The news of Sean Spicer's departure from the White House has special meaning for me. Before Spicer became a national treasure, he was my cartoon nemesis when I was working at CBS News MoneyWatch at the network's headquarters on West 57th Street, from the summer of 2015 until early 2016.
While over the years I have written critically about the corporate news media, including CBS, there was something really gratifying about having a CBS ID and walking the halls that had been graced by Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. True, I was not technically an employee, but worked as a contractor; the gig paid $45 an hour but you were in the mix of it, walking by the "CBS Evening News." Once you’re in your 60s, in this America, you’re grateful for every new line in your résumé.
I really liked my colleagues at MoneyWatch. They were smart and had internalized a sort of gallows humor, seeing that the corporation was so capricious and arbitrary that you could be fired by the time you came back from lunch. You always did your best because, well, every day could be your last.
Ironically, I was able to write about controversial topics, such as offshore money laundering under the provocative headline, “Is Delaware Home to a Grand Corruption?” Back in 2013, exploring that realm at WNYC, the public radio station where I had worked for more than a decade, such a story meant having to do battle in line-by-line script edits with the station’s lawyer, lest we appear anti-business.
At CBS, at least with the editors I had, there was no requirement to pull back on chronicling the ravages of debt-vulture global capitalism. For example, I had carte blanche to compare what debt was doing to both Greece and Puerto Rico, under the headline, “In Greece and Puerto Rico, the Rot Has a Similar Stench.” I wrote, “The outcomes, too, show a remarkable -- and devastating -- similarity. Some 44 percent of Greeks live below the poverty line today; in Puerto Rico, the figure is 45 percent. In both places, the backdrop is a battered labor market that leaves little opportunity for younger people.”
Where I ran into trouble, back in November of 2015, was when I suggested to my CBS editors that we do a story about how the rise of Donald Trump and Dr. Ben Carson via social media and grassroots fundraising -- as well as the swelling tsunami of independent right-wing money -- was loosening the Republican National Committee's control of the party's brand.
The story was reviewed and posted, but in a matter of hours I got a call from my editor saying that the people running CBS News' Washington coverage were furious about the story and that I needed to call the top press guy for the RNC -- Sean Spicer -- and do some damage control.
As has been my practice for more than four decades now, I had sought comment on the story before I filed. In this case, I had even sent the RNC my transcript of what I had taken down after speaking with the press person who had been tasked to respond to my request for comment. (I was prepared to remind Spicer of this when I called.)
When I got through to Spicer, he just started abusing me, saying that I wasn't a journalist and that I didn't know anything about politics; most damning of all, apparently, was that I had written for "Salon," and he just didn't know how I “had ever gotten a job with CBS … you just make this stuff up."
I started to raise my voice to match his and try to get a word in edgewise, but at one point I simply said, “Mr. Spicer we are both yelling. I am going to hang up now and call you later.”
So, I did just that. He was just as hostile later, basically telling me that it was too late for me; I was “done” because he was “coming for me” through CBS corporate.
A couple of hours later, I was told -- much to my editors’ chagrin — that the powers within CBS had ordered that the story be taken down. There was no explanatory retraction; it was just deleted. For me, it was one of those heart-through-anus moments that you remember your whole life.
The only remnant of the story in cyberspace lives on in Muck Rack's listings (an online compendium of everything I have published over the last few years):
cbsnews.com — Just as the internet and social media have disrupted the business world from top to bottom, so are they shaking up the world of big-money politics. Exhibit A: The Republican National Committee's traditional business model is being upended, as radical change in tech meets radical change in politics.
The wording of the hyperlink (http://www.cbsnews.com/news/how-social-media-disrupts-the-rncs-business-model/) was even more to the point.
After all, CBS had that RNC debate coming up in South Carolina in February 2016, and a month before my story was published, in October 2015, Reince Priebus had cracked the whip to show the major media outlets who was boss when he punished NBC over how that network conducted its CNBC debate. You either adopted the RNC narrative, or you risked a multimillion-dollar loss in potential advertising revenues.
My CBS MoneyWatch story had started innocently enough: “For decades, the Republican National Committee’s business model was that of a monopoly that exercised tight control over its brand. It was up to the RNC to define just what it meant to be a member in good standing of the Grand Old Party that had gotten its start in the 1850s.”
