Part 6: TimesSelect & Foreign Correspondence

To truly understand the different shades of “conversation” that have been proffered by the blogosphere, let's look at two Op-Ed columnists.

One columnist began a blog a week after the Iraq war started in March 2003; the very first one on He posted nearly every day over the next two and a half years, 883 posts in all. In most of the posts, he reprinted readers' letters and responded to them. His TimesSelect blog had 180 posts over the two years. He created a MySpace page (which even caught the attention of Gawker). The page was set up to promote his “Win a Trip” contest, whereby the Times sponsored a college student's reporting trip to Africa with the columnist. The contest drew in 3,797 entries in its first year. The columnist regularly posted video of his travels. In one of his last blog posts before he went on book leave, he asked for comments and received 235 of them. He wrote in his column once how absurd it was for the federal government to give a check for $588 to not farm his plot of Oregon. His readers told him to give it to charity. He listened.

The other columnist is known for his style: folksy and well, conversational. Instead of talking points, his columns offer new metaphors. He also was given a blog when TimesSelect started, yet he mustered 6 posts in the first two months. When 2006 rolled around, he stopped posting his own thoughts, instead just using it to post letters from readers. Since the start of 2007 alone, there have been 189 letters, 34 of them included substantive questions that have yet to be answered (see summary).

Which one could we say is participating in the conversation? And which one was the top ranked columnist on our Buzz Rankings?

Kristof and Friedman

Meet the two faces of the foreign affairs columnists for the New York Times. Nicholas Kristof is hip to all of the trends in social media, yet of the 7 regular Times Op-Ed columnists, he was ranked last in buzz. Thomas Friedman skips out on the whole thing, and enjoys four times the blog buzz, even passing Paul Krugman during the last two years.

The raw numbers reflect outside recognition. In July 2006, Friedman was given the 10th annual “Webby” award for the Person of the Year. The columnist seemed an odd choice; that particular award went to Craig (“of Craigslist”) Newmark the year before, and to the founders of YouTube the year after. I emailed Jody Collins at the Webby Awards; she referred me to Patrick Kowalczyk of Michael Kaminer public relations. Kowalczyk scanned in the program from that year's ceremonies and sent it to me, which I reproduce here for the first time on the web:

It gives us great pleasure to honor Thomas L. Friedman as the The Webby Person of the Year. This award was established to recognize an individual or group of individuals who have instigated, documented and catalyzed great achievement on the Internet. Mr. Friedman's outstanding writing and unparalleled journalistic curiosity on behalf of the New York Times and more specifically in his recent best-seller The World His Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century makes him the ideal candidate for this award. His insightful description of Globalization 3.0, as he has coined it, spans the economic, political, technological, and social spheres, fostering unequaled dialogue in university lecture halls, office boardrooms, and urban watering holes alike.

Friedman proved his mettle when he answered MediaBistro's question during the cocktail hour about his thoughts on “being behind a paid wall.” His response echoed around the blogosphere; this is most of the text here:

I'll you what I told everybody: I hate it. It pains me enormously. It's cut me off from a lot of people – especially because I have a lot, a lot of people who read me overseas, like in India and whatnot. So I hate it, but – the great thing about my job is I can go from here right now, and go to JFK, get on a plane, and go to China, or go to India, and I don't have to ask anybody, and somebody's got to pay for it. So I'm in a real dilemma. On the one hand I feel totally cutoff from my audience (an audience I think that's growing out there – for all of us, not just for me, but for the New York Times) and on the other hand we need to make to money somehow. And the traditional dead-tree way of doing it, doesn't really provide enough to go forward; and the bits and bytes aren't there yet either. So that's our problem.

Both columnists were alike in voicing their complaints about the paywall. They had loyal readers – many of whom were loyal only to the point where fifty dollars a year was too much. Friedman's example of an almost-loyal reader was a Ted Koppel-esque talk show host who interviewed him on Hungarian television (“I used to read you but I don't anymore.”) Kristof's example was a reader from his native Pacific Northweast (“Please tell your manager's / money folks that there are many small town folks who enjoy the Op-Ed page”).

There the similarities end. Just as Nick Kristof was getting started in his new role on the Op-Ed page in 2002, Tom Friedman had established himself by 9/11 as a must-read. That February, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah happened to choose Friedman's column as the channel for his new (if somewhat recycled) peace proposal with Israel. In March, David Plotz called Friedman “America's most important columnist” in an assessment in Slate. Plotz explained: “His skill is that he speaks in the voice of Madison Avenue. He's effective not because he sounds like a historian, but because he sounds like an advertisement.”

