Gawker, Hating the Media, Free Trade, and F-35: Today's Trips Down Memory Lane

Peter Thiel, the man who intentionally put Gawker out of business, speaking on behalf of Donald Trump at the Republican convention last month. I was standing not far away and was one of those he walked past, accompanied by security agents, after the speech. As speakers do, he looked at the people he went by, many of whom said some version of "Good speech." I looked at him and did not say anything. (Mike Segar / Reuters)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Here are some items from the archive that bear on the moment’s news:

  1. Gawker and the future of the news. This past week Gawker went down, driven in that direction by the punitive Hulk Hogan lawsuit secretly (at first) financed by the tech billionaire Peter Thiel. Different creators of today’s tech fortunes are leaving their marks in different ways. Bill Gates is known for his health and educational initiatives. Marc Benioff, for supporting schools and hospitals. Elon Musk, for his ventures in space exploration, solar energy, electric cars, etc. And now Peter Thiel for trying to bankrupt publications he doesn’t like (while working behind front-men), and supporting Donald Trump. By our works are we known.
    For background on Gawker when it was a nexus for many good and bad aspects of the new media world, please see this cover story I did five years ago. It obviously comes from a different time in the media environment, but I think a lot of it holds up.
  2. The eternal problems of the news. Twenty years ago I published a book called Breaking the News, back in what now looks like a simple, Edenic era of press-politics-public relations. An excerpt of it ran as an Atlantic cover story, “Why Americans Hate the Media.” I am sorry to say that a lot of it still applies. You can read it here.    
  3. How the world works. A big theme in Donald Trump’s campaign is that if some Americans and some parts of America are having problems, as they obviously are, the main reason is that brilliant negotiators from Mexico, China, and Japan keep outwitting the dolts on the U.S. side. That’s the reason Americans lose and lose and lose.
    By experience across the United States, and from living in both China and Japan, I have ended up much more in the “fair trade” than the “free trade” camp when it comes to international commerce. That’s the camp that recognizes that markets are peerless at separating efficient from inefficient producers, and that individual entrepreneurs create the new companies that collectively are the source of new jobs and opportunities. But this is the camp that also recognizes that public investments and policies can make an enormous difference in the speed, fairness, and success of economic development (as Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson are the most recent authors to argue, in American Amnesia), and that international trade doesn’t automatically benefit all partners in any kind of fair or symmetrical way.
    Because this case is at the heart both of the Trump campaign and the argument over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, TPP, I want to note these items from the memory vault. One is “How the World Works,” which ran as a cover story in 1993 (and was the foundation of my book Looking at the Sun). You can read it here. It made a case I think is still relevant, about distinguishing the things markets do superbly well from the ways they persistently fail. The other was a piece in the Washington Post from about the same time, making fun of the then-sacred cow Economist “newspaper” (it doesn’t call itself a magazine). It’s also on some of the themes Trump is discussing now. You can read it here.
  4. Uncle Sam Builds an Airplane. I’ve been remiss in not following up on the travails of the F-35 airplane, which Popular Mechanics has just done an update on. The details of military decision making are obviously a hundred times more nuanced than what we’ll hear about in this campaign. But a lot of money, and a lot of people’s lives (American and otherwise) are obviously tied up in our military decisions.
    For reference: here’s the cover story I did last year on “The Tragedy of the American Military,” of which the tragedy of the F-35 was a part; here is an Atlantic story from back at the dawn of time, when some military planners thought that the “Joint Strike Fighter,” as the plane was then known, might help solve some military-technology problems, rather than worsening them; and here’s an introduction to a variety of other links about the late John Boyd, an Air Force fighter pilot, aircraft designer, and air-combat theorist who would be sobbing if he got a look at what this poor airplane has become.
    John Boyd is on our mind because we’ve just had an engrossing week in his original home town of Erie, Pennsylvania, with results to come in our American Futures reports. I’ll check back after you’ve had a chance to catch up on this reading.