Serena Williams on Pregnancy, Power, and Coming Back to Center Court

On a Sunday morning in July—specifically the middle Sunday of Wimbledon, when the players rest and the trampled lawns recover—Serena Williams awoke from one of those vivid dreams that are a common feature in the hormonal rush of pregnancy. In it she was competing, except that she wasn’t at Wimbledon or even on a tennis court. Instead this was the Williams Invitational, the mock-seriously titled (but very real) dance tournament that Serena and Venus Williams have mounted each spring for the better part of a decade and that, Serena explains, has gone from fun to serious to Broadway to Vegas in short order. In the dream, Serena was suspended from the ceiling, twirling inside a hoop attached to a long ribbon. (True story: Williams has an aerial-dancing coach in Florida and another in California.) Sequins and wigs may also have been involved, though the details are fuzzy.

“What do you think it means?” Williams asks as her fiancé, Alexis Ohanian, 34, works on coffee and soft-scrambled eggs. (You got lucky, she says, when he hands me the mug with the giant S on it.) What it does not mean, as anyone who saw her cracking forehands on a recent Instagram video knows already, is that Williams’s mind has floated away from tennis. In fact, for the last week she has been watching Wimbledon with such intensity that her chef has started giving her concerned glances from over the breakfast bar.

“I learn by watching,” she explains. “I’m like the Parasite”—here the first of many references to DC Comics superheroes. “He’s a leech. He takes all your energy with him. Or I watch old matches of myself on the Tennis Channel. I hit amazing shots, and these girls are running them down and hitting winners, and I’m beginning to see why. It’s because I have patterns.” She breaks into a laugh that I come to know well because it is so easily summoned. “I don’t want to say more than that. I don’t want these girls to read this article and get a leg up.”

We’re sitting in the giant kitchen of her house in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, whose demure gray facade belies the fact that in other days it has been something of a party pad for the sisters Williams. Outside, sprinklers hiss, lizards scurry across a tiled patio, and behind the pool, a family of blue cranes pecks at the grass in search of their own breakfast. These Sundays are precious, since Alexis will soon be on a plane back to San Francisco, where Reddit, the social-news website he cofounded, is based.

“The downside is not being able to be here 24-7,” he says.

“Babe, that’s the upside,” she says. More laughter.

Nearly eight months pregnant, Williams wears a stretchy dress with nautical stripes, her hair exquisitely cornrowed, with red and gold beads and cowries, her pearlized nails the color of pink champagne. Since 2011, when she was hospitalized with bilateral pulmonary embolisms following foot surgery (months earlier she had stepped on a piece of glass at a World Cup party in Munich), Williams has been terrified of getting pregnant. Carrying a child increases the risk of blood clots, and she now has to inject herself with anticoagulants, the most dreaded part of her daily routine. This pregnancy was unexpected and accidental. “But once I found out, something happened that surprised me,” she explains. “I became really calm. I thought, You have to win, but you’re allowed to lose, because you have something to look forward to.”

Williams is in planning mode. A fifties-themed baby shower (she loves a theme party, or any excuse to get into costume, really) is in the works. There is the bachelorette party—maybe the islands, maybe Las Vegas, maybe both—and, one of these days, the wedding itself. But most of her energy is directed at preparing the nursery. Williams, a Francophile who keeps an apartment in Paris, is looking for a baby nurse who speaks French and just found a wall hanging of a medieval French poem by Charles d’Orléans for the room. “Alexis thinks we’re having a boy, but I have a strong suspicion that it’s a girl,” she says. “Two weeks after we found out, I played the Australian Open. I told Alexis it has to be a girl because there I was playing in 100-degree weather, and that baby never gave me any trouble. Ride or die. Women are tough that way.”

For many of her fans—and here I should disclose that I’m among the die-hards—the news that Williams was pregnant stirred an uneasy mix of feelings. So this was how her tennis career would end? Well, why not? It would mean that the 2017 Australian Open final was her last competitive match; in it, she defeated her oldest and greatest rival, Venus Williams, for her twenty-third major title and in doing so broke Steffi Graf’s heavily armored Open-era rec­ord. Could the loop close any more perfectly? In fact, yes: There were other records still looming, none so large as Margaret Court’s 24 major titles. Then there was the fact that Williams, at 35, seemed, by some miraculous fusion of physical gifts and prudent time management, still to be playing at her apex.

“It’s hard to figure out what the end of your tennis career should look like,” she says. “I used to think I’d want to retire when I have kids, but no. I’m definitely coming back. Walking out there and hearing the crowd, it may seem like nothing. But there’s no better feeling in the world.” Chip, her Yorkie (full name Christopher Chip Rafael Nadal), bounces skittishly from her chair to mine, though his allegiance is never in dispute. “Obviously, if I have a chance to go out there and catch up with Margaret, I am not going to pass that up. If anything, this pregnancy has given me a new power.”

Power—it’s a word that has clung with a sometimes unsavory vigor to Williams over the years, perhaps as a dismissal of her prodigious technical skill or, worse, as a proxy for her race. And it’s a word she has only recently come to embrace. “I think I’ve had a love-hate relationship with the idea of power,” she says. “In the beginning I didn’t like it when they said that my sister and I were power players. I thought, I don’t hit as hard as a Monica Seles. In Australia last year, I read that Maria Sharapova’s backhand and forehand are as good or better than mine, and that the only reason I win is that my serve is bigger. I was like, wait a minute, please. I place my serve. And what about my volleys? My speed? I’m the player who’s hitting angles. I’m the player who moves you. I use my brain, and that’s really why I win. Not only me, but women in general sometimes feel that power is a bad word. As I’ve gotten older I’ve started to feel differently about it. Power is beauty. Strength is beauty. So now on the court I want people to think that I’m powerful. But I also want them to be shocked at how I play. I want people to expect something, then get something different.”

Williams has been a target this year off the court. In March, the Romanian former world number one Ilie Nastase accused her of doping and suggested that American athletes’ behavior essentially goes unchecked. “It’s pretty clear in Serena’s case,” he told reporters. “Do you see what she looks like?” Only a month later, he was heard speculating about Williams’s baby. “Let’s see what color it is. Chocolate with milk?” This presented a bitter pill for those who wished to believe that tennis was above, or beyond, racism. Williams knew better, of course. “I’m like, dude, are you serious? Classless,” she says. “Don’t come for me, and don’t come for my baby. And then the drug rant! I’m tested all the time. I’m not putting poison in this body. If I can’t beat you, I’m not going to cheat to win. End of story.” (Ohanian says that his fiancée’s fastidiousness borders on the paranoid: “I’ll be eating a protein bar and she’s starving, and she’ll be like, Nope. Can’t risk it. Not sure that’s approved.”)

In June, John McEnroe drew the ire of tennis fans when he stated in an NPR interview that Williams would be “like 700 in the world” if she played on the men’s tour. “Why the fixation on me playing dudes?” she asks. “It’s clear that men are stronger than women, and that’s just science. I’m very content to play on the women’s tour. John’s unapologetic, he says what he thinks, and people respect that about him. God forbid I do it, though.”

Williams has said more than a few things over the course of her career that she likely regrets. “I think people do love when I get angry—that’s when the crowd cheers the hardest. But now I’m like, OK, I’m going to be a mom next time I play. I need to not make the baby faces anymore.” And lately she appears to be watching her words.

“I wish people could see her silly side,” says Kim Kardashian West, who has been a close friend of Williams’s for fifteen years. “She is obsessed with karaoke, which personally is my biggest fear in life. I remember a dinner in San Francisco before a DNC fund-raiser. Serena sang, Obama sang, Kanye sang. It was legendary. She gives herself those moments—it’s how she recharges. Serena’s the girl you can call and say anything to. She’ll never judge you, and she’s never too busy for you. Oh, and she can keep any secret.” The actress Meghan Markle, another friend, says, “She will be an amazing mom. The very best, because she is so attuned to balancing strength and sensitivity. Plus, given that she is pretty epic at karaoke, I think she’ll put her signature Serena spin on singing lullabies for the baby. I can’t wait for that!”

And yet Williams is concerned that her game face has been misinterpreted, that the posture she assumes to let everyone know she means business looks threatening instead. “I feel like people think I’m mean,” she says. “Really tough and really mean and really street. I believe that the other girls in the locker room will say, ‘Serena’s really nice.’ But Maria Sharapova, who might not talk to anybody, might be perceived by the public as nicer. Why is that? Because I’m black and so I look mean? That’s the society we live in. That’s life. They say African-Americans have to be twice as good, especially women. I’m perfectly OK with having to be twice as good.”

Her friend the singer Ciara wonders whether Williams’s intensity on the court makes it difficult for people to imagine another version of her. “In tennis mode, she’s a beast, a lioness,” Ciara says. “But when she’s not in work mode—well, let’s just say you want to be at her table. You’ll die laughing. She’s that girl, and I think it will serve her so well as a mom. That and the fact that she has a partner who complements her. Alexis is calm and cool.”

Watch Serena Williams Dance and Dish on One Thing She Hasn't Mastered:

The couple met by chance in Rome in the spring of 2015. She was competing in one of the clay-court tournaments that precede the French Open (and prodding Italian friends to persuade restaurants to make her gluten-free cacio e pepe), and he was speaking at a tech convention that happened to take place at her hotel. By December, they were engaged. “Alexis is basically the guy I’ve always told my friends to look for, since I love to give advice,” says Williams, whose old flames include the musicians Common and Drake, the basketball player Amar’e Stoudemire, and the director Brett Ratner. “He’s extremely smart but not a know-it-all. He’s curious about what he doesn’t know. Being a Jehovah’s Witness is important to me, but I’ve never really practiced it and have been wanting to get into it. Alexis didn’t grow up going to any church, but he’s really receptive and even takes the lead. He puts my needs first.” Though Ohanian has been doing weekends in Florida, Williams is not exactly ignoring the needs of her husband-to-be, either. She plans to move to San Francisco after the wedding—no cohabitation before then, at her insistence—even though she’s in the process of building a sprawling home in Florida. For years she lived in Venus’s Palm Beach Gardens house and has only just relocated across the street. “I was like, ‘I’m 35, Venus. We have got to live apart.’ ” Venus comes over frequently because she never has food in her refrigerator.

Williams mentions another crucial point in Ohanian’s favor: He has passed muster with Patrick Mouratoglou, her coach of the past five years and, though neither has ever discussed it publicly, her romantic partner for a portion of that time. “Once we got over that little hump of weirdness, it was fine,” she explains. “Fortunately I’m really good friends with most everyone I’ve ever dated. I don’t like bad blood.”

Ohanian plans to recast his late mother’s wedding ring for Williams. Family, he says, is crucial to them both: “One of the first things we really connected on at a deeper level was that she lost her sister during a formative time in her life”—Williams’s half-sister Yetunde Price was the victim of a drive-by shooting in 2003—“and my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer when I was 22, just as we were starting Reddit. For both of us, we learned at a young age the pain of loss, and I think for both of us, this helped make us who we are.” The couple, spectacularly busy in such different ways, give each other freedom; there have been no fights over putting in extra hours at the office (or on the court) or taking a last-minute trip. “One of the best parts of this relationship for me is that it really shattered the tech-bubble illusion that we’re the hardest-working people,” Ohanian adds. “It’s amazing how much harder I push myself now because I’m with someone who has even more discipline, even more focus.”

As focused as she remains on her future as a player, Williams is looking beyond tennis, as she always has. Nearly two decades ago, in one of the valleys between her career’s scattered peaks, she somehow made time to study fashion design at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale. “My dad always told us to have a plan B,” she says. If not for her pregnancy, Williams’s namesake ready-to-wear line would have had its fourth New York Fashion Week show this month.

“I feel I can put myself into Serena’s mind,” says Donatella Versace, who designed the emerald-green chiffon dress Williams wore at this year’s Met gala. “She’s fierce, but there is a side that people don’t consider until they get to know her, that maybe people don’t expect. She has an enormous warmth and a vulnerability. With her style she loves to push it, to go to extremes—high platforms, tight bodysuits. But I saw one of her collections, which showed another side. Very classic.”