That spring, Friedman won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary for his post-9/11 columns. The day TimesSelect launched, Justin Fox in Fortune called him the “oracle of the Global Century.” In the article, Friedman's wife offered this rejoinder to his critics: “Why do people repeat Tom's metaphors? Because they make sense.”

Perhaps Friedman is more popular because he often tells us what we want to hear. Kristof tells us what we don't want to hear. To put it in biblical terms, Friedman is dancing on the other side of the Sea of Reeds and telling us that the promised land is just around the corner, while Kristof is spilling wine over the ten plagues. Infectious worm diseases in Kenya. Honor killings in Pakistan. Teenage prostitution in Cambodia. Mass famine in Niger. (Here's his 2006 Pulitzer, by the way). If Friedman's world is flat, Kristof's world is flatlining. Friedman appeals to his readers' aspirations (You too can tap into the power of the global supply chain); Kristof summons his readers' exasperations (U2's Bono can't solve all of Africa's problems by himself.)

“Thomas Friedman isn’t an authority on globalization; he’s a artful rhetorician, building stories around facts. Much of his value derives from the perception that 'everyone' is reading him,” wrote New York University's Jay Rosen, reacting to TimesSelect. In other words, you read Tom Friedman because other people read him. This is the power law. (The world may be flat, but statistical distributions are not.) So let's ignore all of the external assumptions we have about these two columnists, and compare them strictly as reporters.

There was such a month when they wrote about the same topic almost every column.

A September to Remember

“Since Sept. 11, thanks to his column and numerous TV appearances, Friedman has emerged as the best explainer of how the United States should relate to the Arab, Muslim, and Israeli worlds. This is not because of ideology, or rhetorical brilliance, or even analytical power, but because of his gritty, intimate knowledge of the places he is writing about,” Plotz wrote in the Slate assessment.

September 2001 was a time for reflection and understanding. The next September needed planning and decision- making.

The drumbeat for the Iraq war began in August 2002; it was on the 26th that Vice President Dick Cheney had laid out the case for war in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars National Convention, firmly asserting that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD's). Friedman responded on September 1st, imagining both the best and worst scenarios. Still he was unequivocal about this: “once Saddam is gone, there will be a power vacuum, revenge killings and ethnic pulling and tugging between Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites.” On the 18 th, Friedman shared his sense that the WMD justification was a fraud; it was important enough just to liberate Iraq, yet “I have no illusions about how difficult it would be to democratize a fractious Iraq. It would be a huge, long, costly task — if it is doable at all, and I am not embarrassed to say that I don't know if it is.” He introduced the phrase “war of choice” on September 29 th. But he still didn't improve on his estimate: “It would be a huge undertaking, though, and maybe impossible, given Iraq's fractious history.”

For man with gritty, intimate knowledge of the region, he was winging it. His first column above had cited his “most knowledgeable Iraqi friend” – who promptly told him that anybody who could predict the aftermath “doesn't know Iraq.”

Kristof's initial column on Iraq discussed the results of the Pentagon's recently-completed war simulation game, Millennium Challenge 2002. He amplified a story from the Army Times a couple of weeks prior in which participants alleged that the simulation was rigged to make the American invasion easier. Kristof concluded: “Myself, I'm a wimp on Iraq: I'm in favor of invading, but only if we can win easily. So can we? I'd feel reassured if the decision to invade was being made honestly, after a rigorous weighing of all the risks. Instead I detect a cheery Vietnam-style faith that obstacles can be assumed away.” He then took the next flight to Baghdad, by way of Damascus, having applied for a visa seven months earlier.

On September 24th Kristof reported from Najaf: “As soon as American troops are rolling through Saddam Hussein's palaces, the odds are that this holy Shiite city 100 miles south of Baghdad will erupt in a fury of killing, torture, rape and chaos.” (Najaf was the site where on August, 30, 2003, a car bomb killed 95, including Ayotollah Mohammed Bakr al-Hakim, one of the exiled leaders the American planners had been counting on). After flying through the U.S.-patrolled no-fly zone to Basra, Kristof concluded his next column: “Is America really prepared for hundreds of casualties, even thousands, in an invasion and subsequent occupation that could last many years?”

