August 24, 1997
The other evening we had dinner with a famous media consultant friend of ours. We had called him earlier to relate our concern about the relatively low readership of Swans and the difficulties we were encountering to attract contributing writers. He said he would peruse our site and share some insights with us if we agreed not to mention his name. In addition, he asked for his favorite dish and cognac. We acceded to all three requests feeling relieved that he would take the time to look into such mundane and trivial issues far removed from his daily Washington routine.
Jan prepared a roast leg of lamb with a sauce made from the cooking juices with slices of lemon and chopped watercress accompanied by French white haricot beans. For dessert, she opted for her renowned New York cheesecake served with Armagnac. Then, with his glass of Armagnac in hand, our friend whom we will call Paul went to the rocking chair on the patio and lighted a Monte Christo. Business was starting.
"Have you ever thought about opening a restaurant instead of slaving over Swans?," Paul asked. Jan, who considers cooking like others enter into religion, was quick to point out that this would simply be a trade in slavery. Paul was even quicker in retorting, "perhaps, but at least you would have guests who enjoyed your food and, incidentally, it would be a money-making proposition."
We sensed that he was readying himself to enlighten us.
"Look," he said, "I am not here to spoil the evening, especially since you have treated me in the most courteous and princely of manners, but..." Well, when "but" infiltrates the conversation one looks for the missing t and instinctively knows the kicking is on its way. The question was, how hard would it be? Hard enough, for sure.
"But," he went on, "if indeed your purpose is to be read and to gain a pool of friendly contributors you have it all wrong. You proclaim all over your site that you want people to think. Let me tell you what I keep telling Bill when he asks me what people want: I say, people want to be entertained, they do not want to think; and they all want to make money and drive a Beemer, a Mercedes or a Ferrari; and when they can't, they still want to fantasize that they can. It's that simple. At Swans, you want your readers to think and you don't pay your contributors. You have it upside down. Entertain, pay and get paid, and live happily ever after. On the other hand, feel satisfied. You have a loyal readership and, out of hundreds of mom and pop sites like yours, you are one of the very few who keeps their site reasonably updated."
"Fine," we interjected, as Jan was refilling his glass, "and what should we do?"
"You can either enjoy yourself and your ideals, or you can commit hara-kiri, or again, you can get real," he answered.
"Let's entertain your latter proposition," said Jan.
"Okay, look at John-John," Paul said. "He poses in the nude and George sells 100,000 more copies. Nudity pays and attracts readership; it's that simple. And he even kept the family jewels in the shadows..."
"Perhaps," Jan said in a slightly obfuscated tone, "but Gilles is not a Kennedy and his 47 year-old body cannot compete anyway." [Thanks Jan]
"Who said it should be a nude picture of Gilles? You are right, he cannot compete." [Thanks Paul] "And the web viewers are 80 percent male in any case. No, I'm talking about you, Jan. Get in the nude. Show some T and A. Readership will definitely increase many fold!"
Though Jan mostly tends to avoid taking hasty decisions -- or any decision for that matter -- and does not particularly find herself physically attractive, the expression on her face demonstrated a titillating interest as if she was finding the idea amusing and ambiguous enough to consider it. To the astonishment of this writer, she said: "Fine; we'll load a picture of me naked on Swans. No sweat."
Evidently this working session was getting out of hand... One had to be reminded that we did not have a picture of Jan in the nude and that to obtain one we would need to have the film processed at the local camera store where in all likelihood the manager would report the matter to the FBI with the unpleasant consequences of risking to get our house searched and us ending up in court. Unfortunately, Paul had an immediate answer to this pathetic objection.
"You are thinking too much as usual, and, may I add, too much in the pre-post Cold War Cartesian paradigm. By the same token you are not thinking in practical terms, the post-pre-millennium American way. For Pete's sake, think! The Jan-in-the-nude syndrome won't be a novelty for long. So, once the FBI gets after you the story will reach the local papers and Swans will see its readership increase again. It's that simple."
Paul had a point there, so we asked if he could elaborate on his line of thinking.
"Easy," he answered. "Look, when Matt Drudge (of The Drudge Report) posted a totally unsubstantiated rumor that Sidney Blumenthal, the new White House communications strategist and former columnist for The New Yorker and The New Republic, had a 'spousal abuse past', the story made the headlines of all the national newspapers -- The New York Times even published Matt Drudge's picture in its Week in Review section of its Sunday edition. The next morning, Mr. Drudge's site was flooded with tens of thousands extra hits. It's that simple."
"Perhaps it is that simple, as you keep repeating, but is it not also a 'reckless disregard' for the truth?", inquired Jan, who could imagine an army of libel lawyers descending upon our little nest like black jackets on the hunt.
"Look guys, you said you wanted to get real," Paul replied in a slightly annoyed tone. "So," he continued, "get real! Who has Michael Kinsley, the editor of Slate, been trying to hire to compile a daily summary of national newspapers for The Slate Today's Papers? Neither of you, I am afraid, but the one and only Matt Drudge," Paul said, answering his own question. "Meantime, Mr. Drudge retracted his allegations in a short statement, got free advertising from the national press and went on with his life to take care of the new readers of his daily report."
"Let me give you a specific example," he added. "Didn't you once write that Jesse Helms and Orin Hatch would confess to having more in common with Barney Frank than with each other?" "Yes," we answered. "It was part of our predictions for 1997. But it was written in a mocking tone that reflected the humor of the entire column. No one could have confused our raillery with gossipmongering and, to our knowledge, no one did."
"You are certainly correct and no one read it either!" Paul said, with a hint of sarcasm in his voice. "Here are my practical recommendations: One, publish a photo of Jan in the nude. Two, start a rumor such as Jesse Helms is a pedophile or Paula Jones is actually a man who undertook sex-reassignment just before the Clinton encounter -- that's entertainment. Three, always be ready to retract. Four, befriend a few good lawyers -- you may need them -- and contact the ACLU."
"You do that," he concluded, "and Swans will have more readers and contributing writers than you'll ever be able to manage on your own. That will be the time to sell out to Microsoft--they are on a diversifying binge."
"Anyway, got to go. I've a plane to catch," he said.
We asked where to and he answered: "Stopping in Seattle on my way back to Martha's Vineyard and Washington..." And waving his hand he added with a broad grin: "I'll drop a nice word on behalf of Jan's cooking to Michael. Who knows, he may want to add a culinary column to Slate."
And on our side, we grabbed the camera and Jan stripped.
Here is the result.