Corn has broken stories on presidents, politicians, and other Washington players. He's written for numerous publications and is a talk show regular. His best-selling books include Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War.
The surprising tech news of the week is Facebook's $19 billion acquisition of WhatsApp, a fast-growing mobile-messaging startup. WhatsApp allows smartphone users to evade phone company limits and send unlimited text messages. The service is free for the first year, and a buck for each following year. Five years after its creation by Jan Koum, a Ukrainian immigrant who dropped out of college, and Brian Acton, a Stanford alum, the app has 450 million users—most outside the United States—and a million new users signing up each day. The eye-popping price tag—about one-tenth the entire value of Facebook—is the shocker that's drawn much media notice. But there's another element to the story that is astounding: Koum and Acton have published a manifesto that radically critiques the foundation of modern capitalism—advertising—and denounces materialism. Facebook's business model, of course, depends upon both.
When new users of WhatsApp first download the service, they are shown a page that has a link to a message explaining why WhatsApp does not accept ads. Those who click on that link get an explanation that could have been penned by the gang at Adbusters, the anti-consumerist magazine that had a hand in starting the Occupy movement. Here's the full statement from Koum:
Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.
– Tyler Durden, Fight Club
Brian and I spent a combined 20 years at Yahoo!, working hard to keep the site working. And yes, working hard to sell ads, because that's what Yahoo! did. It gathered data and it served pages and it sold ads.
We watched Yahoo! get eclipsed in size and reach by Google…a more efficient and more profitable ad seller. They knew what you were searching for, so they could gather your data more efficiently and sell better ads.
These days companies know literally everything about you, your friends, your interests, and they use it all to sell ads.
When we sat down to start our own thing together three years ago we wanted to make something that wasn't just another ad clearinghouse. We wanted to spend our time building a service people wanted to use because it worked and saved them money and made their lives better in a small way. We knew that we could charge people directly if we could do all those things. We knew we could do what most people aim to do every day: avoid ads.
No one wakes up excited to see more advertising, no one goes to sleep thinking about the ads they'll see tomorrow. We know people go to sleep excited about who they chatted with that day (and disappointed about who they didn't). We want WhatsApp to be the product that keeps you awake…and that you reach for in the morning. No one jumps up from a nap and runs to see an advertisement.
Advertising isn't just the disruption of aesthetics, the insults to your intelligence and the interruption of your train of thought. At every company that sells ads, a significant portion of their engineering team spends their day tuning data mining, writing better code to collect all your personal data, upgrading the servers that hold all the data and making sure it's all being logged and collated and sliced and packaged and shipped out…And at the end of the day the result of it all is a slightly different advertising banner in your browser or on your mobile screen.
Remember, when advertising is involved you the user are the product.
At WhatsApp, our engineers spend all their time fixing bugs, adding new features and ironing out all the little intricacies in our task of bringing rich, affordable, reliable messaging to every phone in the world. That's our product and that's our passion. Your data isn't even in the picture. We are simply not interested in any of it.
When people ask us why we charge for WhatsApp, we say "Have you considered the alternative?"
Advertising is the enemy; it distorts values and devalues life—this is not the sentiment that animates Facebook and Silicon Valley. Corporate messaging dominates the public sphere. Stadiums bear the names of corporate sponsors. Celebrities are expected to sell anything and everything. (Beyoncé is a Pepsi delivery vehicle, Taylor Swift, a Diet Coke system.) Websites are designed to soak up personal data to enhance the targeting of consumers. Public radio and public television air sponsor messages that serve as ads. Taxi cabs in New York City play ads in the back seats. (Yes, Mother Jones relies on ads for a chunk of its revenue.) And there's no longer much public debate about all this. Yet the WhatsApp guys see evil in turning tech users into products, not people.
Analysts and others are wondering whether WhatsApp is truly worth $19 billion. But another big question is whether the culture-jamming ethos of WhatsApp can survive as the company is melded into Facebook. Will Koum and Acton become part of the Borg they so eloquently decried? The first rule of Fight Club was "You do not talk about fight club." The second rule was "You do not talk about fight club." Now that Koum and Acton are billionaires and über-players on the tech scene, will they continue to spread their anti-consumerism, tech-is-for-the-people gospel? Will they change Facebook, or will Facebook change them?
