David Plotz graduated with a magna cum laude B.A. in political economy before launching into a career as a journalist, becoming the editor-in-chief at Slate magazine, and the author of two books. He has written for Slate, The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, Reader’s Digest, Rolling Stone, New Republic, The Washington Post, Business Insider, and GQ. He won won the National Press Club’s Hume Award for Political Reporting in 2000, an Online Journalism Award for a Slate piece on Enron, and was a National Magazine Award finalist for a Harper’s article about South Carolina’s gambling industry. You can connect with David through Linkedin, his websites, atlasobscura.com and citycast.fm or on Twitter, @davidplotz.
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92-33. David Plotz
David Plotz, Will Bachman
Will Bachman 00:01
Hello, and welcome to the 92 report conversations with members of the Harvard and Radcliffe class of 1992. I’m your host will Bachman and I am extremely happy to be here today with my friend from college. David plots. We’re on the Crimson together. David, welcome to the show.
David Plotz 00:19
Thanks. Well, it’s nice to talk to you.
Will Bachman 00:22
So tell me about your journey since Harvard.
David Plotz 00:28
In the 30 years since Harvard, I graduated, foolishly took a job as a paralegal in the Justice Department, because I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. So I want to see what lawyers did
Will Bachman 00:40
that was not foolish. What are you talking about? I’ve had some attorneys on the show who went through law school and then decided they didn’t want to be attorney. So that was a smart approach.
David Plotz 00:50
No, it’s true. It’s retrospectively it was brilliant. And within about five minutes of being a paralegal, I realized a I would probably be a really good lawyer and be I would hate it. And so I spent a year doing that. And then I went back to something I’d love to do in college, which was journalism. And I got a job at the City Paper or the alternative weekly in Washington, DC, where I covered local DC for several years working with some incredibly brilliant editors, and ultimately for David Carr, who went on to become this legendary figure with the New York Times as his deputy. And then I heard I heard that Mike Kinsley it was a person I hugely admired in journalism was starting an internet magazine, I had never been on the internet, I’d never been on the web. This was mid-1996, I guess. And but I really admired my Kinsley so I applied for a job with this non-existent magazine that was owned by Microsoft, had no name, no employees, and most of us didn’t know what the internet was and never been on it. And I ended up becoming one of the first employees at what would become known as slate, which was an online magazine, and I ended up working at Slate, I mean, I still in some fashion work at Slate. So I ended up being at slate for forever as a first as a junior reporter than as the Washington editor than is doing some sort of long-form. Kind of weird uses of the new medium like reporting, then ultimately, as the editor of slight stir from 2006, to 2014. And during that time, I wrote a couple of books, one book about a sperm bank for Nobel Prize winners. That was a really, truly a true thing, a sperm bank that was for Nobel Prize winners that existed in the US and in the 80s. And what had happened with that, and I wrote a book about the Bible, and, and started a podcast about politics, called the slight political gab fest that I was did with two colleagues, Emily Bazelon, and John Dickerson, which we started back in 2006. And we’re still doing today here in 2022, weekly Politics, Politics podcast, that has been just a source of stability and gratification. And then in terms of work, I stayed at Slate till 2014 decided I was, it was in the middle of a meeting one day, and it was just like, I’m going to quit this meeting. And I didn’t quit in the meeting. But I realized, like I was done, I was done being editor of slate. And so I left just without a plan. What ended up was
Will Bachman 03:37
there like something in that meeting, or was it just the straw that broke the camel’s back? Was it just a meeting?
