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Public radio stations acquire and will revive Gothamist/DCist/LAist

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In a fit of pique last fall, the Gothamist web publications (I really liked DNAInfo, which the group acquired) were shut down ("DNAInfo and Gothamist shut down after vote to unionize," New York Times).

Wired Magazine reports that three of the publications, in DC, LA, and NYC, are being revived ("GOTHAMIST LIVES, THANKS TO A BOOST FROM PUBLIC RADIO").

The loss of DCist didn't bother me much. I haven't looked at it regularly in years, not because of "bad articles" but because the commenters are so puerile it bugged me.

But the loss of local news sources that are reasonably decent is always a bad thing. More recently the Baltimore City Paper shut down, the Village Voice in New York City stopped publishing a print edition, the Washington City Paper was sold to a local businessman, the Current Newspapers of Northwest DC are going through a bankruptcy-related reorganization, and newspapers in Quebec, Key West, and New Zealand are being shifted to digital offerings for some or all of what had been print editions.

In the DC area, an equivalent group of online publications comparable to Gothamist started in Arlington County, called ArlingtonNow (ArlNow).

They expanded to other communities, but eventually shut down the DC versions and sold off the Bethesda Now site to Bethesda Magazine, which at the time I thought was pretty novel, especially for a magazine known more for "service journalism" and less for hard news.  They also have a website for Reston, RestonNow.

Public radio stations: WNYC in New York; KPCC in Los Angeles; and WAMU in Washington; have bought the respective Gothamist properties and the entire archive will remain on the web, supported by those publications.  I don't know why the NPR station in Chicago didn't pick up DNAInfo Chicago...

Interestingly, this is in keeping with some of what I've written about public television and public radio increasing their local news focus, at least in some cities, as the Internet has decimated local newspaper operations ("Voting vs. civic participation | elections vs. governance," 2016).

... and I am still behind in writing about WCPO-TV in Cincinnati, a for profit television station owned by Scripps Media, which has the most extensive digital operation for local news of any local television station in the US.
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Why Can Everyone Spot Fake News But The Tech Companies?

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In the first hours after last October's mass shooting in Las Vegas, my colleague Ryan Broderick noticed something peculiar: Google search queries for a man initially (and falsely) identified as a victim of the shooting were returning Google News links to hoaxes created on 4chan, a notorious message board whose members were working openly to politicize the tragedy. Two hours later, he found posts going viral on Facebook falsely claiming the shooter was a member of the self-described "antifa." An hour or so after that, a cursory YouTube search returned a handful of similarly minded conspiracy videos — all of them claiming crisis actors were posing as shooting victims to gain political points. Each time, Broderick tweeted his findings.

Over the next two days, journalists and misinformation researchers uncovered and tweeted still more examples of fake news and conspiracy theories propagating in the aftermath of the tragedy. The New York Times' John Herrman found pages of conspiratorial YouTube videos with hundreds of thousands of views, many of them highly ranked in search returns. Cale Weissman at Fast Company noticed that Facebook's crisis response page was surfacing news stories from alt-right blogs and sites like End Time Headlines rife with false information. I tracked how YouTube’s recommendation engine allows users to stumble down an algorithm-powered conspiracy video rabbit hole. In each instance, the journalists reported their findings to the platforms. And in each instance, the platforms apologized, claimed they were unaware of the content, promised to improve, and removed it.

This cycle repeats itself after every major mass shooting and tragedy.

This cycle — of journalists, researchers, and others spotting — with the simplest of search queries — hoaxes and fake news long before the platforms themselves repeats itself after every major mass shooting and tragedy. Just a few hours after news broke of the mass shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, Justin Hendrix, a researcher and executive director of NYC Media Lab spotted search results inside Google's "Popular on Twitter" widget rife with misinformation. Shortly after an Amtrak train crash involving GOP lawmakers in January, the Daily Beast's Ben Collins quickly checked Facebook and discovered a trove of conspiracy theories inside Facebook's trending news section, which is prominently positioned to be seen by millions of users.