Kristof wasn't wholly prescient; he had imagined a bloodier invasion. But his columns from his continuing world tour remained on target: observing how the liberated Kuwait was hardly a beacon of democracy; reminding Americans how the Saudis, while not blameless, were not the enemy; pausing to point out that North Korea was demonstrably further ahead in possessing nuclear technology than Iraq, chastising his liberal fans who had abandoned civility; suggesting that targeted air strikes in Iraq would be a better nudge towards inspections than all-out-war.

Friedman, for his part, knew that the WMD inspections were the only hope for building a multinational coalition. On October 9 th, he wrote, regarding the Bush administration's steps towards war: “We should be focusing on Saddam's non-compliance with U.N. inspection demands – period.”

The problem is, public opinion had already turned. On October 2nd, the Program on International Policy Attitudes published their first survey of Americans on Iraq. 68% of respondents felt that the U.S. should only go to war as a last resort. But an overwhelmingly majority, 79%, felt that Saddam Hussein had the capability “to use chemical or biological weapons against targets in the US.”

It wasn't until his December 1st column that Friedman finally got an anonymous government source to talk to him. Here's the quote: “The key is finding a defector… That's the only way we're going to find anything.” Friedman built the column around seeking “an Iraqi Andrei Sakharov,” a nuclear scientist who would try to defect, or at least tell the truth. We now know today that there was such a defector, the infamous “Curveball” whose testimony was not fully trusted by the CIA at the time. Furthermore, as his Times colleage James Risen revealed in State of War (2006), the CIA recruited thirty Iraqi-Americans to visit relatives in Iraq who were associated with the WMD programs. All thirty reported that the WMD efforts were a shell of what had been. The war was already in motion by then.

Friedman on Friedman

It's possible that Tom Friedman still had more sources in Lebanon than in Langley. Still, he was the go-to guy for the Middle East. And nobody was telling him a damned thing. After the Abu Ghraib scandal, he finally came to terms with his pre-war columns:

My mistake was thinking that the Bush team believed it, too. I thought the administration would have to do the right things in Iraq – from prewar planning and putting in enough troops to dismissing the secretary of defense for incompetence – because surely this was the most important thing for the president and the country. But I was wrong. There is something even more important to the Bush crowd than getting Iraq right, and that's getting re-elected and staying loyal to the conservative base to do so. It has always been more important for the Bush folks to defeat liberals at home than Baathists abroad.
(May 13, 2004)

He expanded on this in an 1,845-word blog post in October 2005: “It was my view that the Bush team was going to invade Iraq no matter who was against it – Congress, columnists or whoever. I am flattered that some people think my column was so influential that had I come out against the war, it would have made a difference. Unfortunately, I don’t believe that. It would have made no difference.”

Friedman's redemption in the eyes of many of his critics was delayed for the next six months. Quite literally: the liberal media watchdog group FAIR noted in 2006 (a week after the Webby Award was announced) that Friedman had been using the same “the next six months” as a timeframe for turnaround in Iraq for the previous two and a half years. For a man who lived by his figures of speech, this was pretty damaging. It finally took Stephen Colbert last month to coax out of Friedman that “we've run out of six months.”

Reviewing the columns up through March 2003, Glenn Greenwald wrote in 2006: “Friedman is truly one of the most frivolous, dishonest, and morally bankrupt public intellectuals burdening this country.” Greenwald faulted Friedman for simultaneously listing reasons for not going to war and then blithely ignoring them in the final analysis, and found moral fault. That's a difficult charge to defend against. From my my reading of his Fall 2002 reporting, I didn't expect Friedman to have come out against the war. He just needed to do better reporting. He needed to have more conversations. The question is, with whom?

Friedman On Target

It's a mistake to dismiss a top newspaper columnist as a mere opinion-peddler (Daily Kos: “They take the one part of the paper that is a commodity — the opinion — and try to charge for that.”). Under the timeworn dichotomy of journalism, what is not objective news reporting is labeled “opinion.” But a good columnists do more than regurgitate partisan talking points. They (1) discover underreported stories (2) build a conceptual model, and (3) make predictions based on that model. This is half of the scientific method. The other half – verifying those predictions – is left as an exercise to the archive reader.