“My feet are really in this,” Williams says of her line, which is sold on HSN. “For me there was only one thing I connected to the way I’ve connected to tennis, and that’s been fashion. If you give me a garment, I can tell you what the fabric is, how it’s made, why something can or can’t be done because of the draping, et cetera. Who knows? Maybe I would have won more grand slams if I had been 100 percent tennis.” Here she slips momentarily into a whisper: “I should have 30 already.”

Last month, Williams appeared in nude plenitude à la Demi Moore on the cover of Vanity Fair, photographed by Annie Leibovitz. “I was really nervous about that shoot,” she admits. “I’ve not been that exposed, and I was unsure up until a couple of days before. But I’m happy with how raw and real it is.” Williams has appeared on the cover of Vogue twice before, first in June 2012 for the London Olympics and again in April 2015, both times also shot by Leibovitz. “Being black and being on the cover was really important to me,” she explains. “The success of one woman should be the inspiration to another, and I’m always trying to inspire and motivate the black girls out there. I’m not a model. I’m not the girl next door. But I’m not hiding. Actually, I look like a lot of women out there. The American woman is many women, and I think it’s important to speak to American women at a time when they need encouragement. I’m not political, but I think everyone is worried, to a degree.”

Williams has already begun to prepare for next January, when she hopes to defend her Australian Open title. “It’s the most outrageous plan,” she says. “I just want to put that out there. That’s, like, three months after I give birth. I’m not walking anything back, but I’m just saying it’s pretty intense.” At her age and stage, there is always the risk of falling short of her previous heights. “In this game you can go dark fast. If I lose, and I lose again, it’s like, she’s done. Especially since I’m not 20 years old. I’ll tell you this much: I won’t win less. Either I win, or I don’t play.”

Venus, who went on to reach the Wimbledon final despite battling Sjögren’s syndrome, remains her sister’s inspiration to keep playing. (Venus’s deep run was all the more impressive because it came in the wake of her involvement in a Florida car accident that claimed the life of a 78-year-old man.) Meanwhile, Serena maintains the famous Williams balance: sweating through an hour of cardio every day (she has never really lifted weights, her muscles the gift of nature), taking French lessons, scrolling through makeup and nails on Instagram, perfecting her taco recipes, and listening to the Moana sound track. (“No judgments, please,” she asks.) Her mother, Oracene Price, and her friend Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook executive, have impressed upon her the importance of staying positive. Her father, Richard Williams, lives twelve minutes away, and they see each other at church every weekend.

“I’m nervous about childbirth,” Williams acknowledges. “I’m not a spring chicken. The one thing I really want is an epidural, which I know a lot of people are against, but I’ve had surgeries galore, and I don’t need to experience any more pain if I can avoid it. But the biggest thing is that I don’t really think I’m a baby person. Not yet. That’s something I have to work on. I’m so used to me-me-me, taking care of my health, my body, my career. I always ask, Am I going to be good enough?” She looks toward Ohanian, who is blending smoothies in the Vitamix. “I know he’ll be great.”

“It’s funny that you say that,” he answers, “because that’s exactly how I feel about you.”

This article has been republished from www.vogue.com

One U.S. Factory Goes Global, While Trump Shrinks the World

Never mind the refrain that the American factory is supposedly a dinosaur in the age of globalization.

Here in the heart of horse country, some 700 American workers are designing and building premium ceiling fans. They tap local engineering prowess and export their wares around the world using a whimsical brand: Big Ass Fans. (Yes, that is really its name.)

But if the company stands as refutation to the premature obituaries for American manufacturing, the people running the operation worry about a looming risk. Talk of trade hostilities from Washington could shrink the globe, potentially yielding policy that could limit American exports while impeding access to crucial components of manufacturing.

The latest concern unfolds this week, as the Trump administration begins to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, redrawing the terms of commerce with Mexico and Canada.

The president has long criticized Nafta as a lethal threat to American livelihoods, asserting that it has spurred an exodus of jobs to Mexico while opening the borders to unfairly cheap, tariff-free imports. He has vowed to bring factory jobs back to the United States.

In outlining its goals for the Nafta renegotiation, the Trump administration listed as a priority shrinking American trade deficits with Mexico and Canada. Trade experts construed that as an intention to limit imports from those countries.

But many of the imports encouraged by Nafta are parts and raw materials used by American workers in fashioning finished wares. If Mr. Trump limits such imports, that could increase the cost of making goods at many American factories. It could provoke Canada and Mexico to similarly restrict trade, diminishing their purchases of American products.

In short, Mr. Trump’s efforts to bring work back to the United States could eliminate some jobs that are already here.

“Altering Nafta could fundamentally change the production of the economy — for the U.S., as well as for Mexico — and that will be very disruptive,” said Swati Dhingra, an economist at the London School of Economics. “Many of the policies being proposed could end up hurting the people who are being left behind.”

Big Ass Fans could wind up paying more for motors it imports from Mexico. It could lose sales to Canada and Mexico, now its two largest export destinations, and the destinations for more than a third of American exports over all.

“If we get into a trade war, that could significantly impact our U.S. production,” said Paul Lauritzen, the company’s vice president for manufacturing. “It just seems like the Trump guys are so focused on meeting campaign promises that they have failed to understand the reality of manufacturing and the global supply chain.”

In the world economy as depicted by President Trump, a product made in Mexico and sold on American shelves represents a theft. Such wares should have been forged in the United States, using American hands.

In this spirit, Mr. Trump first threatened to kill Nafta, and later agreed to the renegotiation getting underway. He has vowed to slap tariffs on a range of Chinese goods including steel. He has accused his predecessors of destroying American factory jobs by assenting to a series of abominable trade deals.

A growing body of research has concluded that a surge of imported goods produced in low-wage countries — especially China — has indeed eliminated millions of American jobs in recent decades. Some research has found that trade with Mexico modestly depressed wage growth during the 1990s in the most-affected blue-collar industries, among them the textile trade.

“We strongly support President Trump’s intention to reopen Nafta, and agree that it can be updated and improved to significantly enhance U.S. textile production, exports and employment,” Auggie Tantillo, president of the National Council of Textile Organizations, an industry trade group, said in written remarks submitted to a congressional panel in June.

Still, Mr. Tantillo argued against reinstating tariffs, while cautioning that the renegotiation must not disrupt “the high level of supply chain integration that exists today.”

Unions from the Steelworkers to the A.F.L.-C.I.O. have assailed Nafta as a job killer while also accusing the Trump administration of failing to define effective goals to boost workers’ interests.

Canada and Mexico are the largest and third-largest source of imports used by American companies in producing exports. In 2011, the most recent year for which government data is available, imports from those two countries yielded more than $1.6 billion worth of American exports.

As Mr. Lauritzen walks through his plant on a recent afternoon, he lifts an electrical device that regulates the power supply for a new line of highly energy-efficient industrial lights. It was imported from China.

“If you wanted to source this domestically, your options would be minimal to zero,” he says.

Big Ass Fans began life in 1999 with a more staid name, the HVLS Fan Company. It specialized in enormous industrial-grade fans hung in vast spaces like factories and airplane hangars as a way to reduce use of heating and air-conditioning. The largest fans reach 24 feet in diameter and sell for upward of $8,000.

As customers began using blunt language to describe the products, the company took their declarations as its name. Its complex on the outskirts of Lexington features no end of brand-related mischief. Signs reserve a favored parking spot for the “Smart Ass of the Month.” The company mascot is a donkey named Fanny.

Beneath the joviality is a serious engineering operation. In 2008, when the global financial system was ensnared in disaster and the company’s revenue was about $30 million a year, it invested nearly one-third of that sum in a new research and development facility.

Company innovators used the facility to develop a popular feature that simulates the variable wind speeds of an ocean breeze, which provides relief from the constant blowing of a typical fan. The company started a new residential line under the Haiku brand, using a molded hunk of stainless steel, bamboo and other luxurious materials.

By 2012, revenue had tripled to $90 million, according to the company. Last year, it reached $240 million.

Big Ass Fans pays well above the state average, investing in the notion that happier workers are more productive. One-third of its assembly line workers earn more than $40,000 a year, plus health insurance, according to the company.

Ray Hawkins, 38, landed at the factory four years ago, after being laid off from his previous job as a welder at a nearby Toyota plant. He had endured four years of joblessness with a young son at home. Since starting at the company, he has worked his way up to a supervisory position and now earns nearly one-and-a-half times his previous pay.

“When I was at Toyota, I felt like I was just a number,” he said. “Now, everybody knows my name.”

But company overseers are feeling pressure.

Jamie Hillegonds, director of global operations, is looking for savings in the supply chain. The Trump administration presents itself as a champion of business, eager to strip away job-killing regulations. Yet she finds herself having to anticipate how the president might complicate her plans.

Her company buys motors from a Midwestern supplier known for quality and good prices. But the supplier recently shifted its production to Mexico. If the Nafta renegotiation makes that product more expensive, she will have to adjust.

“It’s very difficult to develop a global sourcing strategy based on Trump’s day-to-day whims about what he wants to do,” Ms. Hillegonds said.

Jonathan Bostock, the chief operating officer, wonders what happens if the Trump administration follows through on plans to impose tariffs on steel as a way to limit China’s exports. Big Ass Fans buys little steel directly, but the companies that supply its parts purchase the material.

“It goes downstream, and someone ends up paying,” he said.

Mr. Lauritzen, the vice president for manufacturing, was disheartened by Mr. Trump’s decision to revoke American participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a sprawling agreement encompassing a dozen Pacific Rim countries that amount to nearly 40 percent of the global economy.

He watched in dismay as Japan, a central participant in the Pacific pact, secured some consolation in signing a trade deal with the European Union. The United States lacks such a deal with Europe. So American companies are now vulnerable to higher tariffs on sales to Europe than those faced by its Japanese competitors.

With the United States out of the pact, Big Ass Fans is more likely to serve Asian customers from its factory in Malaysia rather than expanding in Kentucky, he said, adding, “Every time we miss out on one of those, when other countries are negotiating free trade agreements, that disadvantages us.”

Correction: August 16, 2017
An earlier version of this article misstated the wording on a sign in the Big Ass Fans parking lot. As shown in the photograph accompanying the article, the sign says a nearby parking spot is reserved for the company “smart ass,” not “wise ass.”

This article has been republished from www.nytimes.com

Oprah Winfrey Is On a Roll (Again)

It is the golden hour in the Promised Land, and we are walking down Hallelujah Lane, going to see the Apostles. Only at Oprah’s house can one come up with a sentence like that as a literal description. Translation: It is a beautiful early evening in May, and Oprah and I are walking along one of the cobblestone lanes she has built on her 65-acre California estate, a startlingly beautiful landscape she calls the Promised Land. We are heading toward her favorite spot, where, under the shade of a spectacular live oak, she often lies on a chaise and reads. The tree is just one in a grove of twelve (the Apostles), and it is hard to tell where one tree ends and the next begins, their endless branches twisting and curling in a gorgeous, spooky tangle.

It’s no accident that this place is reminiscent of a Southern plantation. Right around the time her movie Beloved, the film adaptation of Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, tanked at the box office in the fall of 1998—and after “Deliverance moved in next door” to her farm in Indiana—Oprah decided she needed to make some big changes, and so she began looking to buy an actual Southern plantation. Her fitness guru Bob Greene was scouring for such a place when he stumbled on this property: 42 acres of paradise perfectly situated between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. (Last year, when her neighbor died, Oprah outbid a developer for another 23 acres.) Oprah bought it in 2001 and began a five-year construction and landscaping project—managed by Greene—that included planting a forest of mature oaks and building a fountain the size of a lake that shoots water to the heavens.

“I was calling it Tara II,” says Oprah, “and one day Bob and I were walking around the property and he said, ‘Scarlett O’Hara wishes she had this. Scarlett was not living like this.’ So he goes, ‘You need a better name. The fact that you are an African-American woman from Mississippi and you get to have this . . . it’s deep.’ So I go, ‘Yeah! It’s like a dream.’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah! It’s a promise! It’s the Promised Land!’ So I feel that every day. I don’t know of a person who can honestly, deeply, profoundly speak to the word contentment. I’ve tried to talk to other people about this thing: I have no angst. No . . . nothing. No regret, no fear. I mean . . . just absolute joyful contentment.”