By the time the Parkland school shooting occurred, the platforms had apologized for missteps during a national breaking news event three times in four months, in each instance promising to do better. But in their next opportunity to do better, again they failed. In the aftermath of the Parkland school shooting, journalists and researchers on Twitter were the first to spot dozens of hoaxes, trolls impersonating journalists, and viral Facebook posts and top "trending" YouTube posts smearing the victims and claiming they were crisis actors. In each instance, these individuals surfaced this content — most of which is a clear violation of the platforms' rules — well before YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. The New York Times' Kevin Roose summed up the dynamic recently on Twitter noting, "Half the job of being a tech reporter in 2018 is doing pro bono content moderation for giant companies."

Among those who pay close attention to big technology platforms and misinformation, the frustration over the platforms’ repeated failures to do something that any remotely savvy news consumer can do with minimal effort is palpable: Despite countless articles, emails with links to violating content, and viral tweets, nothing changes. The tactics of YouTube shock jocks and Facebook conspiracy theorists hardly differ from those of their analog predecessors; crisis actor posts and videos have, for example, been a staple of peddled misinformation for years.

This isn't some new phenomenon. Still, the platforms are proving themselves incompetent when it comes to addressing them — over and over and over again. In many cases, they appear to be surprised by that such content sits on their websites. And even their public relations responses seem to suggest they've been caught off guard with no plan in place for messaging when they slip up.

All of this raises a mind-bendingly simple question that YouTube, Google, Twitter, and Facebook have not yet answered: How is it that the average untrained human can do something that multibillion-dollar technology companies that pride themselves on innovation cannot? And beyond that, why is it that — after multiple national tragedies politicized by malicious hoaxes and misinformation — such a question even needs to be asked?

Clearly, it can be done because people are already doing it.

The task of moderating platforms as massive as Facebook, Google, and YouTube is dizzyingly complex. Hundreds of hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute; Facebook has 2 billion users and tens of millions of groups and pages to wrangle. Moderation is fraught with justifiable concerns over free speech and bias. The sheer breadth of malignant content on these platforms is daunting — foreign sponsored ads and fake news on Facebook; rampant harassment on Twitter; child exploitation videos masquerading as family content on YouTube. The problem the platforms face is a tough one — a Gordian knot of engineering, policy, and even philosophical questions few have good answers to.

But while the platforms like to conflate these existential moderations problems with the breaking news and incident-specific, in reality they’re not the same. The search queries that Broderick and others use to uncover event-specific misinformation that the platforms have so far failed to mitigate are absurdly simple — often it requires nothing more than searching the full name of the shooter or victims.

In battling misinformation the big tech platforms face a steep uphill battle. And yet, it's hard to imagine any companies or institutions better positioned to fight it. The Googles and Facebooks of the world are wildly profitable and employ some of the smartest minds and best engineering talent in the world. They're known for investing in expensive, crazy-sounding utopian ideas. Google has an employee whose title is Captain of Moonshots — he is helping teach cars to drive themselves — and succeeding!

Look, of course Google and Facebook and Twitter can't monitor all of the content on their platforms posted by their billions of users. Nor does anyone really expect them to. But policing what's taking off and trending as it relates to the news of the day is another matter. Clearly, it can be done because people are already doing it.

So why then can't these platforms do what an unaffiliated group of journalists, researchers, and concerned citizens manage to find with a laptop and a few visits to 4chan? Perhaps it's because the problem is more complicated than nonemployees can understand — and that's often the line the companies use. Reached for comment, Facebook reiterated that it relies on human and machine moderation as well as user reporting, and noted that moderation is nuanced and judging context is difficult. Twitter explained that it too relies on user reports and technology to enforce its rules, noting that because of its scale "context is crucial" and it errs on the side of protecting people’s voices. And YouTube also noted that it uses machine learning to flag possibly violative content for human review; It said it doesn't hire humans to "find" such content because they aren't effective at scale.

If they can't see it, they aren't truly looking.

The companies ask that we take them at their word: We're trying, but this is hard — we can't fix this overnight. OK, we get it. But if the tech giants aren't finding the same misinformation that observers armed with nothing more sophisticated than access to a search bar are in the aftermath of these events, there's really only one explanation for it: If they can't see it, they aren't truly looking.

