Best Case Scenario
On 11 November 2008, a fourteen-page special edition of the New York Times mysteriously appeared on the streets of New York. Its headline, “Iraq War Ends,” introduced a collection of articles under the rubric of “All the News We Hope to Print,” an alteration of the paper of record’s actual motto, “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” Among the many organizers of the special edition spoof was Steve Lambert, who sat down with Fillip to discuss the project.
Fillip: How did the New York Times Special Edition project develop? Was there a defining event that catalyzed it, or did the project develop over a longer period as a response to social, political, and economic conditions in the US?
Steve Lambert: It developed out of a conversation in a bar....Earlier in the year I had started working with Stephen Duncombe, who wrote the book Dream: Reimagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy. The book had been recommended to me several times by friends who realized Duncombe and I were on parallel lines of thought; basically, that marches and speeches have value, but creative forms of communicating radical ideas could reach more and different kinds of people. The book discusses creating radical spectacles, and he looks at people like Reclaim the Streets, Reverend Billy, and the Yes Men as case studies (along with a McDonald’s commercial, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, and the New York New York Casino in Las Vegas.)
Anyway, I’m at a bar with Duncombe, Larry Bogad of the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army, and Andrew Boyd of Billionaires for Bush, in February of 2008, and Duncombe asks what we should do for the Democratic National Convention. And, rather than be pushed up against a chain link fence in a “Free Speech Zone,” I suggested we have a parade to celebrate the end of the war, to celebrate the world we wanted. As we discussed it the idea became pretty elaborate. There were skydivers, sound systems, dancers, and lasers. It was crazy bar talk.
Then Jeff Crouse (another fellow at Eyebeam) and I were meeting up at a bar with our significant others and Andy Bichlbaum. And we all started talking about the parade idea, only this time it was a little less fantastic. I think you could present nearly any premise to Andy and me and we could riff on it for ten minutes and come up with something ambitious, achievable, and totally absurd. So that’s what happened. We started working on making this insane parade. The newspaper was a prop for the parade, but it took us a few months to realize that the newspaper was the good idea and should be the focus.
Fillip: Who put the project together? It seems like the project consisted of an extensive, collaborative effort involving Andy Bichlbaum of the Yes Men, thirty writers, fifty advisors, a thousand volunteer distributors, and various other political and social non-profit organizations. Can you tell us about this collaboration in more detail?
Lambert: You kinda covered it there. We do have a big list of almost everyone, and it’s ridiculously long. This is not the kind of thing that a couple of people can do alone.
In order to make working with so many people a little easier, we used a wiki to write many of the articles, so the bulk of them are written by multiple people. We also had an email list of some trusted smart folks whom we could shoot off ideas to and get helpful feedback quickly. We tapped a lot of networks and resources, so, when, for example, we were talking about getting hundreds of volunteers to help distribute the paper, we went and had coffee with Charlie Todd of Improv Everywhere or folks from the Danger/Complacent group and they gave us pointers and found ways to contribute. That scenario was just repeated over and over for whatever we were working on.
We used a model of collaboration that was talked a lot about with the “Where We Are Now” network here in New York. You create a project that’s a framework and people interested in working within the framework can get involved. The structure remains rather flexible so that it can hold a variety of contributions from all kinds of people that fit within the framework.
Fillip: The Special Edition features what we might call best case scenario journalism with stories on topics such as universal health care, a maximum wage law that caps CEO compensation, and a nationalized oil industry to fund climate change efforts. Is the Special Edition an embodiment of a radical potential? A way of making something theoretical now tangible?
Lambert: It might be hard to imagine now, but when you’re holding that paper in your hands having no previous knowledge of it, your brain has to do a lot of processing. Set the paper aside for a moment and if I were to say to you, “imagine if the war was over” you might think for a moment and say “yeah, sure, that’d be great.” But if I can present that reality, literally put it in your hands, in the form of the national paper of record, then—well, there’s a lot more brain activity. It makes a theoretical idea or possibility something you can actually hold in your hand, look at, and live in for a moment.
What’s interesting is that our ideas weren’t entirely off base. When we wrote that Guantanamo was going to close, we had no idea that it would be in the news a few days before the paper was released. Just a couple days ago President Obama announced that there was going to be a salary cap for CEOs who were receiving bailout money, and we had a story about a maximum wage for CEOs on the front page. Who knows what else it will turn out we predicted!
Fillip: The project can be viewed in relation to re- cent cultural critiques of journalism, whether comic (e.g., The Onion, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report) or artistic (e.g., works by Omer Fast, Julia Meltzer and David Thorne, and Walid Raad) in impulse. There seems to be a critical difference in what the Special Edition communicates versus these other forms, many of which either expose or parody the failure of the media to monitor and report. Could you talk about how you see the Special Edition departing from them?