When I first arrived around lunchtime, a handsome fellow in a golf cart—Oprah’s head of security—appeared at the gate to take me to the house, and as we bumped along the cobblestones, her enormous neo-Georgian mansion came into view. We passed workers on other golf carts, men clipping hedges, an elaborate formal rose garden, a pond with ducks. He deposited me in the house in a room off the kitchen, where a small army of women in uniforms scurried in and out. Someone offered me a sandwich, which was served with a place setting of vintage silverware, a Venetian water glass, and a beautiful linen napkin with a hand-embroidered O.

I heard a rustling in the kitchen, and suddenly Oprah appeared from around a corner in a bathrobe and slippers. The photo shoot with Annie Leibovitz was running long, and she didn’t like that we had not yet said hello. “Annie was saying, ‘I hope I’m not keeping you from Jonathan,’ ” she says. “I go, ‘I’m not worried about Jonathan. Because I can only concentrate on being here with you right now. And then when I’m with Jonathan, I will be with Jonathan and I won’t be thinking about you!’ She let out a big laugh and, as she was walking away, said, “I have learned that being-fully-present thing. I am 1,000 percent fully present.”

When the shoot is finally over, I am taken to the teahouse, a romantic, open-air stone structure Oprah built for the sole purpose of reading The New York Times in the morning while drinking her tea. There are orchids everywhere, stacks of gardening books, and voluminous green wicker sofas and chairs. The first time I interviewed her for this magazine was in 1998, when I spent three summer days hiking in Telluride with Oprah, her best friend and colleague Gayle King, and Bob Greene as Oprah was getting ready for the press rollout for Beloved and her Vogue cover shoot, for which she was training and dieting to lose 20 pounds. The hikes were brutal; the meals afterward, cooked by her then-chef, Art Smith, spartan. I was not there to lose weight but came home several pounds lighter. During one of those hikes, I asked if she had ever imagined she’d be on the cover of Vogue. “Dreamed to be in Vogue? I’m a black woman from Mississippi . . . I would never have even thought of it as a possibility . . . I’ve been fighting weight all my life, definitely never even thought of myself as an attractive girl.” She laughed. “So why would I be dreaming about Vogue? Vogue is the big house! Didn’t think I’d be sittin’ at that table!”

Oprah was not yet the wealthiest African-American person in the world, but she was rich as Croesus, arguably the most famous person alive, and at the height of her powers: Everything she touched turned to gold; every book she promoted became a bestseller. “I shall never forget Saturday morning, October 17,” says Oprah—the day after Beloved opened. “I got a call from someone at the studio, and they said, ‘It’s over. You got beat by Chucky.’ And I said, ‘Who’s Chucky? What do you mean it’s over? It’s just Saturday morning!’ I knew nothing about box-office projections or weekend openings. It was ten o’clock in the morning, and I said to Art, “I would like macaroni and cheese for breakfast.” She starts to laugh. “And soooo began my long plunge into food and depression and suppressing all my feelings.”

What had been “the happiest time I’ve ever spent on the planet” had turned into her most miserable failure, and she sank like a stone. “I actually started to think, Maybe I really am depressed. Because it’s more than ‘I feel bad about this.’ I felt like I was behind a veil. I felt like what many people had described over the years on my show, and I could never imagine it. What’s depression? Why don’t you just pick yourself up?” Her depression lasted all of six weeks. She stopped running around to movie theaters where Beloved was showing to buy blocks of tickets to try to get the box office up (true story) and pulled herself together. “That’s when the gratitude practice became really strong for me,” she says, “because it’s hard to remain sad if you’re focused on what you have instead of what you don’t have.”

Her very public failure also taught her to detach. “It taught me to never again—never again, ever—put all of your hopes, expectations, eggs in the basket of box office. Do the work as an offering, and then whatever happens, happens.” Oprah is convinced the film was ahead of its time; that it would be received very differently today. She points to the television show Underground. “When someone first mentioned that to me, I go, ‘Nobody’s going to watch a TV show about slavery.’ ” She rolls her eyes. “12 Years a Slave? When that became a hit, I went, Wow. OK. The culture has shifted.”

People can argue over whether Beloved was too difficult for audiences at the time, but it made one thing clear: Oprah—who was also dazzling in 1985’s adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple—is a naturally gifted actress. Which is why it came as a bit of surprise that she did not act in another film until 2013’s Lee Daniels’ The Butler. At the time, she was in the midst of the difficult launch of OWN. “I was trying to start the network, finish a scene, go off to do an interview, come back, do another scene for two days, and then leave again,” she says. “So I realized that no other actor is doing that. No other actor is trying to run a network, be on the network, be the network. And! Also! With Lee Daniels saying, ‘Now, I want you drunker! I want her to be drunker!’ ”

Since The Butler, Oprah’s been on something of a roll: A year later she produced and appeared in Ava DuVernay’s Selma, and this past spring she starred in HBO’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, directed by George C. Wolfe. “Oh, man,” she says. “I was so afraid of that thing. Now I’m glad I did it. I was intimidated by the work, but in the end, what’s the worst that can happen? You get bad reviews—but in the age of Trump, it will be over in a day.”

Perhaps the main reason Oprah has returned to film acting is not just the recent uptick in the availability of actual roles for black women over 60, but also that she is being asked to return: by men and women who admire not just her work in Beloved and The Color Purple but also the person, the self-made legend. She has had a profound influence on our culture, not to mention our politics, given that many feel Barack Obama might not have made it across the finish line without her tireless support for him during his first presidential campaign, in 2007.

When I ask her if she wants to do more acting, she pauses for a very long time. “Well,” she finally says, “I don’t think about it.” Another long pause. “If something were to come along and move me to the point that I would be willing to get up and leave here for a period of time. . . .” Which is exactly what happened last year, when DuVernay offered her a part in A Wrinkle in Time, a Disney adaptation of the wildly popular Madeleine L’Engle young-adult fantasy novel published in 1962. DuVernay is the first woman of color to direct a live-action film with a budget of more than $100 million, which may help explain why this is the first film Oprah has appeared in that has nothing to do with the African-American struggle for equality. The story includes the three Mrs. W’s, supernatural beings who in the book are all, says Oprah, “kind of like Mrs. Doubtfire.” (DuVernay, in a play for diversity, cast Mindy Kaling as Mrs. Who, Reese Witherspoon as Mrs. Whatsit, and Oprah as Mrs. Which.)

The film, out next March, was shot in part in New Zealand, which Oprah had first visited in 2015. She loved it so much that she has been itching to go back. “I am telling you: If you want to expaaand yourself as an individual on the planet Earth, New Zealand’s the place to go. The people are 100 percent present. They are not walking across the street on their cellphones. Every single corner you turn, there is some breathtaking something or other going on: Lakes! Glaciers! Eagles! It’s crazy.” When I tell her she is the third person in a week to bring up New Zealand, she says, “Do you believe in signs?” and when I hesitate for just a second too long, she says, “Have I taught you nothing? All these years? Of course it’s a sign!”

Oprah was 44 when she made Beloved. Now she is 63. What I want to know is: What does 63 know that 44 didn’t? She pauses for a long time. “In your 40s, you’re coming into it, you’re intellectualizing things, and you kind of know it and you feel it,” she says. “But there is a deepening and a broadening and quickening of the knowing that happens in your 50s. Maya Angelou used to say to me, ‘The 50s are everything you’ve been meaning to be.’ She looks at me over the top of the nerd-chic glasses she favors these days. “You’d been meaning to be that person.” She laughs. “By the time you hit 60, there are just no . . . damn . . . apologies. And certainly not at 63. And the weight thing that was always such a physical, spiritual, emotional burden for me—no apologies for that either.”

Interviewing people who interview people for a living presents a special challenge: They know what you’re up to. You feel as if you’re being quietly judged. Not with Oprah. Once she’s committed, once she’s present, there is a kind of flow and trust that develops on the spot. Oprah, by her count, has interviewed more than 37,000 people during her 25 years of doing the The Oprah Winfrey Show in Chicago. When I ask her if there is one big takeaway, she says, “Absolutely. There’s not a human being alive who doesn’t want—in any conversation, encounter, experience with another human being—to feel like they matter. And you can resolve any issue if you could just get to what it is that they want—they want to be heard. And they want to know that what they said to you meant something. Most people go their entire lives and nobody ever really wants the answer to ‘How are you? Tell me about yourself.’ And what was so beautifully . . . what is the word? . . comforting about what happened every day on the Oprah show is that people would dress up like they were going to church. Sometimes I would notice somebody and I would say, ‘Oh, wow, that’s a really pretty green dress.’ And she would go: ‘I wore it for you! I knew you would notice me!’ People just want to be seen; they want to be validated.”

It’s been more than six years since the last Oprah Winfrey Show aired. Though Oprah says she misses “my audience connection and my exchange with them,” she does not miss Chicago and the daily grind of a daytime talk show. Oprah began to read the tea leaves around 2006. “I started thinking about the times: where we were, would I be able to take it digital. People were moving into ‘I want to be able to watch it when I want to watch it,’ and the four o’clock hour was no longer must-see television. I could feel that happening with the audience. Their behaviors were shifting, and the media world was changing. I had written something in my journals years before: ‘I never want to stay too long in the ring so I end up punch-drunk.’ I didn’t want people saying, ‘She shoulda quit that show three years ago!’ ”

And then one night she got a sign. She was in a hotel in London, and there was a copy of Vanity Fair in her room. “I started reading this incredible article about Michael Jackson, and one of Jackson’s friends was quoted as saying, ‘His number-one problem is that he never realized that Thriller was a phenomenon. And he spent the rest of his life trying to chase it.’ And so, when Bad only sold—only sold—20 million albums early on, he was disappointed because it wasn’t Thriller. He thought he was going to top Thriller. I went, Whoa. Pay attention to that. I didn’t want to be the person chasing a phenomenon. And that is what the Oprah show was. All the right elements came together at the right time. That won’t happen again. People would ask me, ‘Who will be the next Oprah?’ And the answer is: ‘There won’t be.’ ”

Oprah likes to talk about “intention.” What do you hope to achieve? Why are we here? At one point, I ask her what her intention was in starting OWN, the television network she launched in 2011. She starts to laugh. “Ohhhhhh, I was so misled in my thinking. I thought I was going to create a network that was Super Soul Sunday all day long. I thought people. . . .” She’s laughing harder. “I thought I was going to bring this spiritual consciousness–awakening channel! And I soon learned: Ain’t nobody care about that. And the people told me: We’ll listen to you on Sunday, but that’s it. I was going to be the Anthony Bourdain of spirituality. I was going to go from country to country interviewing people in backwoods, in igloos, on mountaintops all over the world, bringing you a look at spiritual consciousness.” She levels me with a look. “And honeeeey chiiiild, didn’t I learn!” Now she is cracking up. “Oh, my God. America is not ready to be awakened in that way! So what I learned is, you got to give them—what did I call ’em?—snackables! You need snackable spirituality—snackable, digestible moments in an entertaining format, so people can receive it.”

After a rocky start, followed by an exclusive partnership with Tyler Perry and then a realization that reality TV and soap operas might be necessary evils when you are programming for 24/7/365, OWN has finally found its métier. “The real truth,” says Oprah, “is that we’re in the best place ever. We were able to use Tyler’s audience to build a great foundation for scripted television, and now I am moving into an elevated premium scripted storytelling in a way that I have been dreaming of for a long time.” (In July, Perry announced that he’d be leaving the network in 2019, when his contract expires.) To that end, she has partnered with people like Mara Brock Akil, the screenwriter/producer best known for creating Girlfriends and Being Mary Jane. “She and her husband, Salim, are creating a drama on black love and their life as a sophisticated black couple in Hollywood.” Oprah has just announced a first-look deal for television with film producer Will Packer and director DuVernay; she is renewing Queen Sugar and Greenleaf. “I just had a big meeting with Michael B. Jordan and Tarell Alvin McCraney, who co-wrote Moonlight.

“I’m excited because I’m building my storytelling tribe,” says Oprah. “I’m gathering around myself a group of great producers, great writers. That’s what I’m thrilled about. Because I now get to do and say through drama all the things I was trying to say those years on the Oprah show. I get to take all of that energetic . . . dysfunction from thousands and thousands of conversations on the Oprah show and turn it into real drama.”

