was assigned to cover a Jets game in Indy. Next day, my editor asked me to go from there to Chicago, where they were opening United Center and retiring Jordan’s jersey in a ceremony on Tuesday night. I booked my flights, then changed my mind, wanting to come home on Monday, which was Halloween, to be with my kids for a block party right after we’d moved to Montclair. So I did, had a wonderful afternoon and evening, put the kids to sleep, turned on the TV and learned that the flight I’d switched off from Indy to Chicago, on American Eagle, had gone down in northern Indiana during an ice storm. Sat there frozen for a half-hour. Went up to bed, never more thankful for fatherhood.
• This is my all-time favorite song. What do you think?: Like the song, never heard of the band. Then again, I’ve been raving about the new Jayhawks album lately and friends look at me, like, who?
• In exactly 16 words, can you make a case for stale bagels?: I can’t make the case for any bagels because I have sworn off bread for months.
• Global warming terrifies me, yet most people don’t seem to care. What the hell are we supposed to do?: I wouldn’t say most people, but one side of the political spectrum. But Trump’s election is enough to make me think there is no hope, none whatsoever, for the human race, especially since the U.S. influences as much as it does around the world. Our east and west coasts could be under water and the far right would still be in denial, or just defend their position by calling it God’s will.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Marco Rubio, Nick Cage, David Bowie, Scottie Pippen, “The Martian,” award shows, strawberry ice cream, “Zoolander,” Jojo Moyes, Martin Lawrence, the number 44: Bowie. Pippen. Strawberry ice cream. Zoolander. 44. Martin Lawrence. The Martian. Cage. Moyes. Award shows. Rubio.
• What word do you overuse in writing?: Narrative.
• On Facebook, I tend to block all the arch-conservative wingnuts from my high school. Then I get ripped for it. What to do?: Unfollow but still be friends. That works for me.
• What’s the grossest thing you’ve ever seen?: In the context of what’s at stake, Trump’s face contorted in staged anger is the first thing that comes to mind.
• Who wins in a fight between you and Mark Kriegel? How long does it go?: Kriegel sounds more street than me but I, unlike him, actually grew up in the hood. He is younger, bigger and better-looking, the type who wins over the judges and gets a decision, even if I manage to bloody him with some MMA-style tactics and trickeration.
Sarah Cooper has mastered social media. Sarah Cooper is terrified of Donald Trump. Sarah Cooper is intelligent and quick-witted and absolutely lovely.
But the reason Sarah Cooper is here … the reason I’m one of her biggest fans, is for a simple reason: Sarah Cooper loathes meetings.
Hell, having survived, oh, hundreds upon hundreds of those awful corporate powwows, where men and women sit around a table and try to appear intelligent, she decided to write a book about the collective lessons. That’s why 100 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings has resonated with so many Americans. Because meetings absolutely suck, and must be avoided at all costs before they kill your rotted soul.
Sarah Cooper, meeting slayer, you are the 280th Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN:So Sarah, even though your book is satire, satire can really only be satire if there’s truth to it. So I ask you this: In meetings, why do people always repeat what others already said? What I mean is, it’s time to go around the room and offer your thoughts. And Jim says, “We need to expand the IT department.” And Sam was thinking the same thing, but now he doesn’t need to say it, because Jim already brought up the point. But, when it’s his turn, he says, “We really do need to expand IT.” That shit happens ALL the time. Why?
SARAH COOPER: Because it’s the perfect thing to say when you have nothing else to say. And you can’t say you have nothing to say, because then you won’t be seen as a positive contributor to the meeting. I’ll freely admit doing this an embarrassing amount of times. Works especially well when the person you’re repeating is generally seen as a smart person.
J.P.:What’s your meetings background? Like, first meeting you attended? How many have you attended? And what inspired writing a book about meetings?
S.C.: First meeting ever attended? I’m not sure I can even remember. I’ve been attending meetings since my first job as a designer back in 2001. You can’t work in an office without attending meetings. I’ve attended thousands of them because I’ve worked in an office off and on for 15 years. But meetings don’t just happen at work—there are PTA meetings, condo board meetings, networking events, meetings with your husband and your real estate agent, meetings are just everywhere! I wanted to write a book about meetings for a practical reason—because people really identified with the original article, 10 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings. I considered making it more of a broad “how to win at work” book—but there’s something especially painful about meetings that everyone identifies with immediately. Everyone hates meetings but will still complain if they weren’t invited to one.
J.P.:You had a gay ol’ time writing about the Republican Convention, but I’m struggling to find Donald Trump’s potential election even remotely funny. Truthfully, I’m terrified. What do you make of this all? And, let’s say he wins, will you be able to let humor conquer fear/disgust?
S.C.: The joy that existed when Donald Trump first entered the race is gone. The jokes I make now are exasperated and frustrated and angry and I make them because it feels like all I can do. I remember the first moment I didn’t think it was funny anymore—when Trump went on Jimmy Kimmel, and they were joking about keeping Mexicans out. I was furious. I thought about some little kid watching this and not being able to laugh at all. When I saw he was going on Fallon a few months ago I didn’t watch it (truth be told I’m hardly ever up that late) but the next day, the images of Jimmy pulling Trump’s hair made me sick. But there’s only so many times I can yell “fuck you” at my Twitter feed or my television screen. I really don’t like feeling so angry and stressed and hateful. I don’t like dedicating so much of my energy to this person who deserves none of it. I want one day for us all get tired of him but it feels like that day is never coming. His success shows us how easily manipulated we are. Kerry Washington recently said something on Real Time that struck a chord with me—she said the media is doing us all a disservice, and leading us to not vote in our own self-interest. I think Trump’s supporters are holding a middle finger to the establishment, which feels good but in the end, the only people they are fucking is themselves. If he wins, my only sustaining thought will be that the supporters who put him up on a pedestal will be the first to bury him. Watching that happen will be my only retribution.
J.P.:So I know you attended Maryland, snagged a master’s from Georgia Tech, worked for Google. But … how did this happen? I know that’s sort of a lame question—but you’re a former Google employee with her own website, a book. What’s your path?
S.C.: Growing up, there were two things I loved: being on the computer and entertaining people (er, attention, depending on how you look at it!) When I went to Maryland I wanted to get a degree in theatre but my parents didn’t think that was very prudent. They encouraged me to get a business degree (to get some “real” skills). I hated it and knew I didn’t want to pursue it as a career, and luckily, my last semester at Maryland I took a multimedia design course and fell in love with Photoshop. That led me to Georgia Tech where I got a degree in digital design, and went on to work at an ad agency, Yahoo! and then Google, but in between working I was still hanging on to that acting dream. Acting led to standup comedy which led to writing and once I had some success with writing, I decided to leave corporate America once again. The book came through people finding my writing online.
J.P.:I’m gonna say something, and please don’t think me a dick. I saw you and your husband’s wedding announcement in the New York Times, and it was lovely and cute and all. But it also struck me as something—Times wedding announcements—that someone like you would mock and ridicule, not necessarily appear in. Is that a midread?
S.C.: Oh, it’s definitely something I would mock. I’m a pretty sarcastic and sometimes cynical person, but when I fell in love with my husband Jeff, I turned into a cheeseball. All the things I didn’t think I wanted—the engagement photos, the engagement party, the wedding by the beach, the New York Times announcement—I wanted it all! I just love him and he makes me so happy and turns me into such a cheeseball. Oh and for the record, it’s something Jeff would totally make fun of, too.
J.P.:You’ve done a good amount of standup comedy. What was your greatest moment on stage? Your worst?
S.C.: Greatest moment—I’m not sure I’ve had one yet. Standup is hard. I’ve been doing it eight years and I feel like I’m eight years away from being good at it. My worst—I’ve had a lot. Probably a show in Brooklyn where I bombed horribly and when I sat back down next to my husband he wouldn’t stop staring at me and asked me if I was going to cry. I told him to please stop staring at me! It was really embarrassing. I’ve done really well and had people coming up to me to tell me how awesome I was, and I’ve done so horribly that I just wanted to disappear after the show. The funniest part is that’s with the same material. I hope one day to be someone who kills no matter what, but also someone who doesn’t care if I don’t.
J.P.:I really dig the way you see the world. Not the big things—but the tiny observations. Bachelor dialogue, mannerisms in meetings, etc. This is sort of a big, broad, dumb question, but what are you looking at? And what are you looking for? Are you eternally on the hunt for material? Does stuff just hit you naturally?