I referenced the CNBC/RNC debate fiasco, and I pointed out how the national organization was increasingly at odds with its own candidates, noting that “since the emergence of the Tea Party, the dancing elephants don’t want to do chorus work.” (Come on, that’s kind of funny.)
It was reasonable to ask whether the “confluence of an infusion of hundreds of millions of dollars from outside groups — post-Citizens’ United -- along with social media, now makes it possible for candidates to leap-frog the central party committee and engage voters and donors directly?”
I had lots of facts: For example, in 2015-16, more than 6,200 political action committees and independent expenditure groups pulled in close to $800 million at the time, bigfooting the major parties.
I included quotes from widely-respected political science and pollster academics. “The base of the party is angry at their own central organization," Patrick Murray, director of Monmouth University's Polling Institute, told me.
"The RNC does not know it yet, but it is a dead organization walking," said Doug Muzzio, a professor of political science at Baruch College. "The nature of campaigning has changed so radically with social media. These are seismic shifts." (I think this quote might have been the thing that had Spicer seething.)
Or perhaps my cardinal sin was referencing a Gallup poll that found that just 25 percent of the voters surveyed identified themselves as Republican, the lowest percentage since Gallup started posing the question 25 years ago.
Even Allison Mitchell from the RNC press office got to weigh in, countering that her party was a vibrant organization on the upswing, well positioned to help its nominee take the White House in 2016. "The enthusiasm in giving to the RNC has resulted in record-breaking totals almost every month," said Mitchell. "Look back at 2011 and now, and it's hard to believe how much improvement there has been.”
I referenced the fiscal lifeline that Congress and President Barack Obama had thrown to both major parties by lifting the cap on individual donations to the RNC and DNC. Consequently, a contributor previously entitled to make a $33,400 donation to a party was allowed to give more than $300,000, spread over three accounts dedicated to a party’s legal costs, their headquarters construction and the expenses of their national conventions.
My boss and his boss were both ticked that their superiors had spiked the story under RNC pressure. They commissioned me to try again with something that might pass muster with the CBS Washington gatekeepers, who were always worried about preserving access.
OK, I thought, I’ll go find some bona fide nationally-known Republicans and ask them if our thesis was wrong. Former New Jersey governor Tom Kean told me that the post-Citizens United tsunami of special-interest money flowing into the crowded GOP primary was marginalizing the traditional role of the national party organization and its state committees.
"The party organization, through its state and county party chairs, used to have a strong say in picking the nominee; and I think the big outside money has eroded that to a large degree," Kean said. "Now, if you’re a candidate and you have to choose between attending an official party event and going to see a billionaire, you’re going to pick the billionaire."
Consequently, the former governor (and co-chair of the 9/11 Commission) said that in the 2016 Republican primary free-for-all, what had become clear was that the RNC had indeed lost its monopoly on defining its brand: "The candidates no longer look to the party, but to the billionaires who can fund their campaigns; and this is bad for democracy."
In my second try to get a version of the banned story posted, I cited a report put out in March 2014 by the RNC as a post-election analysis of the "disappointing" 2012 election, written by its Growth and Opportunity Project. The report raised concerns that in the aftermath of the 2002 McCain-Feingold ban on political parties receiving “soft money” (unregulated campaign cash), the RNC was at risk of being marginalized as the flow of big political giving shifted to "non-party organizations."
One of the five authors of the RNC's Growth and Opportunity Project report was Ari Fleischer, former White House Press Secretary under President George W. Bush. Fleischer's analysis of the RNC's current predicament in the face of the influx of hundreds of millions in unregulated political spending echoed that of Gov. Kean. "The political parties play a much smaller role in American politics than they did 10 or 20 years ago," Fleischer told me. "Billionaires have gained power as the political parties have lost it."
Sad to say, the second take of my story never saw the light of day.
You always hope in this business that a writing gig can turn into a job. For decades, that was how it had worked for me: going from a “bargaining-unit freelancer,” in old "Village Voice" parlance, to getting into their masthead; at WBAI public radio, from unpaid freelancer to national affairs correspondent for Pacifica Radio; from by-the-story freelancing to full-time reporter for WNYC.
Alas, just in time for Christmas in 2015, CBS told me my gig at West 57th Street was over, and I could file some posts from home for a while -- a sort of consolation prize. They told me my work just wasn't generating enough “clicks” to stay on long-term. I suppose that could be true, despite the statistics I had seen. While my CBS boss was giving that “wishing me well in my future endeavors” talk, all I could hear were Spicer’s words in my head.