This September, Oprah will return to broadcast television for the first time since her talk show ended (there was a one-off interview with First Lady Michelle Obama last December on CBS), joining 60 Minutes as a special contributor. But the story of how Oprah decided to return requires that we first go back to the election of Donald Trump. Two weeks after he won the presidency, O magazine decided to gather a group of Trump and Clinton supporters—all women—for a roundtable discussion. Feelings were still so raw that some of the women didn’t even want to sit at the same table. “One said, ‘I’ve never been this close to a Trump supporter,’ ” says Oprah. “I go: ‘Not that you know of, maybe.’ ” About an hour in, Oprah could see their guards coming down. “By pressing the conversation in such a way that people could hear each other’s stories without them being politicized, I was able to get those women from different backgrounds to begin to actually hear and feel for each other. By the end of that two and a half hours, I could have gotten them to sing ‘Kumbaya’ for real if I wanted to.” She cracks up. “I really could’ve! OK—everybody hold hands!”

Ironically enough, it was the moment when she realized that no one had filmed the discussion that a light switched on: Maybe, just maybe, this is exactly what America needs right now. Jeffrey Fager, the executive producer of 60 Minutes, had approached her several years earlier about collaborating, “but I was so engaged in OWN it wasn’t even, like, a thought,” she says. “And then [CBS Corporation chairman and CEO] Leslie Moonves brought it up, so there you go. It’s me being out in the center of the country doing that thing where you’re putting two sides together, and I am really looking forward to it.”

Fager says while the temptation to have Oprah do the sort of big interviews for which she’s known is enormous, “for us it’s about resisting that; what we’re setting out to do is conquer the divide in America, try to understand it better, try to shed some light on where these differences lie. I think a lot of people now realize that this was one of the great missed stories of our generation—that there is so much bitterness in America today—and we really see it as something that Oprah can help us better understand, and by doing that hopefully narrow that divide and start us talking again. Oprah has so much to offer, and I think that probably she’s been a little frustrated that she hasn’t had that grand place to offer it, and I think we bring that to her.”

The sun is beginning to set over the Pacific, and our interview is winding down. I ask Oprah, What has not getting married taught you about women in our society? “Live life on your own terms,” she shoots right back. Then she reiterates something she said to me nineteen years ago: that the subject of marriage between her and Stedman Graham never came up. “Nobody believes it, but it’s true. The only time I brought it up was when I said to Stedman, ‘What would have happened if we had actually gotten married?’ And the answer is: ‘We wouldn’t be together.’ We would not have stayed together, because marriage requires a different way of being in this world. His interpretation of what it means to be a husband and what it would mean for me to be a wife would have been pretty traditional, and I would not have been able to fit into that.”

We head back toward the house and on our way in pass a Henry Moore sculpture of a woman in recline. “I call her Paulina because she reminds me of my housekeeper in Chicago,” says Oprah. She wants to show me “not the quote-unquote best painting in the house, but my favorite painting in the house.” It has pride of place in her vast living room: a narrative painting—Oprah describes it as a pre–Civil War scene of a mother and daughter about to be separated at a slave auction—called To the Highest Bidder, by the Brooklyn artist Harry Roseland, who died in 1950. She takes me into her study through a hallway lined with drawings by Nelson Mandela. “He gave them personally to me,” she says. In the study, she heads over to a bookcase lined with books that all have identical jackets. “Here’s the prize of my life: all my first-edition Pulitzers from the very beginning.” She pulls one off the shelf and opens the cover: The Grapes of Wrath. “Come ooooon,” she coos in amazement, as if pulling a tablet from the Ark of the Covenant. And then one last thing: an ancient-looking piece of parchment, beautifully framed, hanging near the door. “When I was shooting Beloved, I actually had this in the trailer with me. They are the names of slaves—their ages, their prices.”

Pausing on my way out to use one of her many bathrooms before the drive back to Los Angeles, I say to Oprah, “Remember at your house in Telluride when you showed me your tub that was molded and shaped to your body?” “Yup,” she says. “I still have a nice bathtub. I major in bathtubs. I spend my time looking for the best possible bathtub a woman can buy. And actually, Stedman’s never been in this one. When I was in Chicago, he would ask for permission: ‘Can I get in your tub?’ And I would say, ‘Mmmmmm. . . . OK.’ ”

Where does this tub fixation come from?

“You know where it came from? I will tell you. Honestly.” Her voice drops down into her lower register, the one she employed on her show to indicate that what she was about to say was profound or difficult or particularly revealing. “It came from the fact that I was raised with my father in, like, an 1,100-square-foot house where we all shared the same tub. And when I would go back home, after having been in hotels and seeing that there are nicer tubs in the world, and there’s that little tub with a ring around it, where Comet could no longer clean the ring around the tub—and it was my job to clean it—because it has been permatized, I vowed if I ever got my own place, I was going to get myself a good tub!” She laughs. “That’s why I had eleven dogs at one point: because my father wouldn’t let me have the one dog that I carried from Milwaukee when I was this despondent teenager hiding a pregnancy. My father says, ‘This dog can’t come in the house.’ I was really distraught—and the dog had to live outside and developed mange and all that stuff, so I also vowed, If . . . IIIIIIII . . . evvvvvvvver git some money, I’m gonna have as many dogs as I want. One of the best moments was my father coming into the house in Indiana and the dogs are all over the place, and he says, ‘There’s nowhere to sit in this house! All these dogs!’ And I go, ‘Now, this is their home—you have to ask them if you can sit down.’ ” She laughs. “That’s how I’ve overcompensated: with dogs and tubs.”

This article has been republished from www.vogue.com

Is The New York Times Vs. The Washington Post Vs. Trump The Last Great Newspaper War?

Breaking story after story, two great American newspapers, The New York Times and The Washington Post, are resurgent, with record readerships. One has greater global reach and fifth-generation family ownership; the other has Jeff Bezos as its deep-pocketed proprietor and a technological advantage. Both, however, still face an existential foe.


It was wheels-up at Joint Base Andrews as Peter Baker, the chief White House correspondent for The New York Times, settled into the Air Force One press cabin on May 19 at the start of a presidential flight to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Then his cell phone rang with a heads-up from his boss, Washington-bureau chief Elisabeth Bumiller, that the paper was about to break a big story: Donald Trump had denounced James Comey—whom he had just fired as F.B.I. director—as a “nut job” during a meeting with Russian officials in the Oval Office. He had also told the Russians that Comey’s ouster relieved “great pressure” on him just as the F.B.I. investigation of the Trump campaign and contacts with Russian officials seemed to be gathering momentum.

The airplane was aloft when the two television sets in the aft cabin, both turned to the Fox News channel, flashed bulletins about the story. But moments later, the same TV sets were touting another revelation, this one from The Washington Post—Baker’s alma mater. The Post was reporting that the F.B.I. probe had identified “a current White House official as a significant person of interest.”

“It wasn’t even five minutes,” recalled Baker, who has trouble, like most people, keeping track of the competing Post-Times exclusives about the Trump administration that have dominated the media world for months. Two revived bastions of Old Media are engaged in a duel that resembles the World War II rivalry of American general George S. Patton and British general Sir Bernard Montgomery as they scrambled to be first to capture Messina. There is a sense, too, that something fundamental about the nation is at stake. The Washington Post now proclaims every day in its print and online editions, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”

The ongoing tit for tat helps explain the online-traffic records for both newspapers and why they are, more than ever, the tip sheets and storyboards for cable and broadcast news. So the Post discloses that Trump revealed classified information to the Russians; then the Times discloses that Comey memorialized an Oval Office meeting in which the president allegedly pressured him to end the F.B.I.’s investigation into former national-security adviser Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russian officials. In headlines, they both question the honesty of Trump, even using the once taboo words “lie” and “lies.” Dean Baquet, the executive editor of the Times, traces the use of those words in his newspaper to Trump’s lies about Barack Obama’s place of birth. To have not used them, he told me, “would have been screwing around with the English language.” At the Post, Glenn Kessler’s interactive Fact Checker graphic keeps a tally of Trump’s false and misleading claims as president. (As of late July: 836.) It was a Post story which broke the news that fake Time magazine covers of a pre-presidential Trump (“HITTING ON ALL FRONTS . . . EVEN TV!”) had been hung prominently at some of his resorts. Meanwhile, a Times bombshell revealed that Trump’s son Donald junior, along with campaign chairman Paul Manafort and son-in-law Jared Kushner, had met, two weeks after Trump’s nomination, with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer who was said to be offering dirt on Hillary Clinton—leaving himself open to charges of attempted collusion with a foreign government. Both papers are windows on—and vehicles for—the animus between Trump and the intelligence community, and thus for what Baquet concedes have been unceasing leaks from a Trump-wary bureaucracy. (“Remarkably easy” is how he described some of the reporting.)

WATCH: The Washington Post in the Spotlight

If you miss the stories in print or online, reporters from the two newspapers are beckoned for regular cable-news duty. And there’s always Snapchat, Facebook, and other social tools, part of a subterranean war for survival that marries scoops and computer engineering. It is a contest in which the geeks supplement shoe-leather reporting, a contest that both could win or both could lose, given the vagaries of media fragmentation. The two papers are battling amid a dramatic, decade-plus industry free fall. After hitting a high of more than $49 billion in 2006, total newspaper ad revenues nationwide fell to $18 billion in 2016. According to industry analyst Alan Mutter, print circulation has plunged by half. At the Times and the Post, there is talk internally about a world without the print edition.

Call it the Last Newspaper War, as two great survivors face off with different strategies and different economic realities but the same audacity; an impressive array of talent; and two highly competitive leaders—Baquet and his counterpart at the Post, Marty Baron (who, says one observer, would “rather beat the Times than eat”). Both papers receive lacerating criticism from the White House almost every day. The underlying passion offers the Internet Age version of The Front Page, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s 1928 tribute to an indomitable craft in which editor Walter Burns responds to one reporter’s request to know how much space he has for an exclusive by telling him he wants every goddamn word the reporter can give him.

There are days when you can swear that the Post and the Times are giving you every goddamn word on Trump. The Post’s “Democracy Dies in Darkness” may seem a bit overwrought as a slogan—“like the next Batman movie,” Baquet has said—but crusty Walter Burns would probably pound a table, slam down a candlestick telephone, utter a few choice words, and growl, But it’s true!

The remarkable thing is that, within very recent memory, the resurgence of the Times and the Post seemed hard to imagine. Even harder to imagine was that assistance would come from a boorish blowhard and real-estate developer who decided to enter politics.


Twenty years ago I sat in the spacious Georgetown home of Katharine Graham and brought up a bit of history that is unknown to most, perhaps all, Post employees these days. Nobody I broached it with at the Post this summer had a clue. Back in the 1940s, one of the great figures in the newspaper industry was Eleanor Medill (Cissy) Patterson, first cousin of the fabled Chicago Tribune owner Colonel Robert R. McCormick. Patterson owned and edited the conservative Washington Times-Herald and was the nation’s only big-time female newspaper publisher. An Auntie Mame-like figure with a flamboyant lifestyle, she feuded publicly with the far smaller Washington Post, which was owned by Graham’s father, Eugene Meyer. When Patterson died, in 1948, the Meyer family desperately wanted to get its hands on her newspaper.

“I thought at times our lives depended on it,” Graham told me that day. But they didn’t get it, because McCormick himself swooped in to buy the newspaper and install his 28-year-old niece, Ruth Elizabeth (Bazy) McCormick Miller, as the publisher. The daughter of two former Illinois members of Congress, she loved the job and was a high-profile and politically conservative leader. Graham recalled being captivated as a young woman by Colonel McCormick during a party at the Connecticut estate of the Sulzbergers, owners of The New York Times. She had watched him arrive in a helicopter emblazoned with the words “World’s Greatest Newspaper”—the Chicago Tribune’s slogan.

What she wasn’t so upbeat about years later was McCormick’s buying the Times-Herald and, as she wrote in her memoir, leaving her husband, Philip Graham, “in a great despond.” Ultimately, though, McCormick did part with his paper, and the reason was an affair. Bazy Miller, who was married, had fallen in love with Garvin (Tank) Tankersley, an editor at the Times-Herald. McCormick, outraged, told her to choose between Tankersley and her job. She followed her heart. McCormick sold the newspaper, and under Meyer the combined entity, with the Post’s name on top, prospered as a great, ideologically liberal local voice. Kay Graham’s own story became journalism lore: the generally timid child of a privileged, if dysfunctional, home who married a brilliant but troubled Harvard Law graduate, who himself raised the company’s game as the charismatic leader picked by her dad. After her husband’s death (a suicide, at age 48), Kay Graham took over and made a storied transition to being publisher and head of the company, with the great help of editor Ben Bradlee, an aggressive, fearless, and theatrical newsroom leader. Graham proved a tower of strength during the fight by the Post and the Times to publish the Pentagon Papers—the secret history of the Vietnam War—resulting in a landmark 1971 Supreme Court victory. Just as telling was Graham and Bradlee’s nerve in backing the Bob Woodward-Carl Bernstein investigation into the Watergate scandal.