It's back. The anti-Clinton craziness of the 1990s. It was inevitable that the right-wing nuttiness of those days would return once Hillary Clinton officially acknowledged her presidential ambitions, but the mere prospect of the former first lady turned senator turned secretary of state seeking the White House has led to a premature—or perhaps preemptive—revival of the old Clinton tales from two decades ago. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a possible 2016 presidential candidate, kicked off the anti-Clinton nostalgia with a series of scolding references to Bill Clinton's affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Next GOP chairman Reince Priebus tweeted, "Remember all the #Clinton scandals...That’s not what America needs again." And the Republican party mounted a petition drive (to beef up its email list) that asserted "scandals and controversies follow the Clintons." Then Fox News upped the ante by booking Kathleen Willey, who has hinted (in a convoluted manner) that the Clintons were involved in the deaths of her husband and Vince Foster, a Clinton White House aide who committed suicide during the first year of Bill Clinton's presidency. Willey has also claimed that Bill Clinton groped her in the White House and suggested that the Clintons had her cats killed.
For those who lived through the conservative get-Clinton madness that culminated in Clinton's impeachment (and acquittal), this may seem like a bad acid flashback. Or a truly cheesy sequel. During the Clinton years, there were plenty of reasons to be critical of the first couple: Bill's calculating centrism, Hill's byzantine health care proposal that set back the cause of health care reform, Clinton campaign finance abuses, his workplace affair with Monica Lewinsky, scandalous pardons, and more. But conservative forces went far beyond the boundaries of reality in their ceaseless efforts to destroy the Clintons. During the 1992 campaign, some right-wingers whispered that Bill Clinton was a Manchurian candidate who had been brainwashed by the Russians when he was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford and took a student trip to Moscow. Others circulated fliers—this was before the internet hit big—claiming he had fathered the son of an African American prostitute. And there were claims that the Clintons were connected to a major drug-running operation that had been based in Arkansas and tied to a series of murders. Yes, murders. Dozens of murders.
As a draft-dodging, pot-smoking (sure, he inhaled), former long-hair McGovernik, Bill Clinton represented a side in the American political cultural civil war that had raged since the early 1960s, and many on the right could not accept that a citizen of that other America could become the leader of the land. Their disbelief and outrage led to insane outbursts of absurd accusations—and never-ending investigations (on and off Capitol Hill) that sought to uncover the darkest secrets of Bill and Hillary Clinton. This anti-Clinton crusade had two components: what might be called the official conspiracies that were probed by congressional gumshoes and independent counsels, and those that can be considered the outer-limits conspiracies. There was overlap (the Vince Foster suicide conspiracy, for example). But it all blurred into one long swirl that ended up discrediting much of the right and spurring an anti-anti-Clinton backlash that helped Bill Clinton become one of the most popular and successful former presidents and Hillary Clinton become a US senator.
Whitewater: Kenneth Starr spent roughly millions of dollars trying to find evidence of chicanery in a land deal that lost money for the Clintons—and his probe ended up demonstrating their innocence, like several earlier investigations. Having whispered to gullible journalists that he was about to indict Hillary in December 1996, Starr instead abruptly resigned as independent counsel in February 1997, knowing he had no case against her…
Travelgate: Feverish coverage of Hillary Clinton’s firing of several White House employees who handled press travel arrangements neglected some salient facts—such as the suspicious absence of accounting records for millions of dollars expended by the White House Travel Office, the Travel Office director's offer to plead guilty to embezzlement, and evidence that he had accepted lavish gifts from an air charter company. The First Lady and her staff didn't handle the controversy skillfully, but she had plenty of reason to suspect chicanery. And again, exhaustive investigation found no intentional wrongdoing by her.