S.C.: Yeah, I try to be as observant as possible when I’m going about my daily life. If I only created stuff when I sat down to my laptop and tried to, I’d never create anything. Everything I create comes from something I noticed when I wasn’t trying to create something. I do observe people a lot and try to get at what they’re really saying or who they’re trying to impress or what they’re trying to avoid. But I think more of my material comes from observing myself. Noticing the moment I say “definitely” when I really mean “leave me alone.” I’m not always on the hunt for new material, I turn my brain off a lot more than I should. Most of my ideas come when I’m not really trying to find new ideas. I write down ideas constantly, sometimes I’ll just tweet it out and sometimes I’ll write it in a notebook which I refer to later when I’m trying to come up with something.
J.P.:You’re addicted to cable news—which strikes me as crack without the momentarily good feeling. What is it about cable news that draws you? And how long can you watch Hannity without stabbing yourself with a rusty nail?
S.C.: I can’t watch Hannity anymore. Jeff and I started watching it ironically because it was so ridiculous it made us laugh. Now it infuriates me. I’ve noticed the thing about cable news is: it’s not news (revelation!)—it’s news filtered through the opinions of commentators. If you watch local news you won’t see people taking sides, it’s way more like real, unbiased news in that way but also boring because there’s nothing to yell at. Cable news is opinion entertainment.
J.P.:So you have a free semi-monthly newsletter with more than 12,000 subscribers. Why? What I mean is, why do you do it? What’s the goal? Do you make money off it?
S.C.: It’s another way to reach people and let them know about what I’m doing. A lot of people don’t use Twitter or Facebook, and even if they did the chances of them actually seeing my updates are small. So my newsletter helps me reach more people. I don’t make money off of it per se, but if people buy my book or visit my website, I can make money that way.
J.P.:What’s your relationship with the eternal nothingness of death? Comfortable? Terrified? Something you think about? Something you don’t care about?
S.C.: I don’t believe death is an eternal nothingness. I think there’s a somethingness there. I’m not sure what it is but I’m interested to find out. Not super interested but interested. I think about dying all the time. I think about wanting die before my husband, and hoping I die peacefully and without having to bear the sadness of anything horrible happening to me or anyone I love. Life is wonderful and I’ve been lucky and if I could die happy I’d be happy about that, no matter when it happens.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: I always think about the scene from Castaway where the plan crashes and the people not wearing their seat belts get thrown out of their seats and I make sure I have my seat belt on.
• John McCain calls. He’ll pay for $2 million to write his arch-conservative speeches next year. You in?: I’d do it and try to sneak my liberal persuasions in there.
• How’d you meet your husband?: I met him at Google.
• How afraid are you of really large snakes?: I think I’m more scared of small snakes that disappear somewhere and you don’t know where they went.
• Would you rather change your name to Nipple McGee or self-pierce your nose with a 5”-thick arrow?: Nipple McGee I hate pain
A couple of weeks ago I was doing my thing on Twitter when I stumbled upon Ron Tannenbaum’s amazing, in-depth destruction of Donald Trump’s bullshit foundation. It was absolutely brilliant journalism dialed down to 140-character increments, and it’s an exhibition of why Rob has long been one of the best around.
Unfortunately, Rob is also one of the best around … who was allegedly fired from Rolling Stone for mocking a member of Maroon 5. Which is weird and quirky and funky, but adds to this amazing Quaz.
One can follow Rob on Twitter here, and read his stuff, well, everywhere.
Rob Tannenbaum, you are the Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN:So Rob, you recently had an absolutely riveting Twitter stream, where you went into great detail on Donald Trump’s (and, really, the Trump Foundation’s) “charitable” donations—and the apparent bullshit behind them. You’re not a political reporter, and you’re not a financial expert. So what inspired this—and what shocked you?
ROB TANNENBAUM: I know at least a little bit about how foundations work, because I’m on the board of one, and I’d read a huge amount of innuendo about the Clinton Foundation, most of it about conflicts which, to be honest, seemed unavoidable to me for a wealthy and famous person running a massive charitable foundation. I’d filed a story in the middle of the afternoon, and I had a few hours until my four year old son came back from a playdate, so when I saw yet another tweet about Hillary, I started to wonder about the Trump Foundation, which had, to that point, been ignored by journalists.
Every foundation has to file an annual 990-PF — it’s like a tax return, and it lists all contributions for the year, plus income and assets, among other things. The first thing that shocked me was the size: the Trump Foundation has assets of about $1.3 million, which is no bigger than the foundation where I work. For a self-professed billionaire, that’s a tiny and ungenerous foundation. (By comparison, the Clinton Foundation recently had assets of about $247 million.)
As I looked through Trump Foundation’s 990s, I started live-tweeting it, more or less. I had no idea how much dubious behavior I’d quickly find. I won’t recreate the whole tweetstorm (the first one is here, if anyone wants to see it), or fully A/B the Clinton and Trump foundations, but no one who examines both and has an open mind could ever think they’re comparable; the Clintons run a genuine foundation, and Trump runs a foundation that mainly benefits himself and a few cronies.
David Farenthold at the Washington Post has been investigating the Trump Foundation, and he’s outlined its illegal activities, which I won’t duplicate. But from my perspective as a foundation director (and as a human being), what Trump does with his foundation is vile, and contradicts the essence of charity. Most foundations use their wealth to help the needy. The Trump foundation uses other people’s money to help the wealthy. A man who steals from a charity would steal from anyone.
J.P.:You seem genuinely frustrated with the way the media is covering Donald Trump thus far. Why? And what should the press be doing differently?
R.T.:Someone will write a fascinating and depressing book about how the media covered this election. But here are a few key factors.
Hillary Clinton has been in the public eye since 1978, when her husband was elected governor of Arkansas. She’s the most investigated politician in U.S. history, and she’s repeatedly been exonerated. Trump, on the other hand, has been taken seriously by reporters only in the last few months. He’s been famous for a long time, but the media thought he was an amusing and harmless buffoon (despite evidence to the contrary — most notably, his public demand that New York impose the death penalty on five black and Hispanic teenagers who’d been accused, falsely, it turned out), of raping a white female investment banker). When Trump declared he was running for president in the summer of 2015, reporters didn’t think he’d get very far, so they didn’t vet his history and ideas the way they vetted Cruz or Romney. In the last few weeks, that’s changed, and a few newspapers have even adjusted their coverage by using the word “lie” to describe Trump’s claims, rather than neutral and dishonest euphemisms like “equivocation.”
The Right Wing has been yelling MEDIA BIAS for years, which makes journalists reluctant to write or say anything that might seem biased. They’ve successfully cowed much of the media, and both dictated and limited the scope of coverage — meanwhile, Fox News, the most flagrantly biased of any media, operates under the cloak of “balanced and fair.” The Right Wing is masterful at disinformation campaigns like this, creating a fog about ideas like “bias” or even “racism.” (Shout out to the “you’re the real racist” tweeters and commenters, who equated “racism” with “talking about race.” Yeah, no, actually, you’re the real racists. You don’t get to change the meaning of “racism.”) Also, Peter Thiel contributed to a chilling of aggressive coverage when he sued Gawker and caused it to shut down. In addition, most editors are cautious people who fear controversy and corrections (and, these days, being fired), so they insist that reporters work while handcuffed — they have to moderate or dilute their knowledge and observations. I like Maggie Haberman of the New York Times, but her tweets have so much more punch than the pieces she files for the New York Times.
There’s a lot more, but it only gets more depressing. I need a nap and a few butter cookies.
J.P.:You Tweeted something that cracked me up: “A few years ago, I pissed off One Direction fans. They were more reasonable and had better spelling than Trump fans.” A. Why did you piss off 1D fans? And what sort of shit have you been getting from the idiots?
R.T.: I pissed off One Direction fans because I gave them a lukewarm review in Rolling Stone. A few of them tracked me down on Twitter — I give them credit; it showed initiative — and told me I was “jelly.” Which, shit, I am! Those dudes are handsome, rich, and getting laid like mad. I’m a journalist.
Trump supporters never actually address the issue I’ve raised — and to be fair, foundation law is an arcane topic most people aren’t able to discuss — so there’s lots of stuff about Benghazi, or the Clinton Foundation, or they call her Killary. A few times, I’ve been called a fag, which is one of the few words they can spell correctly. I’d like to settle the 2016 presidential race by holding a spelling bee between Clinton supporters and Trump supporters. Winners get the White House. Losers have to repeat sixth grade.
J.P.:I have a theory. It’s not original, but it’s sorta divisive. Namely, the coverage of this election has sucked because the majority of experienced political journalists have been laid off and replaced by 22-year-olds afraid to ask real questions and ignorant of the tricks of the reporting trade. Thoughts?
