Friday, January 30, 2009

Good-bye, Culture11

While I was busy on other things this week, Culture11 folded, news that is worth a bit of personal commentary, since I narrowly escaped involvement in that debacle.

In July, a friend sent me an e-mail wondering if I'd be willing to contribute freelance features/columns to a project called "Liberty Wire." Hey, if it pays money, I'm interested. But I was told to keep it hush-hush, as they were still in the planning stage and had a big roll-out planned, etc. In a subsequent e-mail, my friend explained:
We are a social media network that creates cultural content to develop online and offline community for the mass conservative market...offering irresistibly interesting perspectives on life in America from pop culture to politics, from faith to family. We are asking the question, how do you share and shape the culture? . . .
I was wondering if you'd be interested in contributing in the coming month? I'm trying lots of writers and hope to get regular gigs say, once a month columns perhaps. What do you think?
So I proposed a story and asked, "What's the rate?" My friend didn't know yet, but as soon as things were formalized, I'd hear back, yadda, yadda. Three days later, I saw this in the New Republic:
Have you ever been reading Slate and found yourself thinking, "This is great, but if only if were more conservative..."? Then LibertyWire is for you! The new online publication, being launched in mid-August, is billing itself as "a conservative version of Slate." David Kuo (left), a former Special Assistant to President Bush and author of tell-all Bush indictment Tempting Faith, is going to be the CEO. Bill Bennett (right),
former Secretary of Education and Drug Czar under Bush 41 and host of Morning in America, will be the editor chairman. I spoke with Kuo on the phone a few days ago, and though he would not divulge much on-the-record, he confirmed his and Bennett's involvement.
And that was that. I immediately e-mailed my friend to say that under no circumstance would I ever associate myself with any project run by David Kuo. It wasn't merely that I'd read Tempting Faith and found it emetically obnoxious. It was also that there was nothing -- nothing -- in Kuo's biography that suggested he knew anything about running an online publication (or running anything else, for that matter). The man is an albatross, whose presence in any enterprise is an inerrant harbinger of doom, and I advised my friend to get as far away from Kuo and "Liberty Wire" as possible.

Well, "Liberty Wire" eventually debuted as Culture11, and editor Joe Carter has written a retrospective on the planning process that is ironic beyond words:
[N]o sooner had we put the editorial staff together than we had a crisis of conscience about what we were becoming. We had compiled a list of potential contributors consisting of the top 100 conservative pundits. . . . How would we be different, David asked, if we had the same writers as everyone else?
That was all the permission we needed to become, as David would often say, "Rolling Stone in the '70s." We wanted to be the place that found the next Cameron Crowes and Hunter Thompsons.
Heh. Ponder the yawning chasm between David Kuo and "the next Cameron Crowes and Hunter Thompsons." It's as if one day Kenny G announced he was looking for "the next Ramones."

Personnel is policy. Imagine Hunter S. Thompson walking into the offices of Culture11, wearing his Acapulco shirt and aviator shades, reeking of gin, with a head full of mescaline and a satchel full of felonies. David Kuo would call the cops.

If Culture11 ever published any actual reporting, excuse me for missing it. Maybe they should have put a few bucks for "promotion" into their start-up budget. Speaking of ironic retrospectives, here's Conor Friedersdorf:

Enter Joe Carter, then proprieter of Evangelical Outpost, fresh from the Huckabee campaign, hired by David Kuo, and charged with putting together an editorial team.
I've never met Joe Carter, although he's worked with friends of mine, but there is something odd about that phrase "fresh from the Huckabee campaign." If you are ever introduced to an editor as being "fresh from the Huckabee campaign" run, do not walk, in the opposite direction. Ditto editors "fresh from the Giuliani campaign." (Meeting an editor "fresh from the Ron Paul campaign" -- now, that might be intriguing.)

It has been my habit to twist Conor Friedersdorf's nose from time to time, simply because he is so conspicuously earnest and, being incurably facetious myself, earnestness amuses me. Nevertheless, I feel sorry to see Conor standing beside the smoking crater of another doomed David Kuo project.

Likewise, it's a sad thing for James Poulos, whose prodigious sideburns mark him as one of the great minds of our age (or any other). And some of my other friends, including the amazing Helen Rittelmeyer, have lost a freelance/blogging outlet. Also, there's that anonymous friend who originally solicited my contributions for Culture11 back in the days when it was "LibertyWire" and before I knew of Kuo's involvement.

Doubtless, someone will protest that Kuo is "a nice guy." Exactly. (Cf., Leo Durocher.) By way of explanation, Kuo writes: "The economy racks up more victims." In other words, Kuo claims that the meltdown of the economy caused the failure of his project. I suspect the chain of causality is nearly the opposite. The news that investors were willing to bankroll a commercial enterprise headed by David Kuo should have been a siren on Drudge: FINANCIAL COLLAPSE EMINENT!

Kuo will go back to the non-profit sector where he belongs, hired by some 501(c) tax-dodge that will pay him six figures as a "senior fellow" or "communications director" until about January 2011, when his name will pop up in connection with a Republican presidential candidate. Between now and then, save your money, so you can invest it all in shorting the InTrade stock of whatever candidate hires Kuo. In an economy like this, you can't afford to pass up a sure thing.

UPDATE: Josh Trevino has some thoughts on the failure of Culture11, but since none of his thoughts are along the lines of "David Kuo couldn't make a profit on the snow-cone concession in Hell," can we really take Trevino seriously?