David Plotz 03:45
No, I mean, it was really just that. I was, I don’t know if you had this experience. But I here I was, in my sixth year as the editor of the magazine, it was great. We grow and it was really successful in some ways. But it was solving the same problem. It was it was a meeting to decide who we’re going to try to hire for particular position. And I’d hired for that position two years earlier. And two years before that, and I was like, I don’t want to solve the same problem over and over again, I would like to solve different problems. And so I just ended up leaving, and had no idea what to do. But I made a list of people I admired and liked and project I admired and liked to just set out to talk to people who I admired. And one of the people I talked to was a guy named Joshua for who is a young I don’t know, creative entrepreneur, journalist, brilliant person who had started what was effectively like a little art project called Atlas Obscura, which was a guide to a collection of weird places around the world. And Josh, and I started talking and I basically said, you know, if we got some money into this, we could make it National Geographic. We could make it the next National Geographic and so I went on and became CEO of this company and spent from 2014 to 2020, raising money IE, you know, publishing books, doing deals kind of building this, you know, doing a big partnership with Airbnb starting a trips business. And just making that as big as I could make it. And then decided in 2020. Like, basically, they needed they needed a better, they needed a better CEO that I wasn’t, I was not the CEO to take it to the next level, because I’m not actually very good business person. And so I, you know, hired my successor and ended up my last day was the first day the pandemic was March 9, I guess, was my last day CEO. And so then I came into the pandemic, kind of, again, jobless, did a bunch of things for a while, and then starting in the fall of 2020, that’s six months later. With funding and support from a company here in Washington, I started a local podcasting company called City cast, which is creating daily local podcasts and newsletters and city or cities around the US. So sort of like the daily, but for Pittsburgh, the daily but for Houston. And we have, we’re now in eight cities and growing all the time, and it’s incredibly fun. So that’s my that’s like my professional life, which was kind of where it started. But I feel like is this about your professional life? Or is about your life? Like that’s only sort of one small piece of a life, right? Let’s
Will Bachman 06:27
hear about your life. What you did, yeah, what else is going on?
David Plotz 06:32
So, I Married really early I soon after college, I met a woman who was another journalist named Tanya rose, and, and we got married, we got married. We were 2627 in 1996. And I lived in Washington where I still live, we had three kids, a daughter, who was born in 2000, who’s now a senior at Yale, and a son who was born in 2003, who’s now a freshman or gets a sophomore at University of Vermont, and then a son who was born in 2008, who’s about to start high school. And we had a long and pretty happy marriage that ended very surprisingly, and suddenly into those into those 19 or 2018 2018, I guess, 2019 2018 I can’t remember it all, it all sort of went in weird directions. And so I found myself like, in a middle aged man suddenly, single in a way that was incredibly, incredibly surprising and unwelcome. And but really, you know, it was one of the most important experiences of my life and just showed me a lot about how, but connections are important and how is as a married man in particular, I think lose friendships, they lose the capacity for friendship in some way they immediate friendships, through their family or through their wives. And so divorce, through through that out of me and I, I’m just a person who also is incredibly, of the School of If life gives you lemons, get on Tinder. I mean, I’m very much like a very much a sort of forward moving kind of person. And so I was it was, it was incredibly sad and sorrowful and really unexpected. But it also forced me to confront my own failings that allowed me to meet people I never would have met, it allowed me to renew and rekindle friendships that had been dormant. And and it’s been, it’s been a huge, amazing learning experience to have gotten divorced. I don’t wish it on anyone, but it’s, it’s created different kinds of happiness for me, and I now I have a really wonderful girlfriend who I’ve been with for a couple of years. And that’s, that’s fantastic, too. And so, you know, that’s, that’s been the other big piece of the life is sort of the family and my still, my children are wonderful, and they split their time between me and Hana. And that’s all good and Han and I are, are, have a very good relationship. But that that sort of fracturing of my family life and emotional life in middle age was was incredibly surprising. And I’m, I can’t say in any sense that I’m glad it happened, but I can say that it’s been it’s been the most important change force of change and learning and, and growth for me and in since I was a kid, really. So that’s, that’s, that’s been the big It’s been a big event of the last few years.
Will Bachman 10:03
Thank you for sharing that, David. And I’m sorry to hear about that whole situation. It sounds like it was just really wrenching to go through. Can you tell me a bit more about what you’re saying around how, you know, men tend to lose friendships as they get into middle age, you know, and sort of what that experience has been like for you of working to kind of rekindle friendships and rebuild them.