R.T.: This was originally part of my answer to your second question. As you know, Jeff, the media is in severe financial distress, and Trump has benefited from that, too. Newsrooms has been gutted, via ongoing waves of staff reductions. Often, the first people fired are middle-aged reporters, who by virtue of their experience, know how to report and doggedly investigate something. Increasingly, publications are turning to 26 year old reporters, who are cheaper to hire. Nothing against 26 year old reporters — I was one once — but they’re not as experienced or savvy, and because they’re often asked to write six blog posts a day, they don’t have the time to thoroughly investigate Trump’s finances.
Like most large institutions, newspapers and magazines move slowly, especially when it’s time to adapt, and I worry that these adjustments have come too late. The press should have been calling out Trump’s lies, dishonesty, and conflicts of interest since he declared for president.
Since rock n’ roll began, lyrics, content, and skill have been optional. That’s true in every decade. And it’s a myth that MTV boosted the popularity only of suave dudes and foxy babes. Phil Collins, Huey Lewis, Cyndi Lauper, Heart — none of them fit the mold of sexualized rock stars. On top of which, I’m pro-sexualization. The MTV-liked-only-sexy-stars argument, in addition to being incorrect, always seemed prudish to me.
For me, it’s never been either/or. I love Madonna, and I love Jimi Hendrix. Hell, I love Britney Spears, and I love La Monte Young. And you know who else made music videos? The Beatles. Made quite a few of them, and also posed for thousands of photos, as did Bob Dylan.
J.P.:You Tweeted a bit about Donald Trump’s appearance on Jimmy Fallon, but I’d like to get your take on this. There are many who say, “He’s an entertainer, not a political reporter.” And others who say, “You just gleefully rubbed the head of a racist xenophobic fascist.” What says you? Do entertainers/comedians have a responsibility?
A comedian’s sole responsibility is to be funny, which is why some rape jokes and some Holocaust jokes have legitimacy. A funny comedian can joke about anything! But Jimmy Fallon isn’t funny.
I’m not the first person to say that ever since 2000 — when Jon Stewart and the Daily Show began to focus witheringly on the election recount — comedians have supplanted reporters as effective political commentators. Maybe discussions of complex political and economic issues land harder when they’re disguised as satire; either way, Samantha Bee will have more of an effect on the election than Ross Douthat.
But it’s also clear that comedians have been political since long before 2000. I don’t mean the obvious antecedents — Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory, George Carlin — but also Donald Duck and Bugs Bunny, my man Mel Brooks, and Charlie Chaplin, who was doing Jon Stewart almost 100 years ago when he portrayed a World War I grunt in Shoulder Arms.
Journalists like to say they comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Comedians like to say they speak truth to power. Both are very similar ideas. When presented the chance, Fallon comforted the comfortable. I was disappointed. For what it’s worth, Stephen Colbert sided with Fallon.
J.P.:You were a Rolling Stone staffer. You are no longer a Rolling Stone staffer. What happened?
R.T.: Short version: Jann Wenner fired me. About two years ago, I did a Q&A with Adam Levine, in which I asked him to apologize for “Moves Like Jagger.” (He did.) I’d been warned that Levine is “a guy Jann cares about,” and was told I should ask him some serious questions about his music and his acting career. I guess I didn’t; after Jann read the interview, he complained to my editors that he “didn’t learn anything” from it. So they fired me, six months into a one-year contract they offered because — wait for it! — they loved my Q&As.
There’s a longer version of it, but even my wife won’t sit still for the whole thing.
J.P.:What’s your journalistic path? As in, how did this happen? Why? When did you first get the bug?
R.T.: I don’t recommend my path to anyone. I didn’t take journalism classes. I didn’t write for a school paper. I didn’t get a job as an intern and then work my way up. I never wanted to be a writer. Some days, I still don’t.
I majored in English and wanted to waste some time before I inevitably went to law school, so I put my facility in writing term papers to good use, and wrote articles for the (now-defunct) Providence Eagle, at $20 an article — until they stopped paying me, and I had to take them to small claims court. That was a valuable early lesson in maintaining a lawyer’s diligence even if you have a career in the arts.
From there, I wrote for the Eagle’s crosstown competitor, the NewPaper, for $25 an article. A 25 percent raise! Then a few regional New England publications, then Musician magazine, and I started writing for Rolling Stone when I was 23. It worked out pretty well, for an accident.
The only part of the story I think applies to other people is that I started my career in Providence, where the rent was low. If I’d moved to Manhattan, I’d have worked as an assistant somewhere, and would’ve had a long tutelage before I had much of a chance to write. Low overhead is an ideal way to begin a career in the arts, and that might be impossible now if you begin your career in New York or Los Angeles.
J.P.:Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?
R.T.: I’m lousy at best and worst questions — best album, worst interview, favorite live band, worst breakfast cereal — probably because I have a patchy memory and am indecisive as well.
Early in my career, I interviewed John Cage and Brian Eno together, in the same room. They’d never met before, and they never met again. I pitched the idea, an editor said yes, and to my shock, Cage and I were traveling in the same week to London, where Eno lived. It was probably a one in 500 shot, in terms of scheduling. I’ve had a lot of other great experiences, been sent to great places, and talked to great people, but simultaneously interviewing two musicians I revere was uniquely great.
I also have a sideline in comedy ghostwriting. Most of my work is anonymous, which means I can’t take credit for it, but I did contribute enough to John Leguizamo’s one-man Broadway show “Sexaholix” that he gave me a small credit <https://smdb.me/m203486>. It was nominated for a Tony, and lost, but shit — it was nominated for a Tony! I helped do that!
The lowest moment, hmm. “Answering this survey” would be the obvious answer, but it’s a cheap joke. Unless you laughed.
In March 2009, Blender magazine folded — that hurt, and still does, to be honest. I’d worked there since 2002, just after it started, and it quickly caused waves by being funny, fearless, and comprehensive, which other music magazines weren’t. Advertising Age named it “Launch of the Year,” and in 2005, the Chicago Tribune named us the best magazine in America. Not the best music magazine, but the best magazine — i.e., better than the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Wired, Gourmet, Texas Monthly, etc. Blender was characterized as dumb by people who were themselves not very smart, but smart people understood what we were doing, including Bob Christgau, who in his 2009 eulogy for the magazine called it “bright and original,” as well as “intelligent and irreverent and lots of laughs.” (He also noted that the reviews section I ran “was vastly more sharp and varied” than the ones at the competing magazines. If I were more humble, I wouldn’t mention this.)
Blender was a great magazine brought down by the financial crisis, which is the worst possible way to lose.
J.P.:I feel like every journalist has a money story; something truly insane that happened in the course of a career. Rob, what’s your money story?
R.T.: No exaggeration: I’ve been thinking about this for five days and don’t have an answer. (Update: seven days.) (Still later: eleven days.)
I know I have stories I’ve dined out on — like when Jay Z insisted we go to a Nets game in his Bentley before our interview, and we made a bet he eventually lost, then sent me $1,000 cash in a Def Jam envelope to pay off — but I think they’re more oral stories than written stories. So let’s go with this, which is pertinent because of the recent New York Times reporting on Donald Trump’s avowed “locker-room talk.”
When I was in my 20s, I freelanced for the New York Post. In my defense, I was broke and the Post was not yet fully a propaganda bugle for the worst impulses of the right wing. One of my assignments was to review a Joan Jett concert, which I did. In the course of the show, she played a bunch of covers, one of which was the Rolling Stones’ “Starfucker.”
Writing the review, I was puzzled about how to proceed: I didn’t know the Post’s copy policy on FUCK. At some publications, they allow f___ or f*** or f@#$, and at others, you can’t even hint at it. The Post had never sent me a style sheet, so I decided I’d write out “Starfucker” and let their copy department apply the house policy.
The next day, I picked up a copy of the Post, read my review, and there it was, an F-word, printed in full. Wow, I thought to myself, the Post prints the word fuck. How progressive of them!
But they don’t, as I quickly learned when my assignment editor called. “You are in big trouble,” she said. I explained why I’d used the word, and asked her why no one had changed it prior to publication. “We’re looking into that,” she said.
A while later, she called back and told me I was no longer in trouble. When they looked into it, they discovered that after I filed the review, no one — no editor, no copy editor, probably not even an intern — had read it. They’d printed it exactly as I wrote it, without so much as looking at it.