All the while, she oversaw the company’s evolution into a modern media enterprise, led by the Post but including Newsweek and highly profitable television stations. If the Times was the national organ for a news-consuming elite, the Post was not far behind as the clear leader among a small pack of superb regional newspapers. It was a magnet for and a breeder of exceptional talent—two generations of great political writers, including David Broder, Haynes Johnson, David Maraniss, and Thomas B. Edsall. Its political coverage was matched by other areas of the paper, notably first-class foreign and national bureaus as well as a features section, “Style,” that was a de facto magazine with, on its best days, the élan of the old Esquire.

By 1993 the paper’s daily circulation was more than 830,000. The newspaper industry seemed flush, even as storm clouds could be discerned in the distance, with television luring away more advertising and the Internet not far off. That year’s big industry deal was the New York Times Company’s purchase of The Boston Globe, for $1.1 billion. At the Post, the newsroom payroll had more than 900 people.

Donald Graham succeeded his mother and maintained a steady course, leading the Washington Post Company as chairman but later handing the publishing duties to Katharine Weymouth, his niece. She hired a new editor, Marcus Brauchli, from The Wall Street Journal, to replace Bradlee’s successor, Leonard Downie Jr., and when that didn’t work out, she lured Marty Baron from The Boston Globe. There, Baron had dealt with painful downsizing. A longtime friend, Doug Frantz, who has worked for both Baron and Baquet, recalled Baron being “frustrated and at times angry” with the Times Company about the cuts and layoffs. But Baron stuck it out and maintained high standards—symbolized by a nervy investigation into child abuse by Catholic priests that would inspire the Oscar-winning movie Spotlight.

At the Post, Baron inherited a failed strategy to focus on local and regional news (eliminating many national and foreign bureaus in the process), tensions between the print and digital operations, and a plummeting of both circulation and advertising revenues. By 2013, layoffs and buyouts had brought the Post newsroom staff down to the low 600s. Circulation had dipped to 475,000. Senior politics editor Steven Ginsberg recalls posting a vacancy for the top congressional reporting job—and not a single person applied.

The patrician Donald Graham, proud keeper of tradition, knew the situation was spiraling beyond his control. In 2013, urgently needing cash, the Post announced plans to sell its building. Even its for-profit educational company, Kaplan, whose healthy revenues had long bolstered the Post, began to implode amid a government crackdown on profit-making schools and training programs. The newsroom stopped holding farewell parties on Fridays—they were just too depressing.

All the while, Graham searched for a buyer, then stunned the world by announcing the sale of the Post to Jeff Bezos, the 49-year-old founder of Amazon, for a modest $250 million. Peter Baker, who had gone to the Times, remembers crying over the news. Graham was like a desperate but loving mother placing a newborn in a basket and sticking it on the doorstep of somebody she hoped would clasp it to heart.


In the spring of 2010, I was at a high-top table for two at Shaw’s Crab House, in Chicago, for a luncheon chat with a former crack addict and recovering alcoholic named David Carr. A froggy-voiced New York Times media writer with a pelican neck and Columbo-like manner of inquisition, Carr was pumping me at the start of what would become an investigation into ethical disarray at the Tribune Company, which had been taken over by Sam Zell, a vulgar real-estate billionaire who cared nothing for journalism.

“So you think there’s a story I can get?” he asked. There sure was: poker parties featuring drugs; oral sex in the office; profanity; and various other episodes involving a new hierarchy plucked by Zell from the radio industry. Carr’s investigation—explaining how the Tribune’s buttoned-down culture had been transformed into a moral and ethical freak show—was chronicled in Page One, a 2011 documentary about the Times.

Listening to Carr—“Can you show me where he got the blow job?”—you realized how much the world’s most influential media organization had changed. If you were familiar with the newspaper mainly through The Kingdom and the Power, Gay Talese’s loving and unsparing 1969 history, it would be difficult to visualize the Times employing a character as idiosyncratic as Carr, much less holding him up as the embodiment of the institution. This was a place whose Washington bureau was once populated by a species of journalist Talese described as lean, tall, tweedy, well educated, and, in at least one instance, given to wearing bow ties and smoking a pipe (in homage to the onetime king of their realm, James Reston). But now the Digital Age was here and the newspaper was dramatically more diverse. Carr was not just fearless and perceptive but also a fierce defender of the core values of independence and fairness that now faced economic peril.

“To Give the News Impartially, Without Fear or Favor”: that had been the credo of Times patriarch Adolph S. Ochs when he arrived from Chattanooga and bought a struggling New York newspaper in 1896—right around the time Donald Trump’s grandfather Friedrich Trump arrived from Germany and made a fortune in the hotel (and prostitution) business in the Klondike. The Times eventually became the world’s most respected media outlet, with a giant newsroom staff of 1,300. The 1980s brought a critical strategic move—branching out with a national edition, for which consumers would pay a relatively hefty sum (in Chicago today, for instance, $2.50 for the daily and $6 on Sunday). That edition proved to be a savior, given tough competition in metro New York.

Then came the Internet, the explosion of cable TV, declining circulations for print, and new options for advertisers. After the 2008 financial crisis, the Times’s future was so uncertain that it sought a $250 million loan from Carlos Slim Helú, a Mexican billionaire and still the largest single shareholder in the company, and engineered a $225 million sale and leaseback of part of its brand-new Manhattan headquarters. By the time I sat down with Carr, media analysts were openly wondering if the Times could survive.

But the ruling Sulzberger clan somehow remained sufficiently cohesive about preserving the core product, even as intergenerational friction (and financial desperation) led to the sale of other family-owned newspaper groups and businesses. As time wore on, the company shed its major media interests, including all of the TV stations, except the flagship newspaper.

Throughout, the newspaper was always the Times, the basis of comparison and envy, and the focus of unavoidably sharp criticism whenever it erred. It struggled, as did every newspaper, with converting to the Digital Age. Some self-inflicted wounds took on industry-wide, even national significance—such as the fabrications by reporter Jayson Blair, who made up stories out of whole cloth and prompted the resignation of executive editor Howell Raines. But during the past decade, under three different executive editors (Bill Keller, Jill Abramson, and Baquet), the paper has won 29 Pulitzer Prizes.

The Times’s commitment to news was never in doubt. But as a business venture, the Times needed a recovery on the scale of David Carr’s own transformation from jailed addict to venerated icon.


Marty Baron took his place in the Washington Post newsroom in 2013. His predecessor, Marcus Brauchli, had combined the Washington newsroom and the separate, non-union, Virginia-based digital operations—a crucial step—and begun to alter a print-driven culture. But newsroom leadership can be vexing in hard times, and Brauchli never fully commanded the Post. Baron took charge the day after New Year’s and quickly began to upgrade a weakened political staff whose competition now included a relentless upstart, Politico. Don Graham had taken a pass on the original Politico concept, when brought to him by Post editor John Harris and reporter Jim VandeHei. With another investor they soon launched a site that became addictive for politics junkies. A post-Harris revolving door of political editors ended when Steven Ginsberg took over. Soon came the addition of many others, including Time magazine’s Karen Tumulty; talented metro reporters like Philip Rucker and David Fahrenthold, who were moved to the politics team; and Robert Costa, a rapidly rising star. In Baron’s first year the paper won two Pulitzer Prizes, including the prestigious public-service medal for a flood-the-zone team project, featuring 28 journalists and led by Barton Gellman, which exposed the National Security Agency’s rampant surveillance program—stories based on leaks by Edward Snowden, the former N.S.A. contractor who would ultimately take refuge in Russia. Traditional newsrooms are knotty, hierarchical organisms. Baron projected purpose, a fierce sense of support, a steely focus on story quality, and an awareness of how to deal with fragile egos. He has also shown spine in Trump coverage and in the face of unceasing attacks from the White House. The man portrayed by Liev Schreiber in Spotlight comes uncannily close to the mark. Baron has benefited from Hollywood lionization and also from the absence of financial pressures that normally burden editors—something he readily concedes.

Bezos, his boss, the most successful consumer-minded entrepreneur of his generation, began an online books business out of his garage and personally drove those early Amazon packages to the post office. He concedes that he did no real due diligence on the Post before he bought it, accepting the word of Graham that it was a worthy challenge. He took the company private and imposed the Amazon game plan: go from making a comparatively large amount of money on a relatively small number of consumers to a relatively small amount of money on a far larger group. As Nick Rockwell, the chief technology officer at the Times, explained to me, there’s “no secret” to the Bezos playbook: “The fundamental Amazon strategy is to successfully operate on smaller margins and beat everybody else on the scale game, and beat them to a pulp.” (For instance, Amazon Prime customers, of whom there may be as many as 65 million, get bargain-basement offers for digital Post subscriptions—about a quarter of what the Times charges.) The newspaper also needed to transform itself from a solid local paper to a national, even global one by exploiting its knowledge of Washington, the world’s most influential capital. In Silicon Valley fashion, Bezos would look long-term and invest heavily in new technologies, first for the paper and then to sell to others. The Post would invent what it needed, and stop relying on outside vendors.

The paper now had a tough, smart editor and “an owner who immediately told us in the newsroom that one of the things I can give you is runway,” recalled Dan Balz, a political-reporting stalwart who arrived in 1978 and seriously considered leaving for Reuters in 2011. His decision to stay had been psychologically important in the newsroom. Today, Balz went on, “we are no longer perceived as an old, tired, legacy media operation but maybe at the cutting edge of something special.”

You hear about new technologies called Arc, Bandito, Paloma, Heliograf, BreakFast, and ModBot. These are, respectively: a state-of-the-art content-management system; a real-time content-testing tool; a newsletter-delivery platform; an artificial-intelligence system that let the paper cover around 500 election races last year and customize results geographically; a way to measure the speed of breaking-news e-mail alerts; and a mechanism to manage one million reader comments a month. Under chief information officer Shailesh Prakash, the Post has developed tools to test headlines automatically based on story content. The journalists have to be aware of all of this. Computer engineers are seeded in workspaces among them.

Baron occupies a modest office—a lot smaller than the one Ben Bradlee had in the Watergate-era building, on 15th Street. His glassy domain has a stand-up desk for a computer and a conference table that seats only six. A company-owned photograph by Ansel Adams—of a man on a precipice—hangs on a wall, and Baron says that, yes, it’s a metaphor.

He talks by teleconference with the Seattle-based Bezos every two weeks. Bezos dislikes real-time presentations, so Baron gets all the materials to him in advance. There is virtually no discussion of news coverage. Bezos may inquire about the use of Snapchat, a new initiative for millennial women called The Lily, or various social-media projects. There’s a basic agreement between owner and editor on an essential point: “In the digital era,” Baron told me, “there is a tendency among the digital folks to say that all the past has to be disposed of. One thing Jeff has done and incorporated into our thinking is that much of what we did is good. . .. He wants us to be digital but true to our values and history. Finding that golden intersection is what he’s all about.”

At the heart of the proposition is basic journalism. Editorial-department hiring is up by about 140 in all since Baron arrived, including all the tech support and a video staff that has mushroomed to 70. Baron told me, “When Fred”—Fred Ryan Jr., the Post’s publisher, formerly at Politico—“came in and Bezos acquired us, they wanted to make sure we had the dominant position in political coverage. That was a subject of conversation. He asked what resources we would need and people we might hire. And we went about trying to execute that plan.”