Kristof was uncannily prescient on Iraq. But Friedman has earned his letters. In a 1998 column on Iraq anticipating the discussions in this decade, Friedman put forth the notion that “the main threat to U.S. and global stability is the super-empowered individual — the super-empowered angry man (or woman).” (“Iraq of Ages,” 2/28/1998) He named Ramzi Yousef, the convicted mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, as the quintessential super-empowered angry man. In August, President Clinton announced the perpetrators of East Africa embassies, Friedman nominated the leader of that group as another super-empowered angry man: Osama bin Laden (“Angry, Wired, and Deadly,” 8/22/1998)

Friedman had the foresight on bin Laden to mention him in nine columns over the next three years. The last one before 9/11 was titled “A Memo From Osama” employing the old Op-Ed technique of putting thoughts in the head of a source who was otherwise difficult to access. As a result of various threats picked up through intelligence, the Pentagon ordered the Marines to end a joint exercise with Jordan, and the Navy to pull out of Middle Eastern ports. Friedman imagined bin Laden saying: “I had some of our boys discuss an attack against the U.S. over cell phones, the C.I.A. picked it up, and look what happened.” (Tony Karon of Time also wrote an article that week: “Bin Laden Rides Again: Myth vs. Reality,” 6/20/2001)

This is where a specific conversation might have been helpful. According to the 9/11 Commission Report, in response to the same chatter, “[Richard] Clarke wrote that this was all too sophisticated to be merely a psychological operation to keep the United States on edge, and the CIA agreed.” More details about the intelligence was leaked to the Times – but to Judith Miller, the lead counter-terrorism reporter. A story never ran; Miller's editor later conceded that they didn't have enough information. Apparently the highest-level people in the government to respond to Friedman's column were a couple of marines on the U.S.S. Harpers Ferry, as Friedman acknowledged a month later (“Digital Defence,” 7/27/2001). They didn't have any new information on bin Laden. Friedman used the occasion of their email to illustrate a point about the Internet instead.

Friedman On the Internet

In his first six years as an Op-Ed writer, Friedman mentioned the Internet in a little over a hundred columns, or fifteen percent of the total, and in almost every month beginning in January 1997. In many cases, his Internet was a proxy for globalization and democratization. Still, to buttress his argument, he wanted some evidence to demonstrate that it was a double-edged sword.

By odd coincidence, he found it when he first mentioned bin Laden in 1998 (“Angry, Wired, and Deadly,” 8/22/98). The open technologies of the Internet and satellite phones that served globalization so well were also allowing bin Laden to communicate with his global jihad community. (Granted, what we know now is that the cruise missile attack that month was the proximate motivation for bin Laden to turn off his phone. The same “open technologies” allowed us to spy on our enemies, after all.)

A year later, Friedman started voicing a new concern: that business, particularly online ones, were collecting all sorts of information about their customers, potentially much more than the government was doing. “Instead of Big Brother, there are a lot of Little Brothers.” (“Little Brother,” 9/26/99) He encountered Lawrence Lessig's writings, coming to see Lessig's view of the fallacy of believing in a non-regulable Internet. Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson's findings of fact in United States v. Microsoft brought Friedman to report something he observed from a visit to the software company three years prior: A “contempt for government,” he wrote, “runs right through the high-tech community.” (“The Way We Are,” 11/14/1999) To Friedman, the point of the government was to establish the rule of law, which would guarantee level playing field for business.

In February 2000, the Internet troubled Friedman again. Recalling the super-empowered angry man, he added a new a bogeyman, a “super- empowered cybervandal” who could cripple the world's data networks. He reiterated his concern about Little Brother. “Who's the only one who can protect you from cyber-attacks on your private data? The government.” (“The Hackers' Lessons,” 2/15/2000) He then mocked the governance-free, tax-free attitude of Internet boosters, imagining the consequence of super-imposing it on a real-world town like his Bethesda, Md. (“My Kinda Town,” 2/18/2000).

Following Judge Jackson's final ruling on Microsoft in April (later reversed by an appeals court), Friedman summed up his frustration: “Look around: Internet companies are already violating people's privacy to troubling degrees; new technologies are making it easy for anyone to copy a book, movie or CD and send it to a friend without regard to copyright or royalties; e-commerce is increasingly going to deprive local and state governments of taxes…” (“The Young and the Clueless,” 6/9/2000)

His last mention of the Internet before 9/11 was in his “Digital Defense” column, the responses to the marines who emailed him from the Red Sea. Since no one from the National Security Council dropped a hint to him that the bin Laden threat might be real, Friedman returned to his old theme about the two-edged sword of open networks: “It will probably take a cyberattack that causes real chaos for us to see that our big threat is not a mushroom cloud but the I.T. cloud, and that threat will come up the web, not over a wall.”

