Lily eyes

92Y Tribeca

I’ll be giving the closing keynote speech at the Mashable NextUp NYC event. The topic is nominally “the state of the New York blogosphere,” but I’ve been granted a dispensation to interpret that pretty broadly. I’ll likely post my notes here after the event.



I have a new essay in Stanford Magazine about making the transition from the editorial side to the “product” side (Internet-ese for planning and implementing new features on the web site). Take a look!



I’ve penned a guest essay for media blog Jossip about the relative merits of sites like Brijit and whether people are becoming smarter, or dumber, because of the Internet’s bias toward short-form content. (I think it’s probably the former – at least, I hope so.)

Key excerpt:

Yes, some people are likely to use the site as a cocktail party cheat-sheet. So it goes. We can argue whether it’s better for people to read deeply or broadly, but the real point is: with the web, you can have both. It’s just that media outlets aren’t really set up to give it to you. The idea behind Brijit is to fill that gap.

Sure, you can cheat, but, as they always told you in elementary school, cheating really just ends up hurting the cheater. At that cocktail party, you might know that some dude set a record by driving from New York to Santa Monica in 31 hours and 4 minutes, but you’ll probably run into some guy who read the whole article and knows the driver was originally inspired by French director Claude Lelouc’s C’etait un Rendez-vous not Cannonball Run. And that guy will probably end up making out with your girlfriend in the host’s bathroom, because your girlfriend will think he’s smarter and better-informed than you are. And then you’ll wish you had actually taken the time to click through, like our editors suggested.


{summary}, which I’m serving as Managing Editor of, has a nice little write-up in the Washington Post today. We even get a nice little band-style photo, at least, as far as a bunch of web content people can look like a band.



I’ve just signed on to serve as Managing Editor of, a new Web startup that summarizes and reviews thousands of print and online publications and radio and TV shows to tell you what’s worth reading/listening to/watching. We’re employing a distributed system of writers backed by professional editors (such as myself); the idea is that we’re going to be something like your very well-read friend. I’ll still be based in New York, and if you’re interested in what we’re up to, drop me a line and let me know what you think!



As a birthday present to myself, I recently took a two-and–a-half week vacation to Berlin. A friend asked me to share some thoughts about the trip, so I sent her the following observations – you can find the original at

Things worth knowing about Berlin:

The first thing someone from a big American city is going to notice about Berlin – right after the fact that everyone under 35 speaks English, and their grammar is usually better than yours – is how quiet the city is. It’s so spread out that, if you’re used to the no-one-on-the-street-equals-trouble mode of relating to a city, it’s eerie. The second thing is that there’s graffiti everywhere. It’s as if when the Wall came down, every other wall in town became fair game. Very little of it would qualify as street art – it’s nearly all just tags of various sorts, though there’s also the occasional clever piece, like a girl with a bouquet of roses with a pair of devil horns I saw painted on the outside of a restaurant.

Walking down the street, it immediately becomes obvious that no one here jaywalks. (As a friend put it waiting to cross a street with no traffic whatsoever, “If we were in New York, we’d be there by now.”) Berliners argue that they actually do jaywalk, but as far as I can tell this consists of nothing more than occasionally stepping into the street a second or so before the light changes to green. Even horses pulling tourists around in carriages are very careful to stop at red lights, without even being reined in by the driver. And half the town seems to be on a bike – there are special bike lanes on the sidewalks that are paved in red, and if you happen to swerve into one of them, you’re likely to be asked, in German, “Are you retarded?” (Which sounds even meaner in German than in English.)

In terms of street fashion, Berliners seem to have appropriated various pieces of international styles and amalgamated them into some that’s actually distinct. To wit: It’s hard to walk down the street without seeing an “I [Heart] NY” t-shirt and Palestinian scarf (both worn, as best I can tell, without irony). And RayBan aviator sunglasses, everywhere. It’s actually quite striking how internationalized the city’s commerce seems to be, all the way down to brands (Oakley, Mavi jeans) that seem to be making one final attempt to claw their way to hipness via Berlin.

The pinnacle of men’s fashion appears to be the printed t-shirt and the hooded sweatshirt. To find the truly hip(ish) hoody/t-shirt, however, you’ll have to do some hunting – Berliners seem to like to hide their coolest shops. And by “hide” I don’t mean pick an obscure location; I mean you have to endure a very un-American sort of spatial hazing ritual to find the place. The Apartment, one of the cooler boutiques in the city, is tucked away in the basement of a blocky high-rise apartment complex just off one of the main squares. To get into the actual sales area, you have to walk into a ground-level room painted floor-to-ceiling white, then walk down a tiny spiral staircase into an all-black room that sells those hoodies and t-shirts (and some other designer clothes, to be fair). Likewise, other uber-deisgner boutiques like Berlinerklammoten and AM3 are hidden back in the courtyards of buildings you pretty much have to know about in order to find them.