Trump himself—who has called the press “the enemy of the American people”—has proved to be a primary catalyst for explosive hikes in the Post’s readership, including around one billion page views a month. The Post aggressively reported on Trump from the start, and he didn’t like it—at various times he barred the newspaper’s reporters from campaign events. Post reporters were among those who became the target of vitriol from his supporters. It was the Post that pressured Trump to admit that Barack Obama was indeed born in America—this after a Robert Costa interview in which Trump persisted in his claim so preposterously that the reaction of other Republicans forced his hand. David Fahrenthold’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work, which displayed imaginative use of crowd-sourced social media in seeking tips, disclosed that Trump, since 2008, had not used any personal cash to fund his foundation. Fahrenthold also revealed the use of foundation money to settle legal claims; Trump’s outright lies about his own charitable donations; and his vulgar back-and-forth about groping and kissing women with Billy Bush during the taping of an Access Hollywood episode.

The Clintons were not immune from the Post’s coverage. Reporters Rosalind S. Helderman and Tom Hamburger chronicled the “circle of enrichment” phenomenon, in which donors to the Clinton Foundation were also hit up to provide personal income to Bill Clinton. Four months before the election, Rucker and John Wagner essentially foretold Clinton’s strategic folly: not paying more attention to Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

National-security reporting, overseen by editor Peter Finn, has been just as impressive, bolstered by the additions of The Wall Street Journal’s Adam Entous and Devlin Barrett and Frankfurt-based terrorism expert Souad Mekhennet. In successive stories, the Post revealed that Michael Flynn had discussed the removal of sanctions with the Russian ambassador to the United States, despite Flynn’s denials; that the Justice Department had warned the White House that Flynn was vulnerable to blackmail; and that then senator Jeff Sessions, now attorney general, had talked twice to that same Russian ambassador during Trump’s campaign.

And there was more from the Post: the revelation that the founder of Blackwater, the military and security consulting firm, had held a secret meeting in the Seychelles to establish a back channel between Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin; that Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, had also become a target of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation; that Mueller was investigating Trump for possible obstruction of justice; and that Trump, in an Oval Office meeting, had passed along highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador, and in the process compromised the source of that information, a U.S. ally.

For sure, the Post regularly exhibits a Digital Age Barnum & Bailey impulse with intentionally provocative headlines (“How Safe Are Placenta Pills?”) that are close to anyone’s definition of clickbait. The day before Easter saw the headline MARY MAGDALENE WAS NOT A PROSTITUTE, on a newsletter whose first two items were in fact about North Korea’s missile program and Trump’s budget. It was a clear bending to online mores, and a clear tactical difference from the more sober Times. But the stories themselves are very solid. “We were trained to write for newspapers,” Baron said. “There’s nothing necessarily sacrosanct about that. Most people are not reading on a paper. What is sacrosanct are values and standards. It’s not sacrosanct how we tell a story.”


To hear Elisabeth Bumiller tell it, her work life today is more intense than when she covered the White House on 9/11 and after, or when she covered the war in Afghanistan. Today she is the Washington-bureau chief of the Times. “There’s a relentlessness to it that’s new,” she told me. There’s the need to match competitors quickly; the incessant “breaking news” claims of cable TV; and, needless to say, the behavior of the president himself: the provocative and outrageous tweets, the attacks on the press, and the cornucopia of outright falsehoods that inspired a June 25 full-page summary in the Sunday Times listing “Trump’s Lies.” “People didn’t agree with George W. Bush, but the government operated in a normal fashion,” Bumiller told me. Nothing is normal now. Elements of her 85-person operation are working by six A.M.—and so is she—just to deal with Trump’s sunrise tweets.

Her team includes Peter Baker, who personifies the priority placed by the Times on covering Trump. Baker had moved to Jerusalem last August to be the newspaper’s bureau chief; four months later, the Times brought him back. All told, the newspaper would double its White House contingent, with an all-star team of Baker, Julie Hirschfield Davis, Maggie Haberman, Mark Landler, Michael Shear, and Glenn Thrush.

Haberman, an unrelenting old-school reporter and now a brand name, had covered Trump briefly during previous lives at both of the New York tabloids, the <em>Daily News</em> and the New York Post. In the summer of 2015—by which point she was at the Times, after a stint at Politico—Trump offered her an exclusive on his decision to run. Recalling his similar posturing in 2011, she passed on the offer, telling him she’d report it if he did. That’s now an irrelevant footnote given her reporting in the two years since then. Trump has an attitude toward the Times that he wears on his sleeve. He bashes the “failing New York Times” every chance he gets, and yet he craves its imprimatur. On July 19, Trump gave the Times its fourth major interview (it trails only Fox News)—a stunning display of the extemporaneous as he trashed Attorney General Jeff Sessions and warned special counsel Robert Mueller not to probe the Trump family’s finances. Haberman is in Trump’s head so deep she could be his psychiatrist, and she has had extraordinary access to the president and the administration. She is a regular commentator on TV about life “inside the castle.”

“Trump has been very good for the ‘failing New York Times,’ ” said Bumiller—though its single most influential story may have been Michael Schmidt’s disclosure in 2015 that, as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton “exclusively used a personal email account to conduct government business,” a story that Clinton never got out from under. Bumiller is hiring new staff continually. Readership is at record levels. Digital subscriptions are at 2.2 million and total paid readership is around 3.2 million. Monthly page views are at about 1.5 billion.

“What I believe we had to do,” said Dean Baquet when I spoke with him in New York, “as opposed to Morning Joe, is hard-hitting investigative reporting. Not trickery or drawings of him with Pinocchio noses. You can put all the digital bells and whistles on what we do, but if it’s not rooted in great journalism, it doesn’t work.” Baquet, a working-class New Orleans kid turned Manhattan sophisticate, commands a large and complex editorial operation with adroitness and practiced charm. His office is spare, strewn with papers, and decorated with Creole pottery and some contemporary abstract paintings of the French Quarter. Mock front pages hang on the walls—parting gifts from colleagues at the many papers where he has worked. Despite qualms in certain quarters about editorial decisions—some argue that the Hillary Clinton e-mail-server stories were overplayed—his news judgment is sharp and reflects eclectic tastes.

Stories broken by the Times in recent months include the news that Russian officials plotted to influence Trump through Michael Flynn and then campaign chairman Paul Manafort; that then F.B.I. director James Comey had written a memo to himself about President Trump’s request to quash his Flynn investigation; that Trump had lobbied Comey to give him a clean bill of legal health; that Trump had allegedly demanded Comey’s personal loyalty at a private White House dinner; and that Comey had asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions not to leave him alone with Trump.

WATCH: 5 Things to Know about the Comey Affair

What the Times has and the Post does not is a truly comprehensive range. You see it at the daily news meeting—held in New York and chaired by Baquet—whose format, values, and pacing remain largely unchanged from days gone by, even if the focus is far more on digital than on print. On a recent day, Baquet opened by noting “the impressive breadth of the report” that morning. It included the latest in a string of exclusives on ethical disarray at Uber. The editors moved on to overseas stories, movie reviews, a piece examining tensions between New York State’s governor and New York City’s mayor, and a look at a Cuban-art exhibition. Sitting at the meeting—and, frankly, just reading the newspaper—you realize that, even as the Times and Post far outdistance every other newspaper in the country, the field of play for the two of them is not level. The Times today has 1,350 editorial employees, or about 600 more than the Post. It has more than 30 international bureaus and 75 overseas correspondents. Ironically, in terms of information, it’s a little like Amazon, trying to be an all-purpose department store in an age of specialization. “No news organization has the breadth of The New York Times,” Baquet observed. That said, “we worry deeply about the Post on national security and politics, worry about The Wall Street Journal on Uber, and worry about The New York Review of Books on books and culture.”

The Times is cranking out 360-degree videos of window washers atop Manhattan skyscrapers, perhaps the best cooking app anywhere, pro-golf exclusives, and a great photography and video blog called Lens. At the same time, various kinds of restructuring at the newspaper—notably a reduction in copy-editor positions in order to free up more content-producing slots, given online demands—have left many unhappy. There will inevitably be a decline in editing quality. The copy-editing announcement, which affected what is seen by some as part of the heart and soul of the newspaper, led this summer not only to formal letters of protest from staffers but also to a newsroom walkout by hundreds. “The newsroom of the future will be slightly smaller,” Baquet told me simply. “That’s reality.”

The Times’s foundational accomplishment is that, against great odds, it has maintained the support of a fifth generation of family ownership in the Sulzbergers. The key members include thirtysomething cousins A. G. Sulzberger, who will eventually take over the company from his father, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., and Sam Dolnick, an assistant editor whose accomplishments include overseeing a podcast phenomenon called “The Daily,” which averages half a million downloads a day. It verges on the inconceivable that a family business would endure this long, especially amid industry decline and a languishing stock price—and, as has been the case elsewhere, an understandable impulse by some members to cash out. But Sulzberger and Dolnick, who are among the members known internally as “the princelings,” aren’t going anywhere. The family remains “genuinely close” to the paper, Dolnick said. His cousin, A.G., conceded that the notion of family control may seem archaic. Not to him. Not to them.


On a wall in his office Marty Baron has hung a vintage poster of a shiny typewriter. Below it hangs a photograph of a burned-out typewriter. Yes, he says—another metaphor. Most American newsrooms are hollowed out, their products diminished, their revenues tanking. Newspaper editors and TV news directors I know read the Times and the Post with envy and an indirect professional pride, but also a sense that what these newspapers are doing is almost completely irrelevant to their own situations—and far beyond their capacities. If you’ve encountered the lassitude now pervading much of the American press, you cannot spend time at the Post and the Times without being exhilarated. (At the same time, you have to wonder what ever happened to The Wall Street Journal, which ought to be in the same league when it comes to covering Trump but is not even close.) As Dean Baquet acknowledged, “competition is the least examined motivation in American journalism.”

The financial models at the two newspapers are different, and so is what they are selling. The Post, whose coverage is Washington-driven, can never hope to match the Times’s range across culture, business, and international affairs, and the Times, whose total revenues are less today than they were a dozen years ago, cannot hope to match the deep pockets of Jeff Bezos, who sometimes earns more in a few hours, if Amazon stock goes up, than he paid for his newspaper to begin with. (Bezos made $2.5 billion—10 times what he had paid for the Post—in the two hours after Amazon’s takeover of Whole Foods was announced.) The Post is more advanced technologically than the Times and seems to recognize that the true competition, as publisher Fred Ryan Jr. put it, is “anything that engages you in your non-sleeping hours.” But both papers are ultimately built on people paying for quality.

You can argue that Trump has bought both newspapers some time—which makes you wonder if their success will continue once Trump is no longer an irresistible and unsettling object of scrutiny. Will even the world’s second-richest man lose his passion somewhere down the road? Will the fifth generation of a newspaper family be done in by what is, essentially, their one and only revenue stream? The leaders of both newspapers say they will continue to double down on content. The Times is now available in Spanish and Mandarin, with big plans in places as diverse as Mexico and Canada, Hong Kong and Australia. On the margins it hopes to generate additional revenue with gimmicky ventures such as around-the-world trips by private jet (for $135,000 a person) in the company of Times journalists.

But an existential threat is already apparent: many Americans won’t believe a thing either newspaper says, no matter how great the accuracy, attention to detail, or fair-mindedness. The sharp uptick in Times and Post readership may obscure a larger cultural change. The unequivocal evidence of Russian involvement in the presidential campaign exemplifies the state of play. In June, a Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll showed that more than half of those surveyed believe that the Russians interfered in the presidential election, with about one-third believing it influenced the outcome, and more Americans buying Comey’s explanation of his dismissal than Trump’s. But half think the press has been overly dramatic and irresponsible in its Russia-related coverage, with two-thirds of Republicans simply not believing that the Russians interfered at all, despite evidence assessed by four different U.S. intelligence services. Dig deeper and you find that, while 89 percent of Democrats believe in the importance of the media’s “watchdog” role, only 42 percent of Republicans do, according to the Pew Research Center. It is the widest gap that Pew has ever seen. What’s astonishing is that in early 2016, according to Pew, Democrats and Republicans essentially agreed on the role of the press, with Republicans (77 percent) actually outpacing Democrats (74 percent) in their support.

Trump and aides like Steve Bannon have done all they can to delegitimize the press. Trump habitually dismisses any story he doesn’t like as “fake news”—a phrase already entrenched in the cultural lexicon. In a recent exchange with the White House press corps, then deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders made hay over the retraction of a Trump-related story by CNN—an example of a news organization owning up to a mistake, as it should—and urged reporters to focus instead on a video by James O’Keefe, a right-wing provocateur whose work has been widely discredited. Two days later, Trump unleashed his infamous tweet about MSNBC’s “Psycho Joe” Scarborough and Morning Joe co-host “low I.Q. Crazy Mika” Brzezinski—“bleeding badly from a face-lift”—followed a few days after that by his re-tweet of a doctored video showing Trump pummeling a man with the CNN logo over his face.