That’s the story of how I became, I think but don’t know for sure, the first writer to get the word fuck into a daily newspaper. The Post later fired me, but it was for something else entirely.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH ROB TANNENBAUM:
• Rob, I’m sitting at a coffee shop and this guy at another table is yelling to his friends, and he won’t shut the fuck up. Can I throw large objects at his skull?: Sure, but lace your shoes first.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Daryl Hall, John Oates, Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel, Anne Lennox, Dave Stewart, Matthew Nelson, Gunnar Nelson, Huey Lewis, The News, Fernando Valenzuela, Steve Yeager, chocolate chip muffins: Oddly, you’ve placed them in the exact order I’d have chosen.
• One question you would ask Shannon Hoon were he here right now?: Why are you in my apartment and why aren’t you wearing pants?
• Who would make a better president, Donald Trump or Sarah Palin?: In that scenario, I think I’d dissolve the government and take my chances with anarchy.
• Three memories from your first kiss: 1) We were on a date at a carnival in the parking lot of the high school I’d just begun attending. 2) She wanted to take a walk in the woods, and I didn’t understand why. 3) Her parents sent her to boarding school soon after that.
• You wrote for Blender—which no longer exists. Five adjectives to describe the magazine: Dead dead dead dead defunct.
• What’s something you absolutely suck at?: Writing, if you ask Jann Wenner.
• I think it’s obnoxious bullshit that Toure guys by one name. Tell me why I’m right or wrong: I discussed this with Bjork, Christo, Basia, Adele, Enya, Sia, Reba, Pelé, and Morrissey, and they’re okay with it. Sting disagreed.
• My daughter wants Snapchat. She’s 13, and we’ve refused. Should we give in?: Yes. And tell me her screen name. • Who wins in a 12-round boxing match between you and Peter Gabriel? How long does it go?: It ends in about 20 seconds. Peter uses his sledgehammer.
Back in the early 1990s, when I was an editor at the University of Delaware’s student newspaper, Mike Freeman was my hero.
At the time, while I was writing stories about Blue Hens cross country and field hockey, Mike was covering the Giants for the New York Times. He, too, had been an editor at The Review, and I viewed him as proof that a kid from Delaware could have a big career in journalism. I actually still vividly recall Mike returning to campus to speak to my sports journalism class, talking about chasing down quotes, calling out GMs, seeking truth when truth is often concealed. I would read everything he wrote; dig through the college paper’s archives to see what he had done in my shoes.
Mike Freeman, reformed Hen, you are the 278th Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN:Mike, I’m gonna start with a completely random and oddly specific one: You and I both attended the University of Delaware, both worked as editors of the student newspaper, The Review. You preceded me be a couple of years, and while you were there a kid named A. RossMayhew, the editor and chief of the paper, committed suicide by hanging himself. When I was editor I used to read about him quite regularly, almost to an odd point of obsession. What do you remember about the whole thing?
MIKE FREEMAN: So first, thanks for being patient with me on my responses. You deserved better and sorry about it. Part of my reason for the delay was deciding just what I wanted to share, especially regarding Ross. I remember the great sadness everyone felt. I didn’t know him well since he was a senior and I was a freshman but that moment seemed to mark a dramatic change in the history of the paper. I know when I became editor, what happened to him was something I thought a great deal about, and I wanted to build a close staff that felt it could share anything with me, or anyone else on the staff. I didn’t ever want anyone to feel that alone.
Mental health remains, despite so much attention to it, one of the great issues of our society. Ross was one of my first exposures to it but far from my last. So many family and friends…and I’ve had my own battles. I used to wonder how someone could take their own life and leave family and friends behind to deal with the wake. Now I know better. Things can get remarkably out of control quickly.
One huge concern I have is that the NFL is creating a legion of men who suffer from great mental health issues, not in their 70s, but in their 30s and 40s. I think we’re just starting to get a grasp on what the violence of football does to the brain and some of it is just scary shit. And we’re 20 years behind in studying it in the NFL because the league lied their asses off about CTE for decades.
M.F.: One of the things that originally fascinated me about Stabler was how this Southern dude, who grew up in segregated Alabama, became incredibly cool with black people. I know there were plenty of white Southerners who despised segregation and fought against it but he was one of the few–shit, really the only one–I had known.
When I first started covering the NFL, I’d run into him at certain games, or other events, and we’d start talking. I always thought he was the most unique players I’d met covering the NFL. That whole group had a bunch of really smart and deep guys on it, including Gene Upshaw and Art Shell. I actually think that team was the smartest in NFL history.
This book is about 20 years in the making. Originally, I was going to do a book about football in the 1970s—easily the most brutal but most exhilarating chapter in league history. But the more I had conversations with Ken, the more I wanted to focus on him. One thing I have to say is that Kendra, his daughter, is a gem just like him. He has three daughters and they’re all fantastic.
In the end what I found was a far more complex man than people know. He was a partier, yes, but he was always conflicted with wanting to be his own man, while also wanting to be a married man. He’d leave behind his partying ways and become a dedicated father.
J.P.:I just read an interview you did with The Big Lead back in 2007, where you discussed white writers accusing you of landing some stories “because you’re black.” And while I hope this sounds sane, lemme ask: Is it possible there have, in fact, been times where being black has helped you land interviews? To offer some context—I’ve 100% used being Jewish at times when someone I’ve profiled is also Jewish. I’ve used geography (“Hey, you’re from Putnam County? So am I?”). Shit, I’ll use any in I can muster (“You have a daughter named Casey? So do I!”). So why would it be so bad if being African-American helped from time to time?
M.F.: Okay, great question. Long answer. Here we go.
So, you never land an interview solely because you’re black. Doesn’t happen. Never happens. You have to demonstrate to black players that first, you’re competent; second, you can be trusted; and third, you’re not an Uncle Tom. Trust me, that last point is really important.
There can be a feeling among black players that on certain issues, maybe an African-American man can understand them better than a white one. This was the case with a story I recently wrote on Trump and how support for him in the locker room was playing with black players. But also on that stories, I had frank conversations with white players about Trump and race.
When you look at LeBron James, and when he announced his return to Cleveland, he gave the exclusive to a white writer. That was one of the biggest stories of the past 20 years and LeBron didn’t say: gonna give this one to a brotha’.
And this really needs to be said. I’m not saying this is the case with LeBron, but there are definitely black athletes who think white journalists are better than black ones, and they give exclusives or big stories to white journalists. Happens all the time.
Black players want to see writers working as hard as they do. That quote from me was more about the laziness of some writers. They were maintaining the only reason I was getting stories was because I was black. Which was a fucking lie.
Also, let’s be honest, you yourself get good stories because first, you’re one of the best to ever do it. You’re one of the top three journos I’ve ever known. So shut the fuck up about getting stories ’cause you’re Jewish.
Appearing with Mike on Jim Rome’s show.
J.P.:Back when you and I were coming up, the dream was to write for a print publication. A newspaper, a magazine. What happened? Do you think newspapers and magazines destroyed themselves? Was it inevitable? Would you still advise a young journalist to shoot for a print publication?
M.F.: Newspapers and magazines were arrogant. The arrogance hurt them. That’s really the bottom line. A lot of newspaper editors saw the Internet as this fringy thingy not worthy of pursuit or genuine exploration. I mean, I used to to hear this stuff all the time. It’s totally true. Our innovation was in our journalism. Part of this I get. Most journalists still think 8-track tapes are cool. We’re idiots when it comes to technology. This is true across the board and that was definitely part of the slow response to the changing landscape.
I would also tell a young journo that now, it’s not as necessary to go to a print publication. Some of the best editing and stories are online. Bleacher, as you know, has some of the best stories and editors of all the sites (shameless suck-up to editors), and some of the best writing including you (shameless suck-up to you).
J.P.:You were an insanely strong NFL beat writer at the New York Times. It’s always struck me as the hardest (worst?) gig in sports media. I mean, to care so much about Rodney Hampton’s swollen ankle? No thanks. Looking back, what were the keys to owning the beat? What do most beat writers miss?
M.F.: I loved beat writing. The best part was getting a story, or even a tiny little fact, that no one else knew. Beat writing is really where you get tested for your work ethic and dedication to the job. (I’d say column writing is a very close second or even tied.)
I remember one Christmas Eve, when I was covering the Giants, and I went to a practice. I was on the practice field watching, when one of the players came over to me and said, ‘What the fuck are you doing here?’ Players always noticed the most dedicated guys.
The best beat writer I ever saw was Jay Glazer. The dude was a machine. I think Jay is the only guy that ever out-worked me. If you want to know why Jay is so good, and why he gets so many stories, it’s because of that work ethic. I saw it first hand. I never saw anything like it again.
J.P.: You’ve never been quiet about your admiration for the work of Lisa Olson. Why the fuck doesn’t she have a huge job in the business right now?