Other things worth knowing:

You can carry booze around on the street. And not New Orleans-style plastic-and-paper-cups-only; people carry bottles around all over the place at all times, morning, noon and night.

Berliners love fake beaches. There are at least three set up along the Spree. The beaches aren’t any nicer than you think they would be.

There are a half-dozen or so Starbucks floating around town, in exactly the sorts of places you’d figured Starbucks would pop up at in a foreign city (near the Brandenberg Gate, etc.). There’s also what is apparently a European chain called Balzac Coffee, which seems to use the same drink sizes, fonts, and even style of dcor as Starbucks. If it were America, Balzac would long ago have been sued out of existence by Starbucks, but it’s a live-and-let-live kind of town, an ethic that apparently extends all the way to corporate franchises.

The restaurants run toward communal seating in a way even New York doesn’t do – if you’re a party of three seated at a table for four, you might just end up having dinner with a single stranger the management puts at the final chair at your table.

There’s a truly horrifying quantity of mosquitoes and wasps buzzing around the city. The wasps tend to visit you while you’re trying to enjoy your coffee at one of the hundreds of outdoor cafes (the wide sidewalks are good for that), though I have yet to see anyone actually be stung. The mosquitoes visit you at night – there’s no air conditioning in the city outside of chic stores and hotels, and sometimes not even then – so apparently everyone sleeps with their windows open.

The best coffee in the city I’ve had in Berlin is at a Portuguese caf called Galao. Sometimes they play Johnny Cash. I also liked a somewhat trendy place called Pony Bar, which reminded me a bit of the Pink Pony in New York, but with less pony.

There are little art galleries all over the place; the art is of varying quality (and it’s often by New York artists, anyway) but it’s impressive to add up the amount of retail space devoted to art here. Not sure who buys it, given that no one seems to actually have a job here, but the effort itself is noteworthy.

There’s an astonishing quality of young hipster parents walking around – I’m told that one neighborhood in the city, Prenzlauer Berg, has what may be the highest birthrate of any place in Europe. On the plus side, since the sidewalks here are so wide, it’s much easier to dodge the strollers than in, say, Park Slope.

The cemeteries here are quite pretty – for most graves, they outline the plot with stones, and fill that in with ivy (some of the only ivy I’ve seen in the town).

Germans like cranes. Where in the U.S. a construction project would use scaffolding, Germans will employ a gigantic crane that towers over the building to move small shovelfuls of dirt and the like.

Women seem to feel very safe here – much more so than in New York. And single women out to dinner or in a caf seem to be left alone, again much more so than in New York.

For those like myself who decide to take a brief jaunt to Prague: It’s a beautiful city. In July, however, it’s crawling with European tourists. Somehow, I don’t think Charles IV had in mind thousands of sweaty foreigners with black socks pulled up their calves walking across his namesake bridge when he had it built. And, no doubt thanks to the tourists, it feels more than a little dodgey – almost as dodgey as Mexico City, I’d say. Also, there are apparently only three women in all of Prague who haven’t dyed at least part of their hair some color that doesn’t occur in nature.

Still, after a couple of weeks in Berlin, I’m left with the impression that there’s a tremendous amount going on below the surface that you have to know how to find in order to find. (Not unlike those boutiques.) And it’s probably pretty wild – like some party where everyone is hanging from the ceiling by straps attached to their nipple piercings, or something. The essential truth of this was confirmed to me by a native Berliner, who told me, “Oh, yes, certainly.”



Maybe the worst thing about my current line of work – consulting for startups – is that I don’t get to talk about anything I’m working on. Which isn’t really what I’m used to; after all, wearing my pundit/emcee hat, I get paid to talk about everything (the more, the better). Sadly, I have now entered the wonderful world of the Nondisclosure Agreement. But it’s all pretty cool, splashy stuff, I promise.

Meanwhile, after a year-long blogging break, I’m going to try to get back in the game with book and movie reviews, musings on politics and the media, and promos for all the stuff I’ve been working on that hasn’t launched yet, once it finally leaves the launching pad. 