Hey, y'know, now that I think about it, maybe the sudden disappearance of Culture11's funding might have had something to do with their investors noticing that Culture11 was making the "conservative" case for gay marriage. (Wonder who else noticed?) Also, if you're trying to attract a conservative readership, slamming Sarah Palin might not have been the ticket, huh?

UPDATE II: I'm having fun with the intrablogospheric stuff this weekend. Traffic's slow and after the RNC meeting I'm a bit burnt-out on political news, so excuse the self-indulgence. We will return to Gotterdammerung-on-the-Potomac by Monday. Meanwhile, Ericka says in the comments:
David Kuo is an inspiring and dynamic person with a big heart and certainly made an impact on my life in a positive way. . . .
We severely lack in the cultural department and perhaps we didn't get it quite right this time around -- but somebody needs to and I hope I'm a part of it when they do.
OK, we'll take these arguments in reverse order:
  • Yes, agreed, conservatives need to engage the culture. And getting paid to engage the culture is a sweet gig.
  • Ericka, if somebody hired me to engage the culture full-time, that would certainly make "an impact on my life in a positive way." But if I ended up out on the street after six months because that person didn't have a clue how to run the operation, I might be hesitant to call them "inspiring and dynamic."
Consider this post from May about insufficient cynicism among some conservatives:
[A] point I made in reviewing Rod Dreher's Crunchy Cons: I write for money. And so far, nobody's offered to pay me to save the world.
Professional writers who present themselves to the world in save-the-world garb are doing a disservice to the profession (and arguably, a disservice to the world, which is already in bad enough shape without more advice from journalists).
I have my beliefs, and I have my principles, but I try to avoid the True Believer trap. If you carefully observe human nature long enough, Ericka, you will learn that there is a certain Newtonian principle by which every sucker eventually finds the hustler who's not going to give him an even break.

The phrases "con man" and "con game" derive from the word "confidence." The con man's trick is to secure the confidence of those who plunk down their money for snake oil or three-card monty. It the hustler's ability to convince you that he is harmless and trustworthy that makes him dangerous.

Ericka, have you ever shot pool with a hustler? Game after game, you come this close to winning, only to have the hustler make a miraculous three-bumper shot on the eight-ball to win the game. Occasionally, he'll let you win a game, just to keep your interest stoked, but the bottom lines is, you're not gonna leave that pool hall with a penny to your name. The True Believer's desire to do good for The Cause can easily make him a sucker for a very similar con, from which the sucker walks away broke and the hustler moves on to the next game.

A straight-up fee-for-service contract -- "I pay you X amount to do Y" -- is the only arrangement a professional journalist should ever accept. The minute somebody starts trying to sell you on a save-the-world vision, pack up your cuestick and leave that pool hall.


  1. I went to the site a few times. I have to say I didn't really "get it." There didn't seem to be much there. Just some bloggers, who didn't seem particularly experienced or insightful. And I was supposed to register or sign up for something? What exactly? Why?

    Liberty Wire is a better name than Culture11. Was that name a reference to Spinal Tap?

  2. I figured it was just a community blog site where users created the majority of content. They had a large staff and other expenses? A lot of these recent conservative internet ventures miss the point. Things are cheap. It takes hardly any money at all to get a site up and running. It's pathetic that so much money is being pissed away on the wrong people.

  3. Yes, because, Lord knows, what America is clamoring for is the Robert Stacy McCain school of conservatism. I mean, look at how good Republican self-identification numbers are doing these days....

    Movement conservatism is in a pathetic state right now. Your views and policy positions are not popular, and show very little signs of gaining traction anytime soon. So do you attempt to reform and maybe grab hold of some of America and right the ship? Or do you keep whistling past the graveyard?

  4. While some of your comments ring true, a lot of people -- including myself -- believed in the cause behind Culture11...which was to value and emphasize culture over the politics that dominates the right. David Kuo is an inspiring and dynamic person with a big heart and certainly made an impact on my life in a positive way.

    Culture11 is no longer but what it could have been -- given enough time and money -- was something great that doesn't exist right now on the Right. We severely lack in the cultural department and perhaps we didn't get it quite right this time around -- but somebody needs to and I hope I'm a part of it when they do.

    I'd also add that while many like to comment on the "liberal" viewpoints sometimes put forth on the site, they often forget the the many prominent conservative voices as well. We had conversations and diverse opinions that I hope will live on as we all move to other venues.

  5. Show's how much attention I was paying. I just now figured out they folded.

    I've got to say that I noticed a couple of other things that probably didn't help get their content out.

    Because they wanted a "community" (they wanted people to come to the site for the content and then stay around), they're weren't any RSS feeds for their blogs. (At least not that I could find. I know Joe Carter mentioned feeling that RSS feeds had negatively impacted the community building aspects of blogging.) Of course, at this late stage of the game, the only way a lot of people read blogs is through the feeds. (Which is why it took me nearly 6 months to realize they were gone.)

    The other point was that I never understood how Joe Carter and David Kuo could coexist. I like Joe quite a bit, though we don't always agree. His work on the Huckabee campaing was puzzling at best and I went so far as to say at the time that I thought it was hurting his ability to make coherent arguments.

    As the campaign heated up, it became obvious that Kuo and Carter had VERY different approaches to politics and they seemed to be at each other's throats on their shared blog (when I remembered to read it). This didn't seem likely to make for a succesful enterprise. Plus, how am I supposed to take this "conservative" site seriously when Kuo was practically cheerleading for Obama?