How hard would it be, for example, to have a team in place reserved exclusively for large-scale breaking news events to do what outside observers have been doing: scan and monitor for clearly misleading conspiratorial content inside its top searches and trending modules?

It’s not a foolproof solution. But it’s something.

Got a tip? You can contact me at <a href=""></a>. You can reach me securely at <a href=""></a> or through BuzzFeed's confidential tipline, <a href=""></a>. PGP fingerprint: B077 0E9F B742 ED17 B4EF 0CED 72A9 85C4 6203 F09C.

And if you want to read more about the future of the internet's information wars, subscribe to Infowarzel, a BuzzFeed News newsletter by the author of this piece, Charlie Warzel.


Charlie Warzel is a senior writer for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Warzel reports on and writes about the intersection of tech and culture.

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20 hours ago
It's adtech's world, we just live in it…
Washington, DC

Confessions of a Russiagate true believer

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Trump isn’t an idiot — the cover-up is likely covering up serious wrongdoing.

Paul Manafort left his job working as the Kremlin’s favorite expat political consultant in Ukraine in the spring of 2016 to run his old acquaintance Donald Trump’s long-shot presidential campaign on a volunteer basis.

Soon after, Moscow-backed hackers transmitted thousands of stolen Democratic Party emails to WikiLeaks, whose release was artfully timed to make trouble for Trump’s Democratic opponents. They became the basis of Trump campaign rhetoric in the months before Election Day.

Emerging conventional wisdom in Washington, however, remains that there’s little reason to believe that Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation will end up proving much of interest. Politico magazine editor-in-chief Blake Hounshell this weekend wrote one of the buzziest pieces advocating a skeptical approach to Mueller’s ongoing inquiry, titled “Confessions of a Russiagate Skeptic,” throwing cold water on the notion of high-level cooperation between Trumpworld and the Russians.

But to believe this, frankly, requires a much greater suspension of disbelief than to posit that the president colluded with Russia. You have to believe that after a decade of paying Manafort millions for his expertise to help pro-Russian candidates win elections in Ukraine, no one from Moscow thought to consult with him about how to help a pro-Russia candidate win an election in the United States.

And we have to believe that even though we know Trump’s son was both in touch with WikiLeaks and openly enthusiastic about the idea of collaborating with Russia on obtaining and disseminating anti-Hillary Clinton dirt, when he met with Russians on this very topic, they didn’t talk about it. And, of course, we have to believe that Trump’s specific — and quite public — call for Putin to hack more Clinton emails was completely random.

Trump–Russia skeptics, legion in the political press, brush all this aside in a gesture of faux sophistication, positing a bizarre series of coincidences complete with a massive cover-up all — for no particular reason.

To speak the obvious has become nearly forbidden. But here goes: Donald Trump has gone to extraordinary lengths over the course of his time in office to try to stymie or discredit rigorous investigation of the Russia matter. The most likely explanation for why he has done it is that he is guilty of serious Russia-related wrongdoing.

There are viable alternative hypotheses, like he's a huge moron or he’s guilty of some other serious wrongdoing that he fears an investigation will uncover. But the best bet is that things are exactly as they seem and he’s acting guilty because he is guilty.

Donald Trump is not stupid

One thing Trump’s supporters tend to get right is that the political media in the United States is generally far too willing to paint a portrait of Trump as some kind of dolt. But everything in Trump’s record suggests a cunning, ruthless, and, in many ways, insightful man — not some kind of Forrest Gump-like figure ambling through history.

A few examples:

  • The means he used to get himself out of bankruptcy and make his big Atlantic City comeback were incredibly shady and dishonest but also genuinely clever.
  • His reinvention of himself as an asset-light brand licensor was incredibly successful, as was his career as a television show host.
  • He has, for years, used lawyer Michael Cohen and a relationship with a major tabloid conglomerate to keep affairs hushed up and manipulate the public’s image of him.
  • Last but by no means least, he ambled into the 2016 GOP primary field with little fundraising, no political experience, and minimal organization and wiped the floor with everyone.