Losing that gig was a big hit. I could no longer afford to pay for my COBRA insurance, still in effect from my tenure at WNYC, so we lost our health care coverage. While I was at CBS, though, I had scored an interview with Donald Trump, focusing on how he had left small-business contractors in Atlantic City high and dry after working with him; reported on how his stock portfolio was weighted to multinationals that were the most notorious U.S. tax-avoiders; and documented how, according to the National Association of Counties, there had only been a full recovery in 7 percent of America's 3,000 counties.
I knew that the major media outlets had underestimated Trump, because they had lost touch with the actual country they pretended to cover. In fact, there had been no recovery for tens of millions of American families on President Obama’s watch, and the country had experienced the largest loss of African-American household wealth.
Losing that CBS job set the stage for me to start working overnight at my local Acme grocery store in pursuit of health care coverage, while maintaining my writing during the day for Salon, WBGO, "City & State" and "WhoWhatWhy." It was sort of my version of Barbara Ehrenreich’s "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America"; ironically, there was no better place for me to be for reporting on the 2016 campaign.
The group of men I worked with overnight were all making $25 an hour with platinum health care and multiple weeks of paid vacation — which they could rarely take because, at the $9.20-an-hour rate (without health care coverage) that the store paid new hires for night crew, they couldn’t find anyone to fill in.
These guys all looked like ex-bikers who were close to my age. They talked about how they knew they were the last of a disappearing group of men that made a living wage for manual labor and how much corporations were sucking the lifeblood out of America under both parties. They told me that no matter how many hours I worked I would never get the brass ring of health care coverage because the union ran the program and, like management, they didn’t want full-time employees driving up costs. Management would schedule part-timers just as close as they could to the weekly hour-limit for “part-time” work, without crossing that line.
We laughed at the way the robots out at the central warehouse in Pennsylvania had packed the massive grocery skids when they arrived. We were convinced they were plotting to take us out when the robots would plant a 60-pound carton of kitty litter in a way that, once you cut the shrink-wrap binding the load together, the kitty litter would hit you on the head. We laughed about how, in 21st-century America, there were any number of types of kitty litter but just two major political parties.
I wrote about the single mothers that worked at Acme and about their struggles to make ends meet; they were going to vote for Trump. Some people close to me said it would be a career-killer to write about my experiences in the grocery store, because it was a sign I had failed at being a professional journalist. Hey, maybe Spicey was right. … Reaching out to people that I knew who knew David Remnick at the New Yorker, hoping for a reference or an introduction, I got the brush-off. There were times when I doubted whether the whole tradition of professional journalism could survive the “gig economy” that was taking over in the 21st century.
I held on to my belief that I had a feel for the real pulse of how the country was feeling, even though my take was honed working on the loading dock in the middle of the night and reporting during the day. In April of 2016, after I wrote my "Salon" story on how Michael Savage, the radio talk show host, was actually the “Godfather of Trumpism,” I heard Savage read it word-for-word over the radio during his national broadcast for a couple of days.
It was surreal. Savage had assumed that I was a closet Trump supporter because I accurately reported on the systemic corruption of both major parties and their selling out of American interests for corporate and foreign agendas. (I had just done my homework and pieced together my analysis from decades of investigative reporting.) There was no way to reach him, other than yelling back at the radio, but it was a boost nonetheless, at a time when I needed to hear it.
When it came time for the national political conventions that summer, I had enough freelance work (and free places to stay in Philadelphia and Cleveland) to make it worthwhile to cover the conventions. I figured I would just give my notice at Acme. After all, I hadn’t missed a convention since 2000, and if I worked nonstop for those two weeks I could make serious money. It felt like flying without a net, with no health care, especially since I had witnessed some intense street violence over the years at the various conventions.
My Acme manager didn’t accept my notice, though; he said, “come back when you’re done.” I did come back for a while, so the guys could get some of their vacations in, and then I got a full-time job writing for the Manhattan-based "Chief-Leader," a publication that has covered public unions and the civil service since 1897. I now have health care coverage and a beat that includes the New York City Fire Department, the subways and the federal civil service.
Looking back now, I have some advice for Sean Spicer. He should see if there are any overnight openings at his local grocery store stocking shelves. You lose weight -- or at least I did — and chances are you can see the real America much clearer from there than you can from the West Wing.