Damage has been done. When the Times publishes an entire page of “Trump’s Lies”—the result of meticulous research and editing—you’d hope it would move the needle. You’d have hoped the entire depressing cavalcade of stories over the past year would have moved the needle. Trump’s Gallup Poll approval rating in July was a dismally low 38 percent, but among his supporters it does not seem to have dropped much at all.

The most troubling question is not whether the Times or the Post—or any other news outlet—can continue to perform to a superior standard. It is whether Trump and people like him have so degraded basic notions of fact and authority that truth no longer matters. If they have, then the metaphor about Montgomery and Patton is obsolete. A better one would come from that famous remark by Borges, about two bald men fighting over a comb.

This article has been republished from www.vanityfair.com

Will Other States Join California's International Climate Pact?

The state has for years been part of the Western Climate Initiative, Inc.—a nonprofit company it formed with Canadian provinces to coordinate emissions programs.

The same day President Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris climate agreement, the governors of New York, California, and Washington announced a domestic effort to combat global warming, the U.S. Climate Alliance. Though the group’s exact plans are still unclear, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo defiantly declared that it would uphold the terms reached in Paris, “regardless of [Trump’s] irresponsible actions.”

But what of the United States’ role in international climate policy? At least in the near future, it may come down to the people working in a small office in a beige high-rise next door to the Sacramento Central Public Library.

That office is home to the Western Climate Initiative, Inc., a private, nonprofit corporation whose board includes the governments of California and several Canadian provinces. Incorporated in Delaware, it “was established to provide administrative infrastructure for emissions trading programs,” said former board member Michael Gibbs, the recently retired assistant executive officer of the California Air Resources Board.

While WCI, Inc. was created during the Obama administration, it seems well suited for the Trump era. The U.S. Climate Alliance wants to keep the United States relevant in a domain the federal government has ceded. Those states, and others, could use WCI, Inc. to combine their efforts and extend them beyond U.S. borders.

The company’s primary function to date has been providing support for a joint cap-and-trade program between California and Quebec. Through that initiative, both regions’ energy sectors and other heavy industries have to cut carbon emissions, and individual polluters can buy and sell credits among themselves as an incentive to do so. This program is the only one in the world in which subnational governments in different countries operate a carbon market. Once Ontario joins them, as is expected, WCI, Inc. will undergird programs responsible for reducing the emissions of 60 million citizens between the United States and Canada.

The implications here are significant: Using a corporation and supporting legislation, these regions have formed an international agreement that’s structured to result in ambitious emissions cuts. Because the company itself doesn’t dictate policy—the individual governments passed their own set of standardized laws in order to join together—it hasn’t, so far, overstepped any constitutional boundaries. What’s more, the regions have built a system that other states and provinces, and even nations, can plug into.

The cap-and-trade program was designed from the start to accept other participants. The corporation has an “auction platform, an independent market monitor, and a help desk,” Gibbs said—three tools that constitute the lifeblood of cap-and-trade auctions and make it possible for participants to link and expand their markets to their benefit. As Gibbs explained: “Having a larger number of emitters, power plants, factories, [and] fuel providers increases the diversity of opportunities to reduce emissions at a lower cost than you would be able to do on your own, which enables [participants] to adopt more ambitious targets.” A bigger, linked market is also more efficient and stable than individual ones would be in each region. Indeed, this sharing is what allowed lightly populated Quebec to have a cap-and-trade program at all.

Every word of every regulation had to be scrutinized and evaluated with an eye toward two different languages, constitutions, and sets of federal laws.

The beginnings of WCI, Inc. date back a decade, to when California and Quebec both passed climate laws and wanted to coordinate. By 2011, both regions, along with British Columbia, had formed the corporation. It was based on a framework for reducing emissions they’d built together, at a time when neither national government was poised to move forward on climate regulation. Because of the company, California and Quebec could join their respective cap-and-trade markets. Now, it also provides support for British Columbia’s carbon tax and the cap-and-trade program operated in Ontario that will soon link with California and Quebec’s. That province joined the corporation a few years after the others.

The idea to start an independent corporation came from the East Coast-based Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which had decided in 2009 to incorporate rather than establish an interstate compact—a kind of treaty between states. “You can’t set up a multimillion-dollar structure based on a memorandum of understanding,” said Clifford Case, counsel at Carter, Ledyard, & Milburn LLP in New York. “Something was needed.” Case and his firm had helped the 10 member states form RGGI, Inc., and WCI, Inc.’s founders “decided to do it the same way.”

Case said it was natural to incorporate in Delaware, because the state’s laws allow flexibility in how companies structure themselves. As he noted, “Delaware is going to give you as much as you’re going to get anywhere to set up your organization as you would like.” WCI, Inc., for example, was designed so all participants are equals—an essential element when doing something as complicated as creating a joint-international program. “We’re on the board, and so we have the ability to understand and weigh in as appropriate,” said Heather Pearson, the director of the Air Policy Instruments and Program Design branch at the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change.

Before California and Quebec could share a market, they had identical homework to do: pass the legislation necessary to link up, standardize auction prices, and set the exchange rate for the auctions. Every word of every regulation had to be scrutinized and evaluated with an eye toward two different languages, two different constitutions, and two different sets of federal laws. “We define[d] those things that need to be identical, those that need to be harmonized but not identical, and those things that are not needed to be harmonized,” Gibbs said.

The market is otherwise fairly traditional. California and Quebec hold an auction for “allowances,” each of which permits its owner to emit one ton of carbon. The governments set their minimum, or reserve, price, and only sell a limited number of them to registered buyers, including members of the regulated industries. Each year, the number of allowances drops by about 3 percent while the reserve price rises, creating incentives for companies to cut down on emissions. At the same time, companies who have made additional cuts can sell their surplus allowances on the trading platform to others at market rates, which are often much higher than auction prices. They can then use those funds for bigger carbon cuts, leading to more sales of their surpluses and even more money.

California’s cap-and-trade program has had its setbacks. The state’s Chamber of Commerce filed a lawsuit four years ago alleging that it was an unconstitutional tax on businesses, as it was passed without a legislative supermajority. Until a state appeals-court victory for the program in June, the lawsuit had “been a cloud over the state’s efforts to fight global warming,” the Los Angeles Times reported. In part to prevent an unfavorable opinion from the California Supreme Court, the legislature just passed a new, sweeping authorization of the program, extending it to 2030. This latest authorization had a supermajority, and is thus insulated from those legal challenges.

That’s important, because the market has had growing pains in California. While it has been successful in lowering emissions, few allowances were sold for several years. For instance, in the May 2016 auction, a little more than 10 percent were sold, and the market price did not go above the floor price. This translated to less money than expected for the programs that cap-and-trade was supposed to fund. In part, the Chamber of Commerce lawsuit cast doubt on the future of the market, and made businesses wary of spending money on allowances for a program that could be considered unconstitutional. Indeed, when the most recent auction took place after a favorable oral argument in the lawsuit, current allowances sold out, and the average auction price climbed above the floor price.

“We see a world in which state action internationally is tolerated.”

California’s participation in WCI, Inc. could suggest the state has a climate-related foreign policy that’s parallel to, and perhaps even competitive with, that of the federal government. Gibbs and others are quick to point out that the company itself creates no policy, and that “we each run our own programs with our own authority and own statutes and regulations.” Had they instead signed a formal accord binding California to Quebec, the program could theoretically be found in violation of the Constitution’s treaty clause—so California’s representatives are adamant that’s not what this is.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that they have created an international agreement—one with specific climate-change mitigation goals, but without national governments’ support. In effect if not in intention, the program does set states and provinces up to engage in a parallel foreign policy. The governments involved, for example, standardized their regulations—an important process nations use in international regulation policy, said Jean Galbraith, professor of public international law at the University of Pennsylvania. “That goes on all the time between our federal agencies and other entities abroad,” she noted. Even though states have often been players in international standardization—including in the insurance industry—they usually have federal support. WCI, Inc. represents something different.

Galbraith said states have a lot more flexibility forming transnational agreements than it may seem. “Because getting international agreements through Congress is so challenging … we see a world in which state action internationally is tolerated,” she said. “These are things that reflect a pragmatic need.”

Galbraith noted that it isn’t necessarily a problem if California’s approach does compete with federal policies, though there is a small risk a hostile Congress or executive branch could try to intervene. “When you’re operating in these separation-of-powers areas generally, and where the Supreme Court has stayed out of these issues, there is a considerable zone of uncertainty,” she said. That “allows states to take advantage of this uncertainty, but creates the possibility for things to move quickly if the courts enter.”

The bigger risk to the corporation’s survival comes from the participants themselves. Though none have signaled that they plan to pull out, the loss of a participant would weaken the agreement and the market. New Mexico had agreed to the same emissions-reduction framework that California did roughly 10 years ago, but Susana Martinez, the Republican governor, abandoned it before WCI, Inc. was incorporated. That risk could be amplified if California’s new, more stringent emissions standards make others hesitant to adopt them.

Despite these challenges, federal inaction may encourage more states to jump in anyway. Gibbs said that creating “a tool that works well and that others would want to use” had always been the goal. “By creating a system that is plug-in ready,” he said, “it enables additional jurisdictions to join in and take more aggressive climate action.”

The time may be right for it, particularly for those involved in the U.S. Climate Alliance, which has swelled to more than a dozen states. Massachusetts, for example, could position itself to link up with WCI, Inc. It joined the alliance in early June, and its state Senate is considering an ambitious carbon cap-and-trade market. The state seems to align with others in the corporation: Its proposed carbon price is similar to California’s, and it would gain the same benefit of a larger market that Quebec has.

For Climate Alliance states like Washington and New York, whose planning is far less advanced than Massachusetts’s, they may need to decide whether verbal commitments are enough to uphold the goals of the Paris agreement, or if additional steps are necessary. Case puts it bluntly: Joining an organization like WCI, Inc. means “we can do things at the state level no matter what Washington does.”

This article has been republished from www.theatlantic.com

What’s really driving the global economic crisis is net energy decline

And there’s no going back. So let’s step into the future.

Published by INSURGE INTELLIGENCE, a crowdfunded investigative journalism project for people and planet. Support us to keep digging where others fear to tread.

In the fifth contribution to our symposium, ‘Pathways to the Post-Carbon Economy’, Jonathan Rutherford explores the fundamental driver of global economic malaise: not debt; not banks; but a protracted, slow-burn crisis of ‘net energy decline.’

Cutting through the somewhat stale debate between advocates and critics of ‘peak oil’, Rutherford highlights some of the most interesting and yet little-known scientific literature on the intimate relationship between the global economy and energy.

Whatever happens with the shift to renewables, he argues, we are moving into an era in which fossil fuels will become increasingly defunct, especially after mid-century.

The implications for the future of the global economy will not be pretty — but if we face up to it, the transition to more sustainable societies will be all the better for facing reality, rather than continuing with our heads in the sand (or, as per the image above, stuck up the bull’s behind).

As argued in more detail by Ted Trainer in this symposium the best hope for transition to a ‘post carbon’ — or, better, a sustainable society (a much broader goal) — lies in a process of radical societal reconstruction, focused on the building, in the here and now, of self-governing and self-reliant settlements, starting at the micro-local level.

The ‘Simpler Way’ vision we promote, in my view, is an inspiring alternative that we can and should work for. The hope is that these local movements — which have already begun to emerge — will network, educate and scale up, as the global crisis intensifies.

In what follows, I want to complement this view, by sketching why I think the global economy will inevitably face a terminal crisis of net energy in coming years. In making this prediction, I am assuming that global transnational elites (i.e. G7 elites), as well as subordinate national elites — who manage the globalised neoliberal economy — will pursue economic growth at all costs, as elites have done since the birth of the capitalist system in Britain 300+ years ago.

That is, they will not voluntarily pursue a process of organised ‘degrowth’. In my view, at best, they will vigorously pursue ‘green’ growth, i.e. via the rapid scaling up of renewable energy and promoting efficiency etc., but with no intention of actively reducing the overall level of energy consumption — indeed, most of the mainstream ‘green growth’ scenarios assume a doubling of global energy demand by 2050 (for a critical review of one report, see here).