People who cover American politics for a living are accustomed to covering politicians who have at least a passing familiarity with the main issues in public policy, and Trump does not. He answers questions about national politics like he’s a real estate developer turned brand licensing magnate and reality television star, which he is.

I’m not here to tell you that Trump is an evil genius or a criminal mastermind. And he’s certainly more impulsive than your average politician or business leader. But he’s not an idiot. When he keeps on doing something, it’s probably for a reason.

The choking clouds of smoke

I hate the word “collusion.” It’s a technical, legal term derived from the unrelated world of antitrust law that’s masked the simplicity of what we’re talking about. It seems more likely than not that some Trumpworld personnel coordinated some elements of political strategy with the Russian pro-Trump information operation with the tacit or explicit approval of Trump himself, and that they signaled openness to Russia-friendly policy changes with Russia in exchange.

Here’s are the main elements of the case:

  • Many of the Russian government’s political interventions abroad are clumsy and inept (see the anti-Macron stuff from the 2017 French presidential election and the bulk of the “troll farm” stuff). But the WikiLeaks email drops of 2016 were very well-executed and well-timed to step on two major stories: first the Democratic National Convention and later the Access Hollywood tape. Perhaps the Russians got lucky (twice) or they executed well because they were helped by an expert American political operative.
  • As it happens, the expertise of Trump’s campaign chair, Paul Manafort, is in American and foreign electioneering. Manafort helped Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush win presidential elections before he moved into lobbying and took his political skills abroad. He spent a decade dispensing expert political advice (for a steep price) to a Russian proxy party in Ukraine. So it’s not like the Russians would have no idea whom to ask, or that nobody on the Trump team was comfortable, broadly speaking, with the idea of working with Moscow.
  • We also know specifically, due to Donald Trump Jr.’s infamous “if it’s what you say I love it” email, that not only Manafort but also Trump’s son and his son-in-law were eager to collaborate with the Russian government on the 2016 election.
  • Trump spent more than a year on the campaign trail consistently praising Vladimir Putin and defending him from critics, incurring political risks with no obvious upside for himself.
  • During the transition, Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was very eager to conduct talks with Moscow about a warming of relations. Jared Kushner was trying to create some kind of secure backchannel line of communication to Moscow that would be impenetrable by American intelligence.
  • Trump took the exceptionally risky move of firing FBI Director James Comey. After that backfired, he took repeated stabs at leaning on Attorney General Jeff Sessions and/or Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to resign, which would give him more direct control over Mueller.
  • Trump’s allies on the House Intelligence Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee have been trying to help him with various attacks on the FBI, the Justice Department, and the whole idea of an inquiry rather than by constructing some plausible alternative narrative that would explain all the weird shit referenced above.

That’s not an argument you’d present to secure a jury conviction, but it’s probable cause for a rigorous investigation. It all explains Mueller’s apparent strategy of bringing legal pressure to bear on as many Trumpworld figures as possible. It’s a sound strategy for generating the revelation of some dark secrets.

Trump is good at keeping secrets

The Trump era has led to a lot of amazing, compulsively readable journalism that undersells Trump’s ability to keep secrets.

Hounshell writes that “so much damaging information poured out of Trump Tower that it’s hard to believe a conspiracy to collude with Moscow to win the election never went public” and that “if there was such a conspiracy, it must have been a very closely guarded secret.”

But consider that despite Trumpworld’s reputation for leaking like a sieve, we’ve never found out what’s on Trump’s income tax returns or how the decision was made that whatever is on them is more damning than Trump’s shady behavior. We don’t know why Trump decided to fire Flynn (the stated reason that he “lied to Mike Pence” doesn’t pass the laugh test), whether he was told of the domestic abuse allegations against then-White House staff secretary Rob Porter, what’s on the Apprentice outtake footage that producer Mark Burnett is keeping locked up, why exactly Trump handed some choice Israeli intelligence to the Russian foreign minister, who financed the hush money payments to porn star Stormy Daniels, or any of a dozen other major questions about Trump.