Filegate: Sensational accusations that Hillary Clinton had ordered up FBI background files to target political opponents soon became a Republican and media obsession, with respectable figures warning that Filegate would be the Clintons' Watergate. "Where's the outrage?" cried Bob Dole, the 1996 Republican presidential nominee. Starr investigated the matter and found no evidence of wrongdoing. Finally, in 2010, a Reagan-appointed federal judge mockingly dismissed a civil lawsuit based on the allegations, saying "there's no there there."
As for the out-there conspiracies, perhaps the best representation of this genre was a documentary called The Clinton Chronicles. The 83-minute-long movie that was released in 1994 alleged that Bill Clinton had an extensive "criminal background" when he was elected president and that this "information" had been kept from voters. (That is, he had been elected on false pretenses.) The Bill Clinton of this movie was a sort of kingpin who had engaged in a multitude of corrupt activities while attorney general and governor in Arkansas; this included involvement in drug-money laundering. Of course, all this corruption continued in the White House. The film—overflowing with demonstrably false accusations—climaxed with the contention that Foster was murdered and that the White House mounted a cover-up to keep this a secret (and to keep a purportedly hidden relationship between Foster and Hillary under wraps). And it wasn't just Foster. The film noted that others with information about Clinton's crimes had died mysteriously. A plane crash. A suicide. People were afraid to tell the truth about the Clintons. The film concluded with this warning: "If any additional harm comes to anyone connected with this film or their families, the people of America will hold Bill Clinton personally responsible." An earlier version of the documentary, Circle of Power, had listed a number of suicides, accidental deaths, and unsolved murders and linked them to the Clintons.
What was most notable about both films was their No. 1 sponsor: Jerry Falwell, a television evangelist and head of the Moral Majority. In the 1990s, he was one of the most prominent leaders of the religious right. And on his weekly television show, he pitched these videos. A fellow who routinely hobnobbed with Republican presidents and politicians was explicitly endorsing the view that the current occupant of the White House was a maniacal and corrupt evildoer who had resorted to murder (on multiple occasions!) to obtain and preserve his power. And you could have proof of this, Falwell noted, for only $40 plus $3 for shipping.
Falwell was not alone. As Conason and Lyons noted in The Hunting of the President, other prominent conservatives were pushing the Clinton-as-killer meme (though no one called it a meme back then). The Council for National Policy, a secretive outfit that included the leadership of the conservative movement, ordered copies of the film for its members. GOP Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), who while pursuing the Foster suicide theory had a watermelon shot in his backyard, invited the narrator of the film, an Arkansan named Larry Nichols, to meet with House Republicans. Nichols became a fixture on right-wing talk radio. William Dannemeyer, a former House GOPer who appears at the end of The Clinton Chronicles to raise money for further investigation, sent members of Congress a letter requesting they probe the mysterious deaths related to Clinton. The conservative editorialists at the Wall Street Journal half-defended the film. Criticizing the documentary for being loaded with unproven charges, they noted, "the Falwell tape and the controversy around it get at something important about the swirl of Arkansas rumors and the dilemma it presents a press that tries to be responsible." In other words, Clinton was no murderer, but there was value to presenting the overarching, rumors-fueled case that he was sleazy schemer.
How does being accused of murdering political foes (and friends) to cover up criminal deeds (and untoward affairs) compare to being accused of being a foreign-born secret Muslim and covert socialist with plans to destroy America? Political consumers of today who are too young to have experienced the visceral and extreme Clinton hatred of the 1990s might find it tough to imagine the excesses of that era, but they would recognize parallels with the anti-Obama hate machine. Then and now, Republicans in power whipped up investigations (Benghazi!) to satisfy their their angry and resentful base voters and knowingly associated with (and validated) those hurling even more outlandish accusations about a commander-in-chief much detested on the right. To an extent, the Clinton smearers paved the way for the Obama bashers, and some conservative agitators have dutifully served in both camps. Joseph Farah, a leading birther, was a champion of Foster conspiracy theories. In 2007, Fox News host Sean Hannity hosted a special episode on the "mysterious death" of Foster, hinting that the Clintons might have pulled off "a massive cover-up." Rush Limbaugh, too, has in the past suggested Hillary had Foster killed.