In the introduction to their new book, the editors of set out to expose the Bush Administration’s tactics of media manipulation.

By Ben Fritz, Bryan Keefer, and Brendan Nyhan – August 6, 2004

During the 2000 presidential campaign, then-Governor Bush liked to tell the story of a hypothetical waitress who would benefit from his tax cut plan. “Under current tax law,” he said, “a single waitress supporting two children on an income of $22,000 faces a higher marginal tax rate than a lawyer making $220,000,” adding, “Under my plan, she will pay no income tax at all.”

This wasn’t much of a feat. What Bush failed to mention was that his hypothetical waitress probably already paid no federal income tax.

In August 2001, President Bush announced a new policy on the use of stem cells in federally funded medical research. “More than 60 genetically diverse stem cell lines already exist,” he told the nation in a televised address, concluding, “We should allow federal funds to be used for research on these existing stem cell lines.”

Researchers eager to obtain access to these “existing” lines were quickly disappointed, however, when Tommy Thompson, Bush’s Secretary of Health and Human Services, admitted that only 24 or 25 lines were actually “fully developed.” Although 60 lines did exist, it was uncertain whether many of them would ever become available to researchers.

In late 2001, Bush began pointing back to a statement he claimed to have made during the 2000 campaign. As he put it in May 2002, “when I was running for president, in Chicago, somebody said, would you ever have deficit spending? I said, only if we were at war, or only if we had a recession, or only if we had a national emergency. Never did I dream we’d get the trifecta.”

It was a good story, but there’s no evidence that the President ever made such a statement in Chicago or elsewhere. In fact, Vice President Al Gore was the candidate who had listed the exceptions in 1998 (though Bush advisor Lawrence Lindsey said at the time that they would apply to the Texas governor as well). Was this an innocent mistake? The answer is almost certainly no—Bush continued to repeat the “trifecta” story for months after it had been debunked.

Then, in a televised address to the nation in October 2002, Bush declared, “We know that Iraq and the al Qaeda terrorist network share a common enemy—the United States of America. We know that Iraq and al Qaeda have had high-level contacts that go back a decade. Some al Qaeda leaders who fled Afghanistan went to Iraq. These include one very senior al Qaeda leader who received medical treatment in Baghdad this year, and who has been associated with planning for chemical and biological attacks. We’ve learned that Iraq has trained al Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gases. And we know that after September the 11th, Saddam Hussein’s regime gleefully celebrated the terrorist attacks on America.”

Each of these statements was true, but Bush’s words were carefully constructed to leave a false impression. Without ever stating that there was a direct connection between Iraq, al Qaeda, and September 11, the President artfully linked them together with a series of carefully chosen phrases. After the war, Bush told an interviewer from Polish television that “We found the weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq. But he was not reporting the discovery of drums of chemical weapons or artillery shells filled with anthrax. Rather, Bush was referring to a pair of trailers that some analysts thought might have been used to produce biological weapons. While experts debated the purpose of the trailers, the President of the United States was falsely claiming that WMD had been found.

These examples might not be so troubling if the press had consistently called attention to them. But on most issues, with the possible exception of stem cells and the aftermath of the war in Iraq, he got away with little more than a slap on the wrist. Journalists deserve much of the blame for this, but one of the chief reasons these examples received so little attention is that many were based on a partial truth about a complex policy issue; after all, the waitress did end up with no federal income tax, there were 60 “existing” stem cell lines, and Iraq had some fragmentary connections to Al Qaeda . . . sort of.

Bush’s record raises a number of questions. Just how often did the President deceive us? How did he do it? And why didn’t anyone put a stop to it?

The answers are disturbing. George W. Bush has done serious damage to our political system. His deceptions span nearly all of his major policies, were achieved using some of the most advanced tactics from public relations, and were designed to exploit the failings of the modern media. In the process, Bush has made it even more difficult for citizens to understand and take part in democratic debate.

These deceptions are worthy of close attention for more than the insight they give us into the President himself. He is simply the highest profile carrier of a virus infecting our political system. Its symptoms are misleading public statements, a disregard for the value of honest discussion, and treating policy debates as little more than marketing challenges—a devastating combination for democracy.

Bush’s Troubled Relationship with the Truth

Compared to other presidents, Bush’s deceptions might seem unremarkable. He has certainly not been caught lying in a scandal comparable to Watergate or Bill Clinton’s affair with a White House intern. Minor scandals have erupted during Bush’s tenure, such as questions about his service in the Air National Guard and his administration’s ties to Enron, but his behavior in these matters has been no different than that of previous chief executives. Nor do his statements about the conduct of military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq stand out compared to the great war-related deceptions of previous presidents like Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon.