M.F.: Lisa’s one of the greatest I ever read. Really smart person. Just talented as hell. When she was in Boston, she wrote some of the best features and stories anyone’s read. I think it’s only a matter of time before she’s back.
J.P.:How are you not sick and tired of sports? I mean, back when I was covering MLB for SI I just got more and more and more fatigued, until I couldn’t watch a game without dozing off. You’ve got almost 30 years in the biz. Are you not sick of the overachiever with the heart of gold; the stud prospect with tons of pressure; the team that doesn’t get the respect it deserves, etc … etc?
M.F.: I’m still in love with writing and reporting. Still really enjoy turning a phrase and doing reporting. I still have the same level of love for journalism now that I did when I first gone in the business. Yeah, I’m fucked up in the head.
M.F.: One of the more bizarre moments of my career. What a lot of people don’t know is that where the case was filed in Jacksonville, there was this old school judge that was initially overseeing it. My opinion: he was one of these guys that was still fighting the Civil War. That’s my opinion. Don’t sue me judge.
But then something really interesting happened. That judge retired. A younger judge that didn’t seem to care for reenacting Civil War battles (that’s a joke judge–don’t sue me bro’) took over the case. And very quickly threw it out. The judge said everything I wrote about Daly was true, including the part where I called him a woman beater. ‘Cause that’s what his ass was.
Daly is one of the biggest turds in the history of sports. A totally overrated golfer and a clown. Just think about this for a second. Could an African-American man get away with being overweight, lazy, smoking, accused of domestic violence, and overall be a total waste of talent, and yet still be celebrated the way Daly is?
J.P.: I have a v-e-r-y strong level of disrespect for Mike Lupica. But I actually don’t know him. You worked in the same city, in the same press boxes for years. Thoughts?
M.F.: Don’t really know him. First time I met him was in a press box and he turned to me, not knowing me, and proceeded to bitch about his seat, and tell me all the things he accomplished in his career. Never introduced himself to me. The guy, though, was one of the more amazing talents I ever read. He’ll tell you so, too.
J.P.:You and I both do a lot of work for Bleacher Report. It really seems like they’ve figured this whole digital journalism thing out, but maybe I’m on crack. What’s it like working for B/R? How does it compare to your days at the Times; your days in Jacksonville?
M.F.: I have to say, and not because I’m trying to suck up (that was earlier in this Q & A) but it’s the best place I ever worked. Everyone gets it and the site cherishes journalism and the written word.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): San Diego, Nate Dogg, Jeff Komlo, clam bakes, the Olympics, Mike Schmidt, Sly and the Family Stone, skipping rocks, Chris Pine, meatball sandwiches, Rose Dawson, Dr. Oz: I hate all that bullshit except Chris Pine and San Diego.
• I think Jared Goff is going to be a very mediocre NFL quarterback. Thoughts?: As long as Jeff Fisher is his coach, he’s got no shot to succeed.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? What do you recall?: I’ve been a pilot for two decades. Quick story. I was flying a Cessna 152 approaching Caldwell Airport in New Jersey. There was moderate turbulence. The plane got shook hard once and the prop started winding down, and then stopped. I started going through my emergency procedures and just as started them, the prop started right back up. I didn’t think I was going to crash or die but I knew when I landed I was going to eat an entire large pizza. I did. Pepperoni.
• I fear death—the inevitability of nothingness. Does it plague you at all? If no, why?: I’m an atheist. We all just fade to black, dude. It’s possible we’re all living in a simulation, too. Don’t laugh. Lots of scientists are now seriously considering that. I just want to know why the creators of this goddamn simulation didn’t make me a billionaire. A real one. Not a fake one like Trump.
• Five greatest female sports columnists of your lifetime?: 1. Jemele Hill (You, Jemele and Jim Trotter are the three most well-rounded people in sports journalism I’ve ever known. Jemele can do anything. She should have her own show, to be honest); 2. Christine Brennan (A pro’s pro. Nice as hell, too); 3. Lisa Olson (Maybe most underrated talent I’ve ever read); 4. Jackie MacMullan (One of the gutsiest people I’ve known. Gets athletes to trust her, which is hard to do); 4. Judy Battista (Shitload of talent. As much as any NFL columnist I’ve ever been around).
• Five nicest athletes you’ve ever met?: Michael Strahan, Ken Stabler, Carlton Bailey, Art Shell, Aaron Rodgers.
• Five biggest asshole athletes you’ve ever met?: Really, the only true jerk I knew was Marvin Harrison.
• One question you would ask Young MC were he here right now: I would ask: what would happen if I didn’t bust a move?
Back in the early 1990s, one of my closest friends at the University of Delaware was a kid named Scott Capro.
As freshmen, we lived across the hall from one another. As juniors and seniors, we roomed together. Scott was (and still is) terrific, because he was blessed with a truly detailed knowledge of my two favorite subjects—sports and music.
While I was pretty strong in the one area (sports), my musical range was somewhat limited to 1980s hip-hop and Hall and Oates. Well, thanks to Scott, I came to know the music of Elvis Costello and Pearl Jam; of John Wesley Harding and … Human Radio.
Yes, Human Radio. Back in the day, Scott would regularly stroll down to Main Street and spend hours inside Rainbow Records, seeking out the next great thing. He’d listen and listen and listen and listen before ultimately plopping down $20 for a couple of CDs. On one particular day he randomly picked up Human Radio’s eponymous 1990 release, then brought it back to the dorm. I remember little of the album, save for a song named, “These are the Days”—which I have probably listened to, oh, 700 times.
I digress. Because of Scott Capro and Rainbow Records and life’s random weirdness, today’s 277th Quaz Q&A is Ross Rice, the lead singer and keyboardist for (the recently reunited) Human Radio and a man who can speak on the highs and lows of the music business; on the beauty of a well-constructed song; on returning from the depths and playing out of love (as opposed to seeking profit).
Ross Rice, you’re the hairiest (and coolest) Quaz to date …
JEFF PEARLMAN:OK, Ross, so one of my all-time favorite songs is “These Are The Days”—which has been a staple in my life for the past 25 years or so. What can you tell me about the tune? The origins? The meaning? Do you dig it as much as I do? Are you sick of it?
ROSS RICE: Love that you love it, Jeff. Despite it’s precocious cleverness, I’ve always felt that that tune had some legs to it. That was one of those really nice sunny mornings on the stoop in Memphis, coffee and cat, got a good little guitar progression going, got a little visit from some nice young fella from the neighborhood Jehovah’s Witness church (I think our house was something of a finishing school for them, we could be quite merciless, especially on LSD), and out it popped out nice and fresh. Don’t really know what it means actually, just a little slice of life with a side of Nietzsche. I’ll still pick it publicly now and then, it’s worn much better than most of the others…
J.P.:Your band had one hit. “Me and Elvis,” which came out in 1990 and reached No, 32 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Tracks chart. And I wonder whether you were at all like the baseball player who wins the World Series as a rookie and presumes it will always be this way. How did y’all respond to having a hit? Did you assume there would be more to come? And are you at all haunted/dismayed by a “one-hit wonder” sort of pegging?
R.R.:Weeellll, I wouldn’t really call it a “hit” per se, it got some love from morning jocks who with the gentle prodding of our esteemed label pushed the rock up the hill a ways. Let’s just say I do kind of regret writing the tune, which originally was a goofy little ska thing we had some fun with our Memphis peeps doing. But lo and behold our producer David Kahne (whom I still admire greatly) saw it as some kind of existential treatise on the demise of youth and rock ‘n’ roll. So he tarted it up while serious-o-fying it. Then of course the label went Memphis=Elvis, and we had our first single chosen thusly. Can’t blame em, makes sense from the marketing standpoint! But it would require a follow up too keep us from “the pegging.”
“My First Million” was scheduled for a second single, had video treatment and director lined up, got top five phones in every test market, but then the president of the label saw us in New York City, and reportedly said “Who the f*** are these guys?” So we didn’t get to find out if there could be more to come, it was shortly thereafter all tour support dried up, and we were offered a graceful exit. At that point we were damaged goods, nobody else would go for us. Such is the harsh reality of our groovy little industry!
J.P.:Your band is from Memphis. I started as a music writer in Nashville in the mid-1990s, and it was near-impossible for rock bands to emerge from the city, because the suffocating cloak of the country industry was overwhelming. How about the rock music scene in Memphis? Was it strong back then? Did you have to overcome musical perceptions of the town?