The number of false charges hurled in the 1990s at the Clintons could fill a book. (See Conason and Lyons'.) Like ordnance left over after a war, this ammunition remains ready to be used by conservatives who recoil at the thought of another Clinton in the White House. It doesn't matter that these bombs are duds. As Fox News showed this week, the Clinton antagonists of years ago and of today will reach for whatever ammo they can find to recreate the impression there was a swirl of Clinton corruption and push a politically useful mantra: Don't stop thinking about the past.
The economy is still sputtering, the war in Afghanistan continues, another debt ceiling showdown looms, the immigration crisis proceeds, Washington is trying to deal with conflict in Syria, Iran, and the Middle East, and what captures the mind of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.)? Bill Clinton's nearly two-decade-old Oval Office affair with Monica Lewinsky.
On Meet the Press at the end of January, Paul accused Clinton of engaging in "predatory behavior" and taking "advantage of a girl that was 20 years old." (Lewinsky was 22 years old when she and Clinton hooked up.) And Paul griped, "The media seems to have given President Clinton a pass on this." (Paul must have slept through much of the 1990s, for the media granted nonstop coverage to the affair and the subsequent investigation and impeachment.)
The news on Thursday morning came as a shocker to the politerati: Henry Waxman is retiring. This Democratic congressman from Los Angeles has been a Capitol Hill fixture and progressive crusader for decades, since he was first elected in 1974. He vigorously pursued Big Tobacco and enthusiastically championed climate change legislation. He's been a fierce advocate for consumer rights, health care, and the environment. As the Washington Postnotes, Waxman, 74 years old, has passed measures "to make infant formula safer and more nutritious (1980), bring low-priced generic drugs to market (1984), clean the air (1990), provide services and medical care to people with AIDS (1996), and reform and modernize the Postal Service (2006). He was also instrumental in the passage of the Affordable Care Act." In 2005, I wrote a profile of Waxman that dubbed him the "Democrats' Eliot Ness." Here are some excerpts:
It's nothing new, says Representative Henry Waxman. For decades—literally—this Democrat from the Westside of Los Angeles has mounted high-profile investigations and hearings while churning out sharp-edged reports: on toxic emissions, the tobacco industry, pesticides in drinking water. But during George W. Bush's first term as President, Waxman, the senior Democrat on the Government Reform Committee, established himself as the Democrats' chief pursuer of purported wrongdoing within the Bush Administration. He has mounted a series of "special investigations"—of Halliburton, Enron, the flu vaccine crisis, conflicts of interest at the Department of Homeland Security, national missile defense. He has produced reports on secrecy in the Bush Administration, misleading prewar assertions made by Bush officials about Iraq's WMDs, Bush's politicization of science. And he has won considerable media attention for his efforts. Working with Representative John Dingell, he sicced the Government Accountability Office on Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force to get the names of the industry executives who helped cook up Cheney's energy plan. (Cheney told the GAO to take a hike; the GAO filed suit, lost and then declined to appeal.) More recently, Waxman released a headlines-grabbing report revealing that federally funded abstinence-only sex-ed programs peddle false information to teens. (One claimed condom use does not prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.) With all this muckraking, the 65-year-old Waxman has become the Eliot Ness of the Democrats.
"Waxman has been important for House Democrats," says Representative Jim McGovern, a liberal from Massachusetts. "With the Republicans controlling the White House and Congress, it's hard to be heard. He's found ways to get our message out." Representative George Miller, the senior Democrat on the Education Committee, notes, "He's developed the model. It's what we would like every ranking member to do—to ask questions, be persistent and not accept silence. He's motivated other Democrats and has even created some discontent within the Democratic caucus because newer members on other committees sometimes don't think the ranking members are aggressive enough." And on the Senate side, Democrats--perhaps encouraged by Waxman's example—have announced they will create their own investigative team and conduct unofficial hearings on alleged Bush Administration wrongdoing.
The snub-nosed, bespectacled, balding and far-from-tall Waxman is not flamboyant or flashy. He speaks softly but directly and has a forceful manner. His Democratic colleagues routinely joke about his persistence and tenacity. "Don't get into an argument with Henry," says Miller. "But if you do, bring your lunch. He won't let you go."