The reality is that Trump was the least transparent candidate of all time and is running one of the least transparent administrations on record. It’s a White House where even whether the president is golfing on any given weekend is the subject of dissembling and fabrication.

One result of unprecedented secrecy is an unprecedented volume of disclosures. But that doesn’t mean we actually have an unprecedented level of insight into what’s going on with Trump or his operation. Quite the opposite.

Especially given congressional Republicans’ total abdication of Congress’s normal oversight functions, Mueller’s inquiry is essentially our only lens into some very murky terrain. And the investigators themselves are keeping their cards close to the chest.

Mueller’s investigation is already bearing fruit

Perhaps this will prove wrong and ultimately the Mueller investigation will uncover nothing of note except crimes committed by Trump’s former national security adviser, his former campaign manager and deputy campaign manager, and a handful of lesser players while having also exposed both the president himself and essentially his entire senior staff as habitual liars on a manner of criminal and national security import.

If true, that would qualify as probably the biggest presidential scandal since Iran-Contra a generation ago. It’s also already had the ancillary benefit of inspiring lots of Washington shops to start actually complying with Foreign Agent Registration Act rules.

Last but by no means least, it seems clear that whether or not there was an explicit or tacit agreement on this point, Trump entered office intending to pivot American foreign policy in a more pro-Russian direction and installed Flynn as national security adviser and Rex Tillerson as secretary of state with a view toward implementing that agenda.

The investigation — dating back to before Comey’s firing and Mueller’s appointment — seems to have played a big role in scuttling this and pushing Trump to maintain broad continuity with prior American foreign policy.

The one place I do agree with Mueller skeptics is that liberals shouldn’t get their hopes up that the special counsel will “save” them or the country from Trump. Trump appeared on national television and explained to an NBC News audience that he improperly used his powers of office to remove the FBI director in an effort to shield his friends and associates from criminal scrutiny. The institutional Republican Party shrugged that off, and eventually, the public moved on.

My guess is that whatever revelations are forthcoming from Mueller will fit a similar pattern — most people already have a negative view of Trump, so it’s hard to move the needle too much more on public opinion, and the whole GOP has already wagered so heavily on the Trump experiment that they’re not going to pull the plug regardless of what happened.

But politics aside, the suspicion of illicit collaboration between the highest-ranking members of the Trump campaign and the Russian pro-Trump information operation is well-founded, and the ongoing criminal investigation into that possibility is steadily bearing fruit. There’s no earthly reason for journalists to adopt a stance of preemptively exonerating Trump when, so far, suspicion has been validated at nearly every turn.

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1 day ago
"The Trump era has led to a lot of amazing, compulsively readable journalism that undersells Trump’s ability to keep secrets."
Washington, District of Columbia
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Data Clashes With Emotion As CPAC Immigration Panel Goes Off The Rails – Talking Points Memo

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NATIONAL HARBOR, MD — The only panel dedicated to immigration at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference quickly went off the rails Thursday, with audience members drowning out panelists’ presentation of data about the benefits of immigration with boos, laughter, and stories of “obvious illegal immigrants defecating in the woods, fornicating in the woods.”

As David Bier, a policy analyst with the libertarian Cato Institute, attempted to lay out research proving that immigrants actually have lower crime rates than native-born Americans, contribute significantly to the economy  and are assimilating just as well or better than past generations of immigrants, his fellow panelists derided his statements as “nutty” and angry audience members shouted him down.

“Sweetie, you’re too young to know,” one woman called out as Bier said that the economy has historically done well during periods of high immigration to the United States.  

When he noted that the U.S. proportionally takes in very few immigrants and refugees compared to other nations, a man interjected, “You’re a dreamer!” and much of the crowd broke out in applause and jeers.

Though this year’s CPAC fell squarely amid a legal and political battle over the fate of nearly 2 million young immigrants known as Dreamers, the issue was far from the top of the agenda at the annual gathering. The only panel dedicated to the topic was held in a small, windowless room at 5 p.m. on Thursday—after many attendees had already left for one of the conference’s many boozy receptions.