R.R.: At that time (late 80s/early 90s) there was a crazy signing glut going on in Memphis, and I think all over the country. We did a producer showcase at one point where four out of 12 bands were offered major label deals. And yeah, there were some really great bands happening, and the club scene was improving, more venues, people out enjoying live music. We found ourselves well booked in Memphis and the surrounding areas. But once we were out of the south, the Memphis thing could be problematic. And we did not sound at all like a band from Memphis with our un-sexy synthesizers and violins. Lots of reviews of our record or shows started with “I was hoping for some great new Memphis-style music from this new band. Instead we get … blah blah blah … I’m so disappointed … they suck!” No. Miss All-Stars, Grifters, Oblivians, Al Kapone, Three Six Mafia … bands like these had “Memphis-ness” we somehow did not. But we weren’t trying for anything like that, I had just done six years of R&B, two years in a house band with Duck Dunn. I’ve played Green Onions on organ with Cropper and Dunn seven times. Didn’t feel the need to elaborate on that with my music!
R.R.: I was in the Hudson Valley of New York for the last decade while the other guys were all in Nashville still. A dear friend of ours asked if a reunion might be possible for a benefit, I made the trip, and we had a blast! We had broken the band up to keep our friendship intact, so it was effortless. This started a long-distance writing process, where I came to town occasionally, and we’d set up at Castle Hyrkania (Pete’s place, available through AirBnB!) with a single mic in omni at the center, and goof off, come up with cool stuff. I took those recordings and made things out of them, which we developed. It was an organic mutual process, and everyone contributed. Then I moved back to the area to start school, and we had enough material to do a record, so we did a Kickstarter, overestimated our appeal and fell short, started over on Indiegogo, and found ourselves with a cozy little budget to record and manufacture a small run of CDs and vinyl. It’s been pretty hilarious with the emails, we’re learning how to be a record label by screwing up constantly! Our emails the other day concerning bar codes were epic.
Hopes and goals? Ah, none really other that servicing our donors, doing some record release gigs in select towns, getting it on CD Baby and the World Wide Interwebs, and working the social media somewhat (God, we suck at it, but we’re gonna try). We’re not getting in the back of the Penske van again rolling around Mississippi trying to get discovered anymore. We just wanted to make the record to prove that we were still relevant to ourselves and immediate fans and friends. So far so good. Oddly enough, we are taking a meeting with a label guy next week who had just heard the new record, wants to buy us lunch. We do like lunch.
J.P.: I’m friendly with some guys from Blind Melon, and they signed a record deal back around the same time you guys did. And they insist it was REALLY easy back then; like deals were falling from the sky. True? False? How did you land the deal? And was being signed to a label all you’d hoped?
R.R.: See above. Yeah, I think it had something to do with performance royalty licensing, something that was changing over in 1990. Folks were getting signed left and right. But let me tell you nine out of 10 bands that were signed in that rush shared the same fate we did. It was a crazy and exciting time, really. Our manager leveraged a tentative offer from one label into getting us enough buzz that eventually an A&R guy from a huge label from L.A. flew into town, our people picked him up and brought him to Beale Street where we were set up in a blacked-out club, full PA and light show. He walked in, we started playing … 30 minutes later we stopped, he got up, got back in the car, and caught the next flight out. Three days later he called us up with an offer, and suggested David Kahne producing. Being Fishbone fanatics, we assented heartily. A publishing deal followed shortly thereafter, which was also quite nice.
For a little while it was pretty sweet, the record got good notice and airplay, some decent reviews (some quite scathing, too!). But once we got out on the road we got a better sense of where we stood with our label. Which was pretty uncertain ground … turned out we were a band signed by west coast A&R to an east-based label over the objections of the east coast A&R staff. We were kinda doomed from the gitgo.
R.R.: Hehe. Yeah, the previous night we had opened for the Allman Bros and George Thorogood in Phoenix. Got into L.A. the next day, made some rounds, even played “These Are The Days” at CNN. Taking the limo back to the Roxy, traffic was a bitch, but our Russian driver was savvy, knew the back ways. When we emerged on Sunset, we beheld the source of the congestion: Our beat-ass tour bus! When the driver was backing into the venue lot, the engine had fallen out of the mount onto the street, blocking Sunset Blvd. from 4 to 7 on a Friday afternoon! We jumped onto the bus to grab our crap while L.A. serenaded us with honks and curses, and went inside for soundcheck. Where it was revealed that an important piece of my gear was missing, left behind in Phoenix. Guys were dispatched to SIR for a replacement, I got to spend two hours re-programming the sucker. We might have been good that night, but I don’t remember. The stress and animosity has lingered on, however!
J.P.:When you see people like, oh, Justin Bieber or Demi Lovato selling out stadiums with their own brand of fabricated shit, do you at all get irked or annoyed? Do you ever wonder why plastic pop is so celebrated while musicianship is sorta ignored?
R.R.: Well, I used to I suppose. But it’s been ever thus. Might as well get pissed about bad weather or water being wet. There’s always been great music available, so we (Human Radio) have always had hope that if we could somehow also make great music, we too could have a place at the table, so to speak. What we’re seeing is a dying industry trying to figure how to survive by creating sure things. They’ve limited the allowable producers and songwriters to a select few (mostly Swedes and Atlantans, apparently), focus-grouped singers publicly with The Voice and Idol and the like. The pipeline to the Internet and radio is more direct now with only three large-scale companies left. They’ve taken a lot of the guesswork out of the business, which has drastically reduced innovation. Records don’t rely on great performances, haven’t for some time now. And a big artist performance relies less and less on the variable of music, it’s more about choreography, lights, action.
Personally, I’m well past the point of giving a fuck about the record business. I feel pretty damn good as a result, and I enjoy music so much more now.
J.P.:Greatest moment of your musical career? Lowest?
R.R.: Many great moments … so many of my favorite musical experiences were pretty modest really. My favorite gigs have often been last minute calls, when I didn’t know the people, didn’t know the music, expectations weren’t super high, but the music was fun, the house was full, the band/artist I worked with was really happy, the beer was plentiful and cold, and we all got paid. This has happened more than a few times, the most notable for me being with Isaac Hayes and Eek-A-Mouse. But when Human Radio played its record release in an un-air conditioned (thanks, light dude) Beale St. venue packed to the rafters with 300+ on a hot July night, that felt pretty damn good to me. Though I almost passed out from heat exhaustion three times, and photos of us doing our acapella encore look like we’ve been doused with a fire hose. The day we signed our record deal was pretty triumphant as well, I might add. The future looked awesome from that moment.
Lowest? The gig suck list is extensive, but I don’t visit it often. But HR playing for our lives before a roomful of A&R in ’92, playing at the top of our game with our best stuff, nobody interested, that was real hard. The day we broke up was really painful yet somehow a relief. But I’ve learned to laugh off major live problems. I inverted a crash cymbal in front of 60,000 Memphians playing the 1812 Overture at the Sunset Symphony. Ka-chunk! I got fired shortly thereafter. And had the good fortune to step on my cord and de-plug in front of 10,000 at Wembley Arena London with Peter Frampton. RIGHT on the first “bwah bwah bwah” solo in “Show Me The Way.” Stooped down, plugged back in, shrugged with a goofy “Who me?” grin and jumped right back in. The look Peter Frampton shot me mid-solo was delicious. And I got fired shortly thereafter.
J.P.:You were a young kid when Human Radio began. You’re no longer a young kid. How does aging impact your skillset as a musician? Playing keyboard? Singing? Are there things you can’t do any longer? Are there things you’re better at?
R.R.: I’ve been playing keyboard professionally all this time since, so I feel pretty confident with my game right now. Haven’t had any age-related difficulties, knock on wood. Not to sound boasty, but I think I’m a much better singer now that I was in 1990 too, less inclined to pull the Frank Zappa tone out! When I had my Very Sexy Trio in New York it was all about Fender Rhodes and falsetto, which I’m fortunate to have in my toolkit. My drumming and guitar playing have suffered, but I’ve been working on an MFA in Recording Arts and Technologies, so my tech chops are growing steadily. Editing/publishing/writing for a magazine for 4 ½ years in New York got me more disciplined as a writer. Teaching at the Paul Green Academy of Rock got me into wanting to pursue a future as a teacher. Raising two kids to adulthood made me waaay more patient. Guess I like to think I’m improving.
Back in 1990
J.P.:This isn’t an insult—I swear. But you have super long hair. Was that a conscious decision. Like, “I’m always gonna have long hair?” Did it just grow and grow? Ever think of slicing it all off?
