MILLENNIAL SPECTACLE AUGUST 13, 2013
The New York media world met IRL Monday night for a BuzzFeed-hosted conversation with former congressman and current mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner at a packed bar not far from BuzzFeed HQ in Manhattan’s Flatiron District. This was the first interview in the BuzzFeed Brews (#buzzfeedbrews) series to take place in New York, and was hosted by Ben Smith, the site’s editor-in-chief. Extremely young guests—I would peg the median age at 26—grabbed eagerly proffered, completely free craft beer and mostly left cold cuts untouched. They chatted and, when the talk began, raised their smartphone cameras high, capturing proof that they were in the room as Smith, dressed in a suit and red power tie, had his way with Anthony Weiner.
The whole thing was the apotheosis of BuzzFeed: Newsy and buzzy, serious and ridiculous, of real-world significance but inspired by Twitter, streamed on YouTube and partly broadcast on CNN. The human pageant, in other words, in all its awfulness.
The original offense that landed Anthony Weiner in a penalty box from which he has yet to emerge could only have occurred in the age of social media. It can be difficult to recall after this exhausting summer—which, judging by Weiner’s haggard appearance, has exhausted him most of all—but the original thing that tripped Weiner up, a little more than two years ago, was a Twitter slipup. He had been sending salacious pictures to various women not his wife, and was outed when he accidentally tweeted what was intended to be a private direct-message. (I have since believed this could only have happened to somebody about as old as Weiner’s 48 years. Anyone older would not have the social-media facility to become enveloped in a network of sexting-via-Twitter relationships, for which Bill Clinton ought to thank the tech gods; anyone younger would likely be more careful about technology—we are more inured.)
I would also like to think that had BuzzFeed been the robust news operation, focused on politics, that it is today back in June 2011, it would have called B.S. on Weiner’s phony explanation from the get-go. For days, remember, he actually had people, most of all the media, half-convinced that his Twitter had been “hacked.” A social-savvy and professionally skeptical media outlet would have seen through this immediately. Instead, it was another six months before BuzzFeed hired Smith, who at the time was Politico’s lead blogger, and since then it has been a year and a half, in which time several portions of the site have emerged as serious news outlets whose sensibilities nonetheless remain defined by the social web.
A quirk of timing made the event less newsworthy than had been planned: It was booked back when Weiner was riding high in first place, before it emerged that he had in fact sexted since being caught. He is now in fourth place in the Democratic mayoral primary being held a month from today, from which only the two top finishers (at most) will emerge. To be very brief: Weiner cast himself as the outsider, picking fights with the press, most notably The New York Times (editorial board and newsroom); Mayor Michael Bloomberg; the other candidates; and his interlocutor. “If you want someone that has a spotless personal record, well, you haven’t had a good mayor in years,” he said. “If you want to have someone who fights for you, someone who believes in the things that you believe in, someone that won't back down, someone that shows the toughness and the independence, the job is mayor.” He has apologized for his personal indiscretions, but, as he said, “I don’t recall Speaker [Christine] Quinn apologizing once for term limits.” (The front-runner played a crucial role in enabling Bloomberg to run for a third term.) Whatever. The biggest news tidbit was an indirect confirmation (not that one is necessarily needed, but … ) of Hillary 2016: Smith got Weiner essentially to state that Weiner’s wife, Huma Abedin, a longtime colonel of Hillaryland, has been assigned a role on the nascent presidential campaign.
Speaking of which: Smith was masterful. I have always wondered what it would be like to see him conduct an interview. He is a sensational reporter, and at his very best when he can play the role of fair-minded interrogator; when there are heapings of scandal and substance alike, perhaps with a little more of the former; and when he possesses an ever-so-slight and largely well-hidden vendetta against his subject. All these conditions were met. At one point Weiner alleged that one of Smith’s actually more anodyne queries was “frankly beneath you”—a useful reminder that it is impossible to conceive of any question a reporter could ask Anthony Weiner that would be “beneath” the reporter. There was plenty of policy to discuss, but Smith did not begin by asking about bike lanes. And Smith, a decade-plus veteran of New York City politics, has evinced, in his typically cryptic way, a keen dislike for Weiner—not so much for the personal peccadilloes or for the repeatedly lying about said peccadilloes, but for Weiner’s well-earned reputation (which he disputed) of being all talk and no walk on the legislative front.
The result was an interview that, at its best, transcended the neat scandal-substance dichotomy I just established, in my old-media mindset. “We made a calculated gamble,” Weiner said of his wife and himself, “on the question of whether or not citizens would be more interested in their personal—their family's future, than in my personal failings that are behind me.” Is he talking about getting elected mayor? Rehabbing his image? Something to do with the Clintons? His family? The city? “Calculated gamble,” indeed.
The night’s most memorable moment came early on, when Weiner, who apparently had done his own oppo, chided Smith: “You can do this or show videos of cats, whatever it is you do at BuzzFeed.” An “oooooh” erupted from the otherwise mostly silent crowd. Weiner was understandably exasperated—we were several minutes into the interview and the subject matter remained firmly on the scandal side (such that Smith, sensing Weiner’s rage, had just promised, “I’m going to start asking you about Stop and Frisk soon”). But still, in August 2013, when you come at BuzzFeed with “cat videos,” you’ve already lost.
Looking at the transcript later, I was interested to see that what immediately prompted Weiner’s anti-BuzzFeed joke was Smith asking how Weiner’s relationship is with his old friend Jon Stewart, with whom he goes way back. What apparently offended Weiner wasn’t Smith’s (totally fair but undeniably invasive) question. It was that Stewart’s opinion of Weiner, according to Weiner, shouldn’t matter: “Well, what?” Weiner said. “He’s a comedian.”
Yes, congressman, and what does that make you? Oh, right: Carlos Danger. Everyone understands politics’ ridiculousness now—or should, anyway. Politicians most of all.