And though the panel was titled, “You May Say You’re a DREAMer But You’re Not the Only One,” it focused very little on the DREAMer population—the group of upwards of 1 million undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children whose legal protections were rescinded by the Trump administration last year and will expire in early March. 

Instead, the event became a general airing of fears and grievances about both legal and illegal immigration. The panel’s moderator, Christopher Malagisi, claimed, without evidence, a “ploy” by Democrats to offer immigrants a path to citizenship in exchange for their votes.

Rep. Michael Burgess (R-TX), who faces a primary from a Trumpian hard-right newcomer, similarly accused Democrats of putting the economic interests of young immigrants over those of young American citizens. Whenever Bier cited research to counter incorrect claims from his fellow panelists and the audience that recent immigrants are disproportionately criminal, are an economic drain on government or take several generation to learn English, he was met with vocal hostility.

During a heated question and answer session during the immigration panel, a man from Four Corners, Virginia went on an extended diatribe about a Latino man who once crashed his car in front of his house.

“I had to go down to court to testify, and I was the only white face in the crowd other than the lawyers being paid to translate for these people,” he said. “You can go down to Four Corners Park and see obvious illegal immigrants defecating in the woods, fornicating in the woods, and on and on and on. These people are not the immigrants of the 20s and 30s. They will never be able to get good jobs here and be good citizens. Is that in your study?”

Struggling to be heard over the loud applause that ensued, Bier responded, “If you look at the data, the people committing crimes are overwhelmingly native-born Americans. So if you want to talk about the effect of immigrants on the crime rate, they actually lower the crime rate, resulting in a safer society. Obviously there are some immigrants who do commit crimes, just like there were some who committed crimes back when the Irish were the ones coming in.”

“Oh, I’m Irish, don’t you talk about the Irish,” an older woman angrily called out.

“Guys, guys, let him respond,” the moderator pleaded with the audience as the crosstalk and scoffing grew louder.

Only a small handful of people came up to Bier afterward to offer support and sympathy. Among them was Carolyn Meadows, the vice chair of the American Conservative Union, which organizes on CPAC.

“I think you’re a brave young man,” she said. “I really do. Thank you for coming.”

Still, speaking to TPM after the panel wrapped up, Bier said he still believes in the power of facts and research to convince conservatives of the benefits of immigration. 

“The data is the thing that’s going to win people over,” he said. “It’s just about showing them that immigrants are not what they think they are and hoping that falls on receptive ears. There are people who can be convinced, people who know immigrants personally, who know they are contributing to society and they’re not all defecating in the woods.”

But having attended CPAC for the last six years, Bier conceded that the Republican base’s attitude toward immigrants has not significantly shifted.

“I don’t think it’s that different [from past years],” he said. “There’s always a very large contingent most passionate about immigration—about opposing it. It certainly seems like the passion is always with the side that wants to restrict it and not with the side that wants it to be more open.”

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2 hours ago
«“The data is the thing that’s going to win people over,” he said.» Oh, you sweet summer child.
1 day ago
New York, NY
23 hours ago
Obviously an area of contention. I find that the Trump supporters really don't like the data when it comes to Immigration. Those feelings aren't universal luckily.
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Reporter’s Notebook: An Olympic Challenge: Eat All the Korean Food That Visitors Won’t

“It’s peak snow crab season right now,” the noted chef David Chang said. “I don’t know if people understand.” Our correspondent knew that, and much more.

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1 day ago
My stomach is jealous. The photography is amazing.
Washington, District of Columbia
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1 day ago
Such a missed opportunity…
Washington, DC

Op-Ed Contributor: The Boys Are Not All Right

What do America’s mass shootings have in common? Guns, yes. But also, boys.

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19 hours ago
man I love MIB
1 day ago
It's always worth reading when a comedian gets completely serious about the very topic that made them famous, and for Michael Ian Black it's been his unwavering willingness to be portrayed as un-masculine.
Washington, District of Columbia
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1 day ago
We need a counterpart to Lewis’ Law for the way any discussion about toxic masculinity will get comments which attempt to reject but actually prove its existence
Washington, DC
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