R.R.: Kept forgetting to cut it. Naw, I’ve had long hair since elementary school in New Hampshire in the 70s, where I got so much shit for it even then, I knew I was onto something. Since then I’ve always liked the way it looks on me, and the wife still digs it. I’m one goofy motherfucker with short hair; my car door ears and Scotch super-schnozz need balancing out bigt ime.
J.P.:This might sound cliché, but why do so few bands last, uninterrupted, for more than a few years? Is it simply a matter of ego? More? Why did you guys break up?
R.R.: We broke up because we were friggin broke, dude. Gig monies were dropping, when we couldn’t pick up another deal our brand took a hit. The downward arc appeared, momentum shifted to the opposite direction. It was the damndest thing. One day one of the guys called a meeting, said he couldn’t afford to keep on. The rest of us decided to stop instead of replacing him. We broke up as good friends. But keep in mind, we were signed within a year and a half of forming. Our arc was accelerated in both directions by the times.
The fact that bands last at all is a miracle. You have a creative relationship that operates on one level, and a business relationship operating on another. Friendships and personalities are under great strain in this environment, where very few things are certain, and alliances are often tested. If you could figure out how to make a band that can survive the long haul (I’d say 5+ years), I imagine it would be similar to the process of assembling a successful team of astronauts for deep space runs. It’s rough out there, man.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH ROSS RICE:
• What do you think of Ray Rice?: Not holding up the name too well. Most of us Rices are sexy MFs who love women (some of us love men too, but I digress), and are righteously beloved by them in return. When polled, many of us Rices agree he should maybe switch to a less loving and nurturing moniker.
• My college roommate, Scott Capro, introduced me to your guys in 1991. Anything you’d like to say to him?: Hey Scott! How’s it going, man? Thanks for the spins on the victrola!
We have a new album for you, so let us know how we can get you one. Cheers!
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Oddly enough, no. Even when I was about to die in a plane crash coming into Telluride last year (with Mike Farris), when a storm suddenly swerved towards us resulting in a frightening 270 degree maneuver, and landing an hour away. The pilot was such a cocky dude, I just figured he could back it up when the shit hit the fan. And he did!
• One question you would ask Warren Moon were he here right now: How does it feel to be such a badass? Do you feel like you get the respect you deserve? You should.
• Five things you never want to smell again: Papermill, fast food coffee, Miller Lite, van farts on second week of run, cheap laundry detergent
• Why the name Human Radio?: We made a long-ass list. Lots of funny stuff. This was the only name that nobody said no to. I had written a song a long time ago about being in a cover band at a Holiday Inn (which I was) called “Human Radio” which caused me to submit it as a name. The song itself sucked, however.
• The guy next to me in this café refuses to cover his mouth as he coughs. What can I do to him?: Fart in his latte.
• Best joke you know?: Kye is the king of jokes in our group, I should get him to pipe one in here. I like stupid jokes that are long and pointless and require a performance. But here’s a quickie I’ve always enjoyed. Man walks into a bar with a duck on his head. Bartender says “what can I get ya?” Duck says “Can you get this guy off my ass?”
• Miley Cyrus calls and offers you $700,000 to tour with her this year as her backup singer. However, you have to wear a pink tutu and pierce your anus. You in?: Lemme get some miles in on the Stairmaster to purty up my quads and get my hemorrhoids cauterized. School can wait.
Back in the day, when I was a kid and the Sugar Ray Leonard-Marvin Hagler-Tommy Hearns-Roberto Duran foursome ruled the sport, I absolutely loved boxing. It was probably my favorite sport, and I’d watch and watch and watch, rooting for the underdogs, blasting the favorites, anxious for my hero (Leonard) to vanquish all foes.
Then, gradually, I lost interest.
The game was just too brutal and inhumane. No union, tons of trauma, lots of creepy older men making millions of unsophisticated youngsters from the inner-cities. I walked away, and—with rare exception—never looked back. What once seemed magical and splendid felt grimy and gross.
That being said, the one redeeming aspect of the sport was its announcers and, in particular, Al Bernstein. Throughout my childhood, Al was the soundtrack to boxing. Appearing primarily on ESPN, he broke things down, explained the mechanisms in easily understood terminology, brought humanity to a vicious world. He wasn’t a smooth, silky voice lording from above. No, Al was human and gritty; my type of guy.
JEFF PEARLMAN:Al, oftentimes when I ponder boxing I think back to Tex Cobb taking an absolute beating at the hands of Larry Holmes. It wasn’t only an embarrassingly brutal fight, but it was also the last one called by Howard Cossell. And here’s the thing: I love boxing. I truly do. The athleticism, the strategy, the artistry. But it’s also ugly, brutal, occasionally debilitating. Al, you’ve devoted much of your career to boxing. Does that ever come with a crisis of conscience?
AL BERNSTEIN: Interesting question. Though I boxed as an amateur and played many sports I have to say that most of my endeavors in life have been decidedly non violent. From music and theater to horseback riding to writing and everything else in between I have embraced things that don’t fit the boxing paradigm. And yet, so much of my adult life has been about boxing. Though I have covered other sports I am known for boxing. There have been occasions when I am sitting there calling a fight when the violent nature of the sport seems overwhelming. But, since I treat it as a sport I am able to compartmentalize enough to get that out opt my head. Gene Hackman once told me that he is sometimes ashamed that he loves boxing as much as he does. But, I believe it is a sport—I feel that even participating as an amateur, as I did, can be a very rewarding experience.And over all these years the one core thought that guides me is the unabiding respect I have for all boxers.
A.B.: It was one of those amazing nights at the outdoor arena at Caesars Palace that defined the 1980s in boxing. A few years earlier I had called the Hagler-Hearns fight in that same venue. The Four Kings (Hagler, Leonard, Hearns and Duran) were boxing royalty and all the events involving them were special. The big fight atmosphere that week was amazing—unlike anything—even for that era. Everyone was there that weekend and I had an interesting vantage point to see the great and near great on hand because I was singing doing my musical show at Caesars for three nights leading up to the fight. The audience each night was a who’s who from that time. The fight was interesting, but was certainly not like Hagler-Hearns. I thought Hagler won the fight by 2 points as one of the judges had it. It could have gone to ray by a little, but the 118-111 score was absurd. It was an amazing event though.
J.P.:I have a theory. Recently, after the death of Ali there have been a bevy of Best Living Fighter lists—and Mike Tyson never cracks the Top 10. Like, never, ever. They say he never fought anyone. They say he was severely flawed. They say he was an embarrassment against Holyfield. And, while the points are sound, I feel like people forget how absolutely dominant and impenetrable he was for a window in time. Al, is Tyson simply not as good as I remember? Or are people suffering from fogged memories?
A.B.: I think the truth on Tyson in his prime is somewhere between those two extremes. He was dominant over a decent group of heavyweights and that Tyson would certainly be a hand full for any heavyweight in any era. Bu, he was a smallish heavyweight who would have trouble with two types. Really big strong men who could physically handle him (Like Lennox Lewis and probably George Foreman) or terrific boxers like Ali or a Larry Holmes in his prime. Of course, Holyfield had his number and the reason for that is Evander’s toughness and chin combined with his accurate combination punching, ability to counter, and creative arsenal of punches. Tyson was very good in his prime, but I think he’s in the middle of the top 10 heavies of all time and certainly not in the top 10 all time fighters of all weights—not even in top 30 for me.
J.P.: I’m embarrassed to say that I wasn’t aware that you are, at your core, a newspaper guy. You started your career in 1974 as the managing editor at Lerner Newspapers in Chicago. So … what was the scene? The situation? How did you land the job? What were you covering? Good memories? Bad? Both?
A.B.: I was the sports editor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and my goal from the time I was 10 years old was to be a sports writer. After college I got a job as a reporter at Lerner Newspapers, but in hard news. I covered politics, community affairs, etc. I did an investigative series on an illegal land deal for which I won an award by the Chicago Newspaper guild and that propelled me to the job of managing editor of part of the newspaper chain. I was really young, like about 26 or 27—too young. My goal of being a sports writer was pushed father away as I served as editor of that newspaper. I freelanced in sports, but lived in the news world. And, I wasn’t even really writing much for the paper. I got promoted for my writing and then I was an administrator. By the time I was 30 I was burn out on being a newspaperman. To this day I am proud of the work I did in community newspapers, but I got burnt out. However, the experience that gave me has been so valuable in everything I have done since. That foundation served me well.
Alongside Steve Cunningham, the IBF cruiserweight champion.
J.P.:You were hired by something called ESPN in 1980. Were you more of the “Holy shit! This is going to be huge!” camp or of the “What the hell is ESPN, and will this thing last a month?” camp? What were the early days of the network like?