What changed on 9/11 is that foreign affairs ceased to be a distant abstraction; this was a boon to the writer of a column titled “Foreign Affairs.” But it also offered more evidence that we were living through an era of walls coming down. Friedman stopped writing in his column about Internet privacy – at least from the standpoint of someone who was concerned about it. Only once in the last two years did he mention the warrantless wiretaps. In The World Is Flat (p. 158, 2005 ed.) Friedman articulated the basic communitarian philosophy: “Live your life honestly, because whatever you do, whatever mistakes you make, will be searchable one day.”

When Friedman wrote in 2003 about his first visit to Google's headquarters, he marveled at the search giant's omniscience. He not only was amazed that it told users what they wanted to know, but he expressed no discomfort that Google's eyes were watching users as well as they searched. He titled this column Is Google God? and didn't seem to mind whether the answer was yes or no. To Friedman, Google usage became a proxy for the relative curiosity of populations (1/5/2004); it was a sign that America's civic institutions give us an edge in innovation (3/7/2004); later a sign that we had lost that edge (5/19/2006)

In his NYT Magazine article introducing the book, Friedman introduced his ten forces that flattened the world. #9: “The last new form of collaboration I call 'informing' – this is Google, Yahoo and MSN Search, which now allow anyone to collaborate with, and mine, unlimited data all by themselves.”

It would be irresponsible to suggest that Friedman's conversion was corrupt (NYT employees may only accept speaker's fees from nonprofit or educational groups). His prior concerns over Internet governance were fleeting, and he simply didn't pursue them as vigorously over the years. It just so happened that most of the people he spoke with over the last decade were the winners in globalization, and many of his readers aspired to be the winners as well. And Google seems like such an obviously good thing that many leading thinkers didn't know how, or whether, to question it.

This past May, the Personal Democracy Forum invited Tom Friedman to have a public conversation with Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, at the third annual PDF conference, sponsored by Google. PDF is a group web community that attracts and promotes political blogging (Andy Carvin took some decent notes; video here). Friedman and Schmidt spoke about the Internet and open societies, and about efforts by foreign governments to censor Google. But it's interesting to note what wasn't discussed: the fact that it was Google's policy which kept the Times archives from being indexed for the main web search; Friedman's passing interest at the start of the decade in privacy and copyright; Friedman's lack of dedication in participating in the conversation with readers as much as his colleague Nicholas Kristof.

By now we've examined more than enough evidence to fully answer the question: how did Friedman clobber Kristof, and ever other newspaper columnists, in the blog buzz rankings over the last two years?

Certainly, Friedman's merits are unqualified. His occasional wayward metaphor notwithstanding, he writes in a direct manner about the pressing issues of the world, and he has a fairly decent record of predictions. The fact that Friedman was not a “freed-man” over the last two years did not significantly diminish his influence: many people bought his books, paid to hear him at conferences, and even subscribed to TimesSelect. Many of these people were influentials themselves who generated secondary material in the form of book reviews and blog posts; they did so at a higher volume for Friedman than for any other columnist. They liked the message – and no wall could keep it contained.

Friedman 3.0

Friedman did not completely abandon his thinking on the challenges of Internet governance, privacy, and reputation. It was just missing from the first two editions. He added it to the 3.0 version of The World is Flat published this summer. He gave a preview of in half-hour talk after interviewing Schmidt at the Personal Democracy Forum.

He warned of two general dangers. Our overuse of personal media devices – our phones and iPods and video players mounted in our cars – may be isolating and dangerous. This point has been made before, and has inspired government remedies. But there's another problem, he explained, when many of us become public celebrities unexpectedly through the Internet: people's reputations get battered and bruised around the world. His anecdotes were not consistently strong (this is from someone who's been accumulated them), though they made the point. He did get the metaphor nailed down. He called his chapter: “What happens when we all have a dog's hearing?”

Dog's hearing…. The old adage about Internet anonymity – “On the Internet, no one knows your a dog” – has been turned on its head, because, given dog's expanded hearing range, we hear more than we want.

Technology critic Andrew Keen acidly noted in response that we actually now have canine souls. But aside from Josh Bernoff at Forrester Research making a note about it as well, nobody blogged about it.

Perhaps some perspectives just don't make for conversation on the blogs – no matter how popular the author is.