BEIJING—I had just begun haggling for a silk comforter at the Yuexiu Market on Chaoyangmen Street when I got a phone call saying that New York Times Op-Ed columnist Thomas L. Friedman was on his way to a bookstore nearby. I wrapped up the deal, disadvantageously, and grabbed a cab.
You can learn a lot wandering around a foreign country in the first person. Mr. Friedman does it all the time. He looks around and talks to somebody and learns something important. Now I was the one in a cab in a foreign country. Conversations with cab drivers are the sort of things that lead Mr. Friedman to larger truths about globalization and the world we live in today.
This was Nov. 12. I had asked the driver to go to Yuexiu Market, and he had gone to Yaxiu Market. I’d even writaten out “Yuexiu” in Chinese characters. So I told the cabbie, “No, this is Yaxiu; I want to go to Yuexiu, on Chaoyangmen.” For me, this was a fairly in-depth cabbie exchange.
The bookstore was the Bookworm, a foreigner-run place that offers Wi-Fi and crostini, on the upper floor of a building near Workers’ Stadium. The side room had been set up for a lecture, with rows of chairs, and every chair was taken—either by a person or by a bag or coat in lieu of a person. There was a television in the main room and another in the back room, for overflow spectators.
Mr. Friedman was not there. It was 10 minutes after 5 p.m. A Bookworm staffer, looking slightly dazed, explained that the talk was not scheduled till 7:30. The roomful of people had showed up more than two hours early.
Two hours was enough time to go get dinner. Outside, murk had fallen on the city. It has been a strangely clear and bright fall in Beijing, which is usually choked with thick, impenetrable pollution, like Industrial Revolution–era London. The normal tailpipe smell of the air had been replaced by crisp breezes. But there had been a golden tinge in the air all afternoon, and toward sundown, the gold had deepened to the old familiar mud-and-cement color.
What to eat, while waiting for a globalization lecture? There was a Pakistani-Xinjiang restaurant up the street, on the top floor of yet another multi-level market. A subcontinental dance-music cover of “Eye of the Tiger” played on the sound system.
By the time I got back to the Bookworm, there were two or three dozen people lined up outside at the foot of the stairs, and employees were announcing that no one else could come up. “I feel like this is a rock concert,” one of them said. “I want it to be a rock concert, actually.”
The crowd did not disperse. Some were carrying copies of Thomas Friedman books. The staffers guarding the stairs asked for a look at a book. “Does it have a picture, so we know who not to bar?” one asked.
The lack of a Thomas Friedman lecture seemed possibly more informative than the lecture itself would be. But I got in, because I write for a newspaper. Writing for a newspaper means you get a somewhat different set of experiences than other people get.
The bookstore was packed and steaming. All the rooms, the lecture room and the TV rooms, were full of people. It was so crowded that most people didn’t see Mr. Friedman come in—a small, roundish figure escorted by the Bookworm’s owner, a woman much taller than him. He wore black trousers and a dark sweater with a zipper at the neck.
With a smile, Mr. Friedman perched on a tall stool. He had the genial assurance of a children’s television host. “If you get a small enough room, you can feel really important,” he told the audience.
His talk, he said, would be an update on his thinking about his latest book, The World Is Flat, which he said is now out in its 2.0 version. His new thoughts will be incorporated into a 3.0 version. “The whole subject is alive,” he said.
Mr. Friedman explained how he had come to write the book. It had begun in 2004, he said, with a planned documentary project, part of The Times’ involvement with the Discovery Channel, in which he was going to go to call centers around the world and report on the people who “spend their days imitating Americans.” Then outsourcing became an issue in the American Presidential campaign, and he decided to focus on Bangalore, India, and report on the “other side of outsourcing.” After 11 days of interviews, he ended up being told that the global economic playing field was being leveled—which, in a much-recounted eureka moment, he concluded meant that he should write a book called The World Is Flat.
Losing the call-centers story seemed like a shame. But Mr. Friedman’s mind moves forcefully from the specific to the general; the general makes for best-sellers. Perhaps someone else can still do the call centers.
Mr. Friedman moved on to the subject of what he called “Ten Days That Flattened the World.” He was speaking without notes, playing on names and numbers, repeating his points. The first world-flattening day was 11/9, he said. Not 9/11. No, 11/9 was, by “Kabbalistic accident,” the date of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Someone moved around, breaking his train of thought. He went back to 11/9 and 9/11. A young woman came in, carrying shopping bags, distracting him again. “Everybody settled?” Mr. Friedman asked. “Anybody want to stand up and say something?” 11/9. A cell phone rang.