A.B.: I was ecstatic to be able to break in with ESPN. Remember I was having a hard time even getting to cover sports! I wrote a book on boxing and did a little TV in Chicago and then when ESPN came to Chicago as one of the four stops for the Top Rank Boxing Series I clawed my way in as a kind of helper because I knows there boxers in that area. then I got a chance to sit in on one of the shows and it went from there. We were all inventing cable television back then. ESPN was only in about 3 million homes when I started doing boxing in 1980. And yes, we did not know how long it might last. Everyone cashed their checks very quickly. It all felt like television’s version of community theater. But, it was becoming a cult hit and the boxing show was the most watched series on ESPN in those first four or five years. In my book I wrote that “we were to television what M.A.S.H unites were to medicine.” Still with not too many resources we made some very good television. many talented people worked at ESPN in those early years and we all felt like a band of brothers pushing forward. those were halcyon times for the Sports departments of the over the air networks (ABC, NBC and CBS) and the creature comforts for those folks were pretty amazing. Not so much for us. LOL But, I certainly didn’t care. I was thrilled to be sportscasting and to grow along with ESPN. It was exhilarating.
J.P.:TV seems like a pretty thankless profession, oftentimes ruled by surface imagery, sexiness over skill, youth over knowledge. Yet you’ve survived and thrived for nearly 40 years. How?
A.B.: Well, sports television has gone through some seismic changes since 1980 and I have been around to see all of them. Navigating through those changes can be tricky and I have hit some bumpy spots like everyone else, but overall I have been really fortunate. Perhaps one key for me is that as a broadcaster I have always lived in the present. While I appreciate sports history and honor it, I don’t litter my commentary with references to the past. So, I don’ think audiences of any decade feel like I’m looking backwards. While I have adapted and evolved, especially by embracing things like social media, I have actually never changed my approach to sportscasting or my methods. The exact same guiding principles and technique that I used in the 1980’s are the ones I use today. While I hope I have improved on some technique from the very beginning there has been little or no change in how I do it. This was a risky approach because the role of analyst or color commentator has indeed changed over these past 36 years. In recent years many networks and indeed producers have come to value argument over discussion, opinion over information and loudness over intelligence. Humor on sports telecasts has become more sophomoric and commentators on live events often talk about topics only vaguely related to the action in front of them. That kind of behavior was once chastised, now it is encouraged. All this is not to say there are not many talented sportscaster who ply their craft superbly, but for the most part sportscasting has become about the sportscaster overpowering the event, not just enhancing it. All this is especially true for the analysts, more so than the play by play announcers. So, for me to be an analyst who is operating somewhat differently to the pervading atmosphere has left me open to danger. I was very fortunate when I left ESPN, where the “chew the scenery” approach by analysts had been firmly installed, to go to Showtime where they wanted my approach specifically. And from 2003 to now have been tremendously enjoyable and fruitful for me. I enjoy sportscasting as much today as I did in 1980.
J.P.:Calling a fight seems nearly impossible. I mean, I’ve covered my share of ring action, and I struggle to simply figure out the sequence of a combination. So what are the keys to doing televised boxing well? Is it instinctive? Are you furiously jotting notes? Both?
A.B.: The first key is to be well prepared. That’s true of anything I guess, but a sportscaster needs a lot of information to be good. As an analyst on a boxing event I have several responsibilities. 1. To use data, stats and conversations with the boxer to at various points in the match help explain something that happened and or add to the viewer’s knowledge of the fighters themselves. 2. Analyze the action so that you can add insight into what has just happened and what might happen. Those are my two main mission statements—and a third, ancillary one is to be entertaining and interesting in the way you do those first two. I come to ringside with bullet point notes culled from all the prep work that we have done leading up to the fight and from viewing video of the fighters on the card. I have made rules that I live by. 1. Try never to over talk the event ( a common malady these days in sportscasting), 2. Never talk in the first or last 15 seconds of any round (so as not to interfere with the play by play person) 3. Try to never talk in spurts longer than 20 seconds because action can change so quickly in a boxing match 4. most important of all check yourself constantly to make sure you are talking about both fighters and not dwelling on just one, which leads to 5. Be fair and NEVER prejudge what the themes will be in a fight or sporting event. There may have been times in these many hundreds of boxing shows I have done where I may have violated some of those rules, but I assure you it was never intentional. Even With the structured and organized approach I try to take, there is instinct involved. You need an innate ability to read the ebb and flow of the boxing match to be effective as an analyst on live boxing. You have to be in the moment and most of all pay attention to every detail as much as you can.
J.P.:You appeared as yourself as a fight commentator in Rocky V—a film even Sylvester Stallone has disavowed. I know this is random, but I’m wondering what you remember from the experience? And did you know the film was sort of a turd as it was being filmed?
A.B.: It was a nice experience, as almost all the movies experiences have been for me. It’s interesting to participate in film and episodic TV. Certainly different than doing live TV. I have had pleasant experiences around Sly over the years. I could not really tell if the film was going to work from the scenes I was involved in. I know the film was not the best of the series, but I was struck that Tommy Morrison was so professional in his approach to this film. He had never acted before and was thrust into this leading role. He was not exactly Olivier, but I thought he did very well given his total lack of experience. I will say he knew his lines for every take and was always trying to improve. In every movie I’ve been in I play myself and so the funniest Tweet ever sent my way said this. “I just saw you in Play It To The Bone. You came pretty close to nailing the character.” Now that was funny.
J.P.:You’ve said, “Ray Robinson is the best who ever lived.” Why?
A.B.: He was 131-1 as a welterweight. Think of that. And many of the men he faced would end up in the Hall Of Fame. Then he moved up to middleweight and was brilliant all the way up to 40 years of age. He did everything well in the ring. he had one of the best jabs ever, one of the best left hooks ever, a great right, superb uppercut, he moved like a ballet dancer and he could hit with astonishing power. He fought terrific fighters like Randy Turpin, Bobo Olsen, Jake LaMotta, Gene Fullmer, Carmen Basilio and many others as a middleweight. I just think he was everything you would want a boxer to be.
J.P.:Random one: I’m terrified of my own mortality. Absolutely terrified. I hate that I’ll die; hate the idea of eternal nothingness. This is the shit that keeps me up. How about you? What are your thoughts?
A.B.: That’s a deep question. I can say that as I have gotten older I think about mortality more. The realization that you have fewer years left than you have spent on earth can be daunting. But, my wife faced death when she had stage four breast cancer 13 years ago at much too young an age for that and through great treatment and her own efforts to help the process she is still here and living a very active life. So, a premature death has haunted our family—as it did for me as a youngster when my dad died when I was 12. But, I feel fortunate to be around and pretty healthy, still able to enjoy my profession, ride my horse, go sing in clubs from time to time and enjoy life. I have a 17-year-old son and that keeps you active and involved. The part of your question that does get me melancholy sometimes is realizing now that there are certain things in life I will probably never do that I want to—available time and circumstance will not allow them. I’m not religious so I see actual death kind of as you do. So, that makes me want to enjoy life as much as possible.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH AL BERNSTEIN:
• Five greatest right-handed Jewish fighters of your lifetime: Well, Dana Rosenblatt was a lefty, so that rules him out. Mike Rossman was half Jewish, does he count? LOL. I’m going to have to defer on this one—not sure I can come up with a good list.
• How many fights have you been in in your life? How’d they go?: In the ring about 20 or so (3 losses) outside the ring 5 or 6. One bad loss, one good win, others in between.
• Five reasons one should make Atlantic City his/her next vacation destination?: Hmm. My wife had a home in Brigantine, which is lovely. For AC, I guess the ocean, the taffy, the White House subs, headliners at the casino and gaming if you like it.
• Funniest thing you’ve ever seen Don King do?: He has never been funny to me.
• Three memories from your first-ever job: I worked a summer job at a candy factory on my summers to make mopey for school. It was packing boxes, shoveling chocolate into a vat and driving a forklift. It was great for staying in shape for sports, and since I lived with my single mom and we lived paycheck to paycheck so the money was helpful. The main memory I have of that is meeting some really great people who worked in that factory to support their families.
• In exactly 28 words, make an argument for John Ruiz: He worked as hard as any fighter ever. He had courage and grit, he upset Evander Holyfield and he has really helped amateur boxing in the United States.
• Can a very pretty woman who farts hourly (and loudly) still be sexy?: Well, that’s only a few seconds of the hour, so probably yes. And, this is a very weird question.
• I absolutely loved Creed. Most of my friends did not. Your thoughts?: I think Creed is a really good film