George W. Bush’s dishonesty is different. Rather than simply lying, he has subtly and systematically attempted to deceive the nation about most of his major policy proposals. On issues ranging from tax cuts to stem cells to the debate over the war in Iraq, he has consistently twisted the truth beyond recognition in order to promote his policies.

Remarkably, he has done so while generally avoiding obviously false statements. Instead, Bush consistently uses well-designed phrases and strategically crafted arguments to distract, deceive, and mislead. The result is that all but the most careful listeners end up believing something completely untrue, while proving the President has lied is usually impossible.

Unlike famous White House dissemblers of the past, Bush almost never explicitly claims that black is white or day is night. Instead, he deceives the public with partial truths and misleading assertions. So rather than saying day is night, George W. Bush will focus on an instance of a solar eclipse or remind Americans that people who work graveyard shifts are asleep. Both might be true, but without the proper context, they’re highly misleading. Because Bush’s statements are so often constructed in this way, he has walked away from one deceptive claim after another scot-free.

These tactics originate in public relations, a field that has become extremely skilled at promoting a message regardless of its factual accuracy. Previous presidents have also drawn on PR, of course, but Bush has gone far beyond his predecessors, systematically employing these dishonest strategies in nearly every major policy debate. At this point, the difference between corporate marketing and White House communications has largely disappeared.

The Right Definition of Dishonesty

Before assessing Bush’s dishonesty, however, we must answer an important question: What counts? One school of thought holds that any politician who contradicts his previous statements—like George H. W. Bush’s decision to disavow his “no new taxes” pledge—is a liar. But violating a promise is not lying. This demeans the word and holds our leaders to an unrealistic standard that makes it impossible for them to compromise or adjust to changing circumstances. For instance, once he took office, Bill Clinton abandoned the middle-class tax cut he promised during the 1992 campaign, choosing instead to focus on reducing the federal budget deficit. Does this mean that he wasn’t sincere when he first proposed the plan? We can’t know for sure. That’s not to say politicians should escape scrutiny for breaking a promise, but it’s not a good measure of their honesty.

Similarly, some accusations of lying are based on little more than vague political rhetoric, such as George W. Bush’s promise during his first year in office that veterans would be a priority for his administration.7 He has since been accused of dishonesty for allegedly not spending enough on health care for veterans. But spending on veterans has increased every year Bush has been in office. Some may suggest that the budget has not gone up quickly enough, but there is no objective definition of a “priority.” This sort of disagreement is hardly evidence that a politician’s statement was misleading.

Rather than bickering over what counts as a priority or calling every broken pledge a lie, we need a different standard for political dishonesty. A better approach is to judge public officials’ words against the known facts. We should focus on what the President and his top aides knew or should have known to be false or misleading at the time they made a public statement. By that standard, George W. Bush has been extraordinarily deceptive about public policy issues.

Setting a New Standard?

The cumulative effect of these tactics is to blur and distort the truth so much that honest discussion is impossible. After all, if we can’t agree on whether it’s day or night, there’s no way to figure out what time it is. By the same token, if we can’t agree on whether the Bush administration justified the invasion of Iraq by saying Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, it becomes impossible to assess whether those statements were accurate.

That is why, after nearly four years of constant deception on major issues of public policy, the President must be held accountable. If we fail to do so, Bush’s approach to political communications threatens to become the new standard for politics in America. From its campaigns for tax cuts to the debate over war with Iraq, this White House has invented a new politics of dishonesty.

This is excerpted from All the President’s Spin, by Ben Fritz, Bryan Keefer, and Brendan Nyhan. Copyright © 2004 by Ben Fritz, Bryan Keefer, and Brendan Nyhan and published by Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York. Excerpted with the permission of the publisher. You can buy All the President’s Spin at Bryan Keefer will moderate a panel discussion, “Blogs: The Future of Politics?,” on Tuesday night, August 10, at Makor on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

{extended}August, 2004Simon & SchusterThe editors of set out to expose the Bush Administration’s tactics of media manipulation.


The Online News Association (based at USC) has just announced finalists for the Online Journalism Awards, and CJR Daily is a finalist for online commentary for small sites. (The awards are for work published June 2005 through June 2006.) That’s in addition to the Webby nomination this year, and the honorable mention from the National Press Club last year. I couldn’t ask for a better parting gift!