The piece noted that Waxman had assembled a substantial history of legislative accomplishment:
Through most of Waxman's first twenty years in Congress, he chaired the influential Health and Environment Subcommittee and mainly focused on legislation—Medicaid expansion, the clean-air law, AIDS, tobacco—winning a description in The Almanac of American Politics as "a skilled and idealistic policy entrepreneur." During those years, Waxman says, producing reports was primarily a device for drawing attention to an issue and building a case for legislation. For instance, after the 1984 disaster at a Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal, India, he and his staff, realizing that toxic air pollutants were unregulated in the United States, investigated the pollution from chemical plants in Kanawha Valley, West Virginia. The resulting report concluded that the valley was being exposed to high amounts of toxic emissions. With that report in hand, Waxman pushed through legislation that required the Environmental Protection Agency to collect more data on emissions. He then used the information gathered to win passage in 1990 of a measure that reduced toxic air pollution.
And I reported that Waxman was not reluctant to take on Democrats—or seek compromises with Republicans:
Working with other Democrats, Waxman notes, has not always been easy. Through the 1980s, he engaged in a now-legendary clash with John Dingell, then the powerful chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee and a protector of the auto industry, over clean-air legislation. Finally, the two hammered out a deal that led to the 1990 Clean Air Act. In 2003 Waxman proposed setting up an independent commission to investigate Bush's use—or abuse—of the intelligence on WMDs in Iraq. But senior Democrats who deal with intelligence issues would not join him. "More and more," he says, "I am happy to do things on my own."
Waxman has been characterized by the right-wing media as a partisan hack only interested in nipping at Bush's heels. But with no opportunity to legislate, there's little alternative for him but to focus on oversight. And Waxman has not always acted as a partisan pitbull. In the mid-1990s he spent two years privately concocting a tobacco bill with Republican Representative Thomas Bliley, a champion of the tobacco industry. The two reached a compromise, Waxman says, but the GOP House leadership rejected the measure. During the Clinton campaign finance scandal, Waxman called for Attorney General Janet Reno to appoint a special counsel. "We were not happy with that," says one former Clinton White House aide. Later Waxman assailed Clinton for pardoning fugitive financier Marc Rich.
Waxman did vote to grant Bush the authority to invade Iraq. He now says, "If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn't have voted for it." He points out that two days before the invasion he sent a letter to Bush noting that Bush's use of the unproven allegation that Iraq had sought uranium in Africa was an act of "knowing deception or unfathomable incompetence" that undermined Bush's case for war. Waxman was on to the Niger story months before it became big news, but his charge that Bush had peddled misinformation—or disinformation—received little notice in the United States.
Waxman has a safe seat; he handily wins re-election. His anti-Bush endeavors play well in Hollywood. Without having to fret about re-election, he can afford to exercise what Schiliro cites as one of his chief assets: patience. "He doesn't mind spending eight years working on an issue," Schiliro says. "He passed AIDS and clean-air legislation, and that took years." And that may be why, when I ask Waxman if he will be able to remain motivated for another four years of Bush battles, he simply shrugs his shoulders. With four more Bush years to come, Waxman says, he expects to stay the course: more investigations, more reports. On what he's not sure, but he does say he anticipates continuing his probes of government contracting. "I hope we can investigate this with the Republicans," he comments. "This isn't partisan; it involves protecting taxpayer dollars. And there's been a clear failure of oversight by the Republicans. If they won't join us, then we'll just have to get the information out to the public." But, he adds, "it's hard for the Democrats to be as mean and tough as the House Republican leadership."
His retirement won't mean much in terms of raw politics: His seat is in a reliably safe Democratic district. But it will be a great loss for those who care about clear air, clean water, health care, economic fairness, and much more. Waxman was the ideal House member, skilled in politics and passionate about policy, able to legislate and investigate, and driven by principles rather than ego. He is one of the more—if not the most—effective House member of the past 40 years. You may even be alive because of him.