The awkwardness passed, and Mr. Friedman settled back into his timeline of global techno-unification and leveling: Microsoft Windows, the Netscape I.P.O., the fiber-optic infrastructure buildout. The “workflow revolution.” Mr. Friedman speaks with his hands and arms, sometimes his whole body. He pantomimed an old-fashioned worker hand-carrying a piece of paper from one place to another. He pulled and stretched imaginary objects in the air, as if he were in one of those notebook-computer commercials like Jay-Z or Shaun “The Flying Tomato” Wright. He typed on an invisible keyboard. He extended his index fingers, then brought the tips together, touching: interoperability.
The language was flourishy to match: “Beijing, Bangalore and Bethesda” … “from Canton, Ohio, to Canton, China.” Metaphors flourished themselves into trouble. “What these steroids do is turbocharge all these new forms of collaboration,” Mr. Friedman said. Also: “Mother Nature always bats last.”
“Whatever can be done will be done,” Mr. Friedman said. “Will it be done by you or to you?” He repeated the question. By you or to you?
He told a story about going to Hungary and being driven around. His driver had asked him—“Mister Tom, Mister Tom”—to refer friends to him, if they visited Hungary. The driver, Mr. Friedman said, had given him the U.R.L. of his Web site: a hired Hungarian driver with his own Internet presence. Imagine!
More metaphor: Mr. Friedman compared the C.E.O.’s who understand the scope of the ongoing transformation to the pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. They know the secret. “None of our political leaders were talkin’ about it,” Mr. Friedman said. Mr. Friedman was with the pods.
“The world. Is. Flat,” he said.
In the question-and-answer period, he was asked about the midterm elections. The 2008 election, he said, is “going to be about China.” What about Hillary vs. Obama? “I think Obama is a really, really serious candidate, and if you asked me to bet today, I’d bet he’d be the Democratic nominee.” Mr. Friedman talked about the liabilities that Al Gore and John Kerry had brought, and the baggage that Hillary Clinton has. “We’re looking for a uniter, not a divider,” he said.
“But I don’t do domestic politics,” he said.
A tall young man in a Brandeis T-shirt raised the issue of Mr. Friedman’s personal wealth, and whether that might shape his views of globalization. “If George Soros were here, giving a speech from the far left, would you have asked him that question?” Mr. Friedman asked.
“Um, sure,” the questioner said.
But Mr. Friedman had set off, defending himself from his unseen enemies. He stands accused, he said, of being “a prophet of globalization” or “the Panglossian avatar of globalization.” Not so. “I didn’t do this,” Mr. Friedman said. “I didn’t start this. I just wrote about it.”
On it went, prosecution and defense, in one man. He has been called a “spokesman for global capitalism.” A “shill.”
“It’s stupid,” Mr. Friedman said.
His foes have their facts and figures, criticizing him for not weighing the costs of globalization. “Thank you very much for those statistics,” Mr. Friedman said, apostrophically. “They’re all from my book.”
There is, in fact, a Friedmanian dialectic. It only appears to go: thesis—antithesis—thesis! Thomas Friedman appreciates the dark side.
Earlier, for instance, the subject of the environment had come up. Mr. Friedman had said that he thought he knew how his next column, the Nov. 15 column, would begin. He would talk about being in Beijing, he said. Every time he comes here, he said, “people here speak with greater ease, and breathe with greater difficulty.” He described landing that day at the Beijing airport and hearing the stewardess announce that the weather outside was “clear.”
“And you could not see the terminal,” Mr. Friedman said. The crowd laughed knowingly. Old Beijing joke. But couldn’t you?
And the next day dawned crystalline and brilliant, without a trace of smog. That night, the sky over Beijing was strewn with stars.
The New York Press, the sometimes-feisty alt weekly that’s nipped at the heels of The Village Voice since 1988, has been quietly put on the market.
The North Jersey Media Group was one company that had been approached.
“They did speak with one of our managers,” said Jennifer Borg, the general counsel for the North Jersey Media Group. “The question was, ‘Do you want to buy it?’”
That media company owns daily newspapers such as The Record and more than 40 community publications. They have their own alternative newspaper: the aptly titled Exit.
Ms. Borg had “heard rumors for more than a year” that the Press was on the market. There are no negotiations currently under way between her company and the Press, she said.
David Unger, founder and managing partner of Avalon Equity Partners—which purchased the Press in 2002, and owns the gay weekly chain that includes The New York Blade—declined to comment.
Since 2002, the top of the Press’ masthead has been in frequent flux.