Lambert: Well, here’s where I come clean and say I am way more familiar with the comedy references than the art references. I’m attracted more to the comedy world because it can communicate to a much larger swath of people. It also can bring down some of the barriers that an audience would have in talking about difficult subjects.
When we told people we were making a New York Times that would announce the end of the war and other good news, often the first reaction was “you mean, like The Onion.” I love The Onion, and Colbert, and The Daily Show, and we made sure to deliver some of the papers to their offices when we were distributing. But there was a very distinct difference. When we were talking to our writers, we would explain it this way: “The Onion is funny and sarcastic. We’re aiming for funny and sincere.”
It’s a much harder blend to achieve, but sincerity was the key element in the project. I don’t think there’s anything in that paper that the writer didn’t really mean or feel. I can basically hold that paper up and say “this is what we want” without hesitation. And yes, there’s a lot of jokes in there, and it’s not a policy paper in that our plan executed to the letter probably wouldn’t work, but the core of it is there. Had we come out with a snarky, mean, sarcastic paper, I just don’t think it would have been received as well. Actually, our designer Daniel Dunham sent a copy of the paper to Bill Moyers, who got in touch with us. He loved it, and one of the things he said was “this is like a policy paper, but written in a way that people would actually want to read.”
Fillip: Further to the notion that the media fails in their promise, it is ironic that news features about the Special Edition have misreported the number of copies actually printed, which was 80,000 rather than 1.2 million. Can you explain why you misrepresented that number to the press?
Lambert: Strategy. We knew what we needed to tell the media to make it irresistible, and it worked. The story was on local evening television news across the United States as well as the national evening news in Germany, the Netherlands, and Russia—that we know of. There were very few outlets that even tried to verify it—the 1.2 million number is totally absurd. But at the same time it created a sense of mystery about how this could happen, which was also to our advantage.
Fillip: How did the New York Times respond to the Special Edition? I have heard about certain precautions taken before going to press should legal action take place. Could you talk about these precautions and also about the value in what we might call the practice of critical counterfeiting?
Lambert: Generally the people who work there seemed to love it. When we were handing out papers in front of their building, we’d see people rushing outside of their lobby to grab one and asking for more to take upstairs. What they wrote about it was pretty favourable. Their legal department has sent us letters trying to get the website (http://nytimes-se.com) taken down, but they don’t have a leg to stand on in that regard, and it hasn’t gone beyond threats. Actually, their cease and desist came within one hour of the Library of Congress asking for permission to archive our website as a matter of significant importance to the history of the United States in the 2008 election or something like that. So, that took a lot of the sting out of their legal threats.
As far as precautions, the fair use exceptions for copyright are a useful thing to know about. There were some other steps we took, but I’ve been advised not to speak about them for now.
Fillip: The Special Edition was post-dated to 4 July 2009. Can you talk about the reason behind this decision?
Lambert: Because we love the United States of America. There are a few parts to that. One is that it was dated in the future and that helped people understand that the paper was a plan for the future. It was also a clue for readers. We didn’t want anyone to feel like they were being played a joke on. We wanted them to feel in on the joke. By providing little clues. It was like a little sideways nudge. Also, of course, it’s a reference to the fourth of July, which is a subtle way of wrapping ourselves in the flag, saying we’re not against the United States, and we want it to be better. I think it worked to diffuse some potential criticism.
Fillip: What kind of response do you have to President Obama’s early executive order to close Guantanamo Bay and the secret CIA prisons opened to interrogate suspected terrorists?
Lambert: I’m for it. I’m glad he’s ahead of our schedule. Seriously, there’s still a lot of work to do. One of the points we were making with the paper is that we can’t expect Obama to be a hero that makes all these changes for us. We need to demand those changes.
Fillip: Now that the paper has been distributed, what happens next?
Lambert: All of us were pretty exhausted once it was done. It was about nine months of work. Andy and Mike from the Yes Men have been working on their film, which includes a part about the newspaper. That went to Sundance and the Berlin Film Festival. We’ve also talked about turning the nytimes-se.com site into a user-contributed future news site, so keep an eye out for that.
By request of the author, this piece is licensed under creative commons by-nc.
About the Author
Steve Lambert is the founder of the Anti-Advertising Agency and lead developer of Add-Art, a Firefox add-on that replaces online advertising with art. He has collaborated with numerous artists, including the Graffiti Research Lab and the Yes Men. Lambert’s projects and artworks have won awards from Rhizome, Turbulence, the Creative Work Fund, Adbusters Media Foundation, the California Arts Council, and others. He is Senior Fellow at the Eyebeam Center for Art and Technology, New York, and teaches at Parsons/The New School and Hunter College.