I am focusing on energy but, of course we can, and should, add to this picture the wider multidimensional ecological crisis (climate change impacts, soil depletion, water stress, biodiversity loss etc) which, among other things, means that an ever increasing proportion GDP growth takes the form of “compensatory and defensive costs” (See i.e Sarkar, The Crisis of Capitalism, p.267–275) to deal with past and expected future ecological damage.

Energy and GDP Growth

Axiom 1: As the biophysical economists have shown global economic growth is closely correlated with growth in energy consumption.

Professor Minqi Li of Utah University’s Department of Economics, for example, shows that between 2005 and 2016:

‘an increase in economic growth rate by one percentage point is associated with an increase in primary energy consumption by 0.96 percent.’

GDP growth also depends on improvements in energy efficiency — Li reports that over the last decade energy efficiency improved by an average of 1.7% per annum.

One of the future uncertainties is how rapidly we are likely to improve energy efficiency — future supply constraints are likely to incentivise this strongly, and there will be scope for significant efficiency improvements, but there is also to be diminishing returns once the low hanging fruit has been picked.

Axiom 2: Economic growth depends not just on increases in gross energy consumption and energy efficiency, but the availability of net energy. Net energy can be defined as the energy left over after subtracting the energy used to attain energy — i.e. the energy used during the process of extraction, harvesting and transportation of energy. Net energy is critical because it alone powers the non-energy sectors of the global economy.

Without net energy all non-energy related economic activity would cease to function.

Insight: An important implication is that net energy can be in decline, even while gross primary energy supply is constant or even increasing.

Below I will make my case for a probably intensifying global net energy contraction by discussing, first, broad factors shaping the probable trajectory of global primary energy growth, followed by a discussion of overall net energy. Most of the statistics are drawn from Minqi Li’s latest report which, in turn, draws on the latest BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy.

Prospects for Gross Energy Consumption

Over the last decade, world primary energy consumption grew at an average annual rate of 1.8 percent. It’s important to note, however, as Jean- Jancovici shows, that in per-capita terms the rate of energy growth has significantly slowed since the 1980s, increasing at an average annual rate of 0.4% since that time, compared to 1.2% in the century prior. This is mainly due to the slowing growth in world oil supply, since the two oil shocks in the 1970s.

There are strong reasons for thinking that the rate of increase in gross energy availability will slow further in coming decades. Recently a peer reviewed paper estimated the maximum rate at which humanity could exploit all ultimately recoverable fossil fuel resources. It found that depending on assumptions, the peak in all fossil fuels would be reached somewhere between 2025–2050 (a finding that aligns with several other studies see i.e Maggio and Cacciola 2012; Laherrere, 2015).

This is highly significant because today fossil fuels make up about 86% of global primary energy use — a figure that, notwithstanding all global efforts to date, has barely changed in three decades. This surprising early peak estimate is substantially associated with the recent radical down-scaling of estimated economically and technically recoverable coal reserves.

The situation for oil is particularly critical, especially given that it is by far the world’s major source of liquid fuel, powering 95% of all transport. A recent HSBC report found that, already today, somewhere between 60–80% of conventional oil fields are in terminal decline. It estimated that by 2040 the world would need to find four Saudi Arabia’s (the largest oil supplier) worth of additional oil just to maintain current rates of supply and more than double that to meet 2040 projected demand.

And yet, as the same report showed, new oil discoveries have been in long term decline — lately reaching record lows notwithstanding record investments between 2001–2014. Moreover, new discoveries are invariably smaller fields with more rapid peak and decline rates. The recent boom in US tight oil — a bubble fueled by low interest rates and record oil industry debts — has been responsible for most additional supply since the peak in conventional oil in 2005, but is likely to be in terminal decline within the next 5–10 years, if it has not already peaked.

All this, as Nafeez Ahmed has argued, is generating the conditions within the next few years (once the current oil glut has been drawn down) for an oil supply crunch and price spike that has the potential to send the debt-ridden global economy into a bigger and better global financial crisis tailspin. It may well be a seminal event that future historians look back as marking the beginning of the end for the oil age.

An alternative currently fashionable view is that peak oil will be effectively trumped by a near-term voluntary decline in oil demand (so called ‘peak demand’), mainly due to the predicted rise of electric vehicles. One reason (among several), however, to be skeptical of such forecasts is that currently there is absolutely no evidence that oil demand is in decline — on the contrary, it continues to increase every year, and since the oil price drop in 2014, at an accelerating rate.

When peak oil does arrive, there are likely to be powerful incentives to implement coal-to-liquids or gas-to-liquids but, apart from the huge logistical and infrastructure problems involved, a move in this direction will only accelerate the near-term peaking of coal and gas supply, especially given the energetic inefficiencies involved in fuel conversion. Peak oil will also likely incentivise the acceleration towards electrification of transport and renewable energy, to which I will now turn.

Given peak fossil fuels, the prospects for increasing, or even just maintaining, gross energy depends heavily on how fast renewable energy and nuclear power can be scaled up. Nuclear energy currently accounts for 4.5% of energy supply, but globally is in decline and there are good reasons for thinking that it will not — and should not —play a major role in the future energy mix (see i.e Our Renewable Future, Heinberg & Findlay, 2016, p132–135).

In 2016, all forms of renewable electricity (i.e. excluding bio-fuel) accounted for about 10% of global energy consumption in 2016, but a large portion of this was hydroelectricity, which has limited potential for expansion. Wind, Solar PV and Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) are generally agreed to be the major renewable technologies capable of a large increase in capacity but, notwithstanding rapid growth in recent years, in 2016 they still accounted for just 2.2% of world primary energy consumption.

Insight: In recent years many ‘green-growth’ reports have been published with optimistic renewable energy forecasts — one even claiming that renewables could supply all world energy (not just electricity) by 2050. But, it should be recognised that this would require a very dramatic increase in the rate of growth in renewable capacity.

In the last six years, new investment (including government, private sector etc) in all forms of renewable energy has leveled off at around the $300 billion a year. Heinberg and Finlay (p.123) estimate that this rate of investment would have to multiplied by more than a factor of ten and continued each year for several decades, if renewable energy was to meet current global energy demand, let alone the projected doubling of demand in most mainstream energy scenarios.

In other words, it would require an upfront annual investment of US$3 trillion a year (and more over the entire life cycle). By comparison, in 2014 the IEA estimated that global investment for all energy supply (i.e fossil fuels and renewables etc) in 2035 would be US $2 trillion per year. In addition, if fossil fuel capacity is to be phased out entirely by 2050, it would require much premature scrapping of existing capital — depriving investors of making full returns on their capital — which can be expected to trigger fierce resistance from large sections, if not the entire, transnational capitalist class.

Currently both oil and gas supply, if not coal, are growing much faster than all renewables, at least in absolute if not percentage terms. No wonder that the most ambitious IPCC emission reduction scenarios assume continued large scale use of fossil fuels through to 2050, and rely instead on highly uncertain and problematic ‘net emission’ technologies (i.e Carbon Capture and Storage, massive planting of trees etc).

Based on current trends, Minqi Li’s recent energy forecast predicts that the growth of renewable energy will, at best, offset the inevitable decline in fossil fuel energy over coming decades. He forecasts that a peak in gross global energy supply (including fossil fuels and renewables) will be reached by about 2050.

This of course does not include the very real possibility of serious energy ‘bottlenecks,’ resulting, for example, from the peak in oil — for which no government is adequately preparing — and with no alternative liquid fuel source, on the scale required, readily available.

The Net Energy Equation

The foregoing has just been about gross energy, but as mentioned above, the real prospects for the growth-industrial economy depend on net energy, which alone fuels the non-energy sectors of the economy. This is where the picture gets really challenging.

With regards to fossil fuels, EROI is on a downward trajectory. The current estimate (in 2014) for global oil & gas is that EROI is about 18:1. And while it’s true that technological innovation can improve the efficiency of oil extraction, in general this is being overwhelmed by the increasing global reliance on lower EROI unconventional oil & gas sources — a trend which will continue from now until the end of the fossil fuel age.

Axiom 3: What is often overlooked, is that declining EROI will exacerbate the problem of peak fossil fuels.

As Charles Hall explains, declining EROI will accelerate the advent of peak fossil fuels, because more energy is needed just to maintain the ratio of net energy needed to fuel the economy. And when, inevitably, we begin to move down the other side of Hubbert’s peak, things will get even more challenging. At this point, decreasing gross supply will be combined with ever greater reliance on lower EROI supplies, rapidly reducing the amount of net energy available to society.

The situation would be improved if the main renewables could provide an additional source of high net energy (i.e EROI). But, while this question is the subject of much current scholarly debate, and is quite unsettled, it seems highly likely that any future 100% renewable energy system (as opposed to individual technology) will provide far less net-energy than humanity — or at least, the minority of us in the energy rich affluent regions — has enjoyed during the fossil fuel epoch. This is for the following theoretical reasons outlined by energy experts Moriarty and Honnery in a recent paper:

  • Due to the more energy diffuse nature of renewable energy flows (sun and wind), harvesting this energy to produce electricity, requires the construction of complex industrial technologies. Currently, this requires the ‘hidden subsidy’ of fossil fuels, which are involved in the entire process of resource extraction, manufacturing and maintenance of these industrial technologies. As fossil fuels deplete, this subsidy will become costlier in both financial and energy terms, reducing the net-energy of renewable technologies.
  • The non-renewable resources (often rare) needed for construction of renewable technologies will deplete over time, and will thus take more energy to extract, again, reducing net energy.
  • Due to the intermittency of solar and wind, a 100% renewable energy system (or even a large portion of renewable energy within the overall mix) requires investment in either large amounts of redundant capacity (to ensure there is security of supply during calm and cloudy weather) or, alternatively, large amounts of (currently unforeseen on the scale needed) storage capacity — or both. Ultimately, either option will require energy investment for the total system.
  • Because the main renewable technologies generate electricity, there will be a large amount of energy lost through conversion (i.e. via hydrogen) to the many current energy functions that cannot easily be electrified (i.e. trucks, industrial heating processors etc). In fairness, the conversion of fossil fuels to electricity also involves substantial energy loss (i.e. about 2/3 on average), but given that about 80% of global primary energy is currently in a non-electrical form, this appears to be a far bigger problem for a future 100% renewable system.
  • As renewable energy capacity expands, it will inevitably have to be built in less ideal locations, reducing gross energy yield.

Axiom 4: Regardless of the net energy that a future 100% renewable energy system would provide, it is important to recognize that attempts to ramp up renewable energy at very fast rates — far from adding to the overall energy output of the global economy — will inevitably come at a net energy cost.

This is because there would need to be a dramatic increase in energy demand associated with the transitional process itself.

Modelling done by Josh Floyd has found that in their ‘baseline scenario’ (described here) — which looks to phase out fossil fuels in 50 years — net energy services for the global economy would decline during that transition period by more than 15% before recovering.

This would be true of any rapid energy transition, but the problem is particularly acute for a transition to renewable technologies due to their much higher upfront capital (and therefore energy) costs, compared to fossil fuel technologies.


The implication of the above arguments is that over the coming decades, the global economy will very likely face an increasing deterioration in net energy supply that will increasingly choke off economic growth. What will this look like for people in real life?

Economically, it will likely be revealed in terms of stagnating (or falling) real wages, rising costs of living, decreasing discretionary income and decreasing employment opportunities — symptoms, as Tim Morgan argues, we are already beginning to see, albeit, to varying extents across the globe — but which will intensify in coming years.

How slow or fast this happens nobody knows. But given capitalism is a system which absolutely depends on endless capital accumulation for its effective economic functioning and social legitimacy, this will prove to be a terminal crisis, from which the system cannot ultimately escape.

We therefore have no choice but to prepare for a future economy in which net energy is far lower than what we have been used to in the industrial era.

Insight: To be clear, crisis by itself, will not lead to desirable outcomes — far from it. Our collective fate, as Trainer explains, depends largely on the rapid emergence of currently small scale new society movements — building examples of the sane alternative in the shell of the old — and rapidly multiplying and scaling up, as the legitimacy of the system declines.

This article has been republished from www.medium.com