In March 2005, editor in chief Jeff Koyen resigned after battling the owners over a cover story mocking the death of Pope John Paul II. Earlier this year, four staffers—including editor Harry Siegel—resigned due to a story about the Danish cartoon scandal, which would have included republishing the controversial depictions of Muhammad.
Current editor in chief Adario Strange declined to comment.
“I have to plot out what I’m going to do without thinking about what’s going to happen next at the L.A. Times,” said Dean Baquet, reached by phone on Nov. 13, the day that former Chicago Tribune managing editor James O’Shea took Mr. Baquet’s old job as editor of the Los Angeles Times.
He is not, he said, thinking about who will buy the Times. Mr. Baquet said that published reports that Times managing editor Leo Wolinsky had been discussing the idea with billionaire and art collector Eli Broad “were exaggerated.”
Several months before Mr. Baquet and ousted Times publisher Jeffrey Johnson took their fateful stand against the Tribune Company suits in Chicago, Mr. Broad had casually mentioned the idea of buying the newspaper over a luncheon.
“We both just looked at him, sort of smiled, and moved on,” said Mr. Baquet.
“I don’t think anybody knows what’s going to happen,” said Mr. Baquet. “If you play it out, there are a million possibilities.”
“Mainly, I’m not going to think about anything,” Mr. Baquet continued. “I have been working full time for newspapers since I was about 20. I woke up this morning not in the employ of a newspaper.”
Mr. Baquet, who had picked up his old paper that morning, said it looked “terrific,” but that it was difficult for him to read.
According to Mr. Baquet, the paper is in good hands with Mr. O’Shea. By his account, Mr. Baquet encouraged Mr. O’Shea to accept the position, despite the less-than-ideal circumstances. “He’s not some bean-counter,” said Mr. Baquet. “He’s a very fine journalist.”
“Everybody who goes to the L.A. Times from Chicago falls in love with the place,” he said. “I think he will, too.”
And how will Mr. Baquet pass his time?
There have already been offers, he said, although he thought that some were “probably just being polite.” He declined to speculate on whether he would return to The New York Times, or whether he would leave Los Angeles.
“I haven’t gotten as far with anyone,” he said. “But I have to decide sometime soon what to do with myself.”
John Tierney’s final New York Times Op-Ed column ran on Nov. 14. Now he will make another transition–to blogger.
In January 2007, Mr. Tierney will take on columnist and blog duties in the Science Times section.
“I’d been thinking for a while that I’d like to do something different–a longer column, less often,” said Mr. Tierney on Nov. 14. “I love the Op-Ed thing, but the twice-a-week pace is tough.”
A memo was sent out on the morning of Mr. Tierney’s final column. “Plans are in the works to give Science Times more snap and crackle, a project that will start with a double-barreled blast” from Mr. Tierney and fellow columnist Natalie Angier.
Mr. Tierney was looking forward to having more science in his life. “I tend to be a contrarian,” said Mr. Tierney. “And to be a contrarian, you have to do a lot of research to debunk the conventional wisdom. It’s driven less by people’s political preferences and more by data.”
Mr. Tierney had been a preferred candidate of publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. for several years before he was appointed to the Op-Ed page, according to a source familiar with the publisher’s thinking. The libertarian writer was viewed as a possible replacement for William Safire before David Brooks joined the paper, said a source.
So will a politically conservative columnist fill the void?
“We want our opinion page to be as diverse as it can be,” said deputy editorial-page editor Andrew Rosenthal.
“If you look at our Op-Eds, my impression is that more of them disagree with the editorials than agree with them,” he said.
In January 2007, Mr. Rosenthal will take over as editorial-page editor. Gail Collins, the current editor, will then go on book leave, and will return to the Op-Ed page as a columnist in July.
Would Mr. Tierney’s slot be given to Ms. Collins?
“There is no such space,” said Mr. Rosenthal. “There are no ‘slots’ on our Op-Ed page. We’ve had seven columnists. We’ve had six columnists …. I don’t view our columnists as being pegs and holes to fill. They are distinctive.”
Some holes and pegs will assemble differently next year, however, as the newspaper itself changes trim size.
“The editorial space, it turns out, is in a slightly bigger type size,” said Mr. Rosenthal. He said that reducing the type size is one of many possibilities for the page. But he added: “I don’t want readers to think I’m going to make it like the phone book.”
Mr. Rosenthal also said that he plans to make more of the Times Web site when he takes over. Perhaps he will run into Mr. Tierney on the Internet.
Follow Tom Scocca via RSS.