David Plotz 10:34
I think and I think this is probably less true of our generation of our father’s generation, but that when men have been married, there is this way in which you outsource the emotional labor of, of life and of, of, of everything, you’ve outsourced emotional labor to someone who’s better at it. And most men, I think, tend to do that to their wives. And so their wives become the conduit for friendships, the wives tend to be the I’m talking about straight men who are married to straight women, I should note, their wives tend to be the conduit of relationships with other parents with other kids. And, and a lot of friend activity is carried out in couples. And so there and again, it often is like the the driving force of that is less often I think men and I found myself, I have plenty of friendships, but I just didn’t spend time on them, except my college roommates. And I would get together every now and then. But it and my college roommates and I remained incredibly close. And when we would see each other every couple of years, that was great. And I certainly had friends, professional friends and stuff, but they weren’t intimacies and they weren’t facing the emotional questions of, you know, the true gripping emotional questions of life, like, how do you live a good life? How do you care for your parents? How do you, you know, feel about ambition as you age? How do you? How do you, you know, worry about your children, but not overhanging your children questions like that, which are so important. And I had talked about those with my wife, but not really with other people, not even with my brother, my dear brother, and what, what the end of my marriage did was throw me out into this world where the normal person, the person I talked to, most I was no longer talking to, except about the logistics of a divorce. And, and so instead, I started to have other people to talk to and also like feelings and, and kind of chaos in my life and in my heart and my brain that I hadn’t had before that I needed to, to grapple with. And it turns out that when you turn to friends, and you confide in friends, that there something wonderful can happen, which is that you can find yourself hugely helped by them, and then find yourself in a position to hugely help other people I’ve got, since since I’ve gone through this really wrenching experience, I’ve been able to talk to friends, classmates, relatives who have had other kinds of loss, other kinds of grief and, and be present for them in ways that I don’t think that I was. And I and I think it’s because I was found myself. It had I still been married, I think I would have sort of relied on my wife to have done that work and not done the dot done the work and not been been been there for people in the way that I’ve come to realize it’s more important to be there for people and it’s also just so fucking humbling like to have this experience of like you, I think when you own a marriage, you have a sense of the merit you you, you have a sense of kind of success around it. Even though we all know marriages are filled with like, all kinds of failures and tensions. But there is often you feel a sense of like, Oh, I’ve I’ve got this and unmarried people don’t have it and, and so I felt a sense of I was really humbled and embarrassed and ashamed of, of what what had happened. And that weakness and vulnerability. As somebody who has had a lot of success in my life. And he’s like had a really easy, incredibly lucky path in life. I realized like what a smug asshole I did. And being a bit less of a smug asshole has been, has been really good for me and I feel I feel better. And I feel like I’m able to be a much better friend, a much better father, a much better colleague, much better brother and sometimes a better son than I had been. And that’s Yeah, I think that’s what’s happened. I didn’t not even try to answer that question you asked, but it was very I certainly talked a long time.
Will Bachman 14:54
Now you really addressed it. I mean, it’s I think I’ve certainly experienced What you’re talking about in terms of letting friendships dwindle, and not not really watering them and giving them care and attention, you know, when you’re a busy professional in the middle of your career, and you have, you know, a marriage to attend to, and you have kids, and then you have a career that you’re trying to pretend to, and professional colleagues that are not that are friendly, but you’re not necessarily deep friends with them. And in that kind of way, it’s so easy to deprioritize not spend time with with those friends. So that’s almost a public service announcement here is listeners, like, pause for a minute, shut the podcast off, give a college classmate a call and just check in on them.
David Plotz 15:46
Yeah, and an expose yourself. It is it is this. This is the thing that I can talk about on this podcast, I’d be reluctant to talk about elsewhere, which is, you know, you’re you’re somebody who’s gone to you’ve been given the best education money can buy. And you’ve been just so fortunate in, in having been given health and wealth and connections and fortune, and it’s really just so I don’t know, it’s just so easy to, to settle into that and to not look at it and not, and to feel a sense of invulnerability. And I’m not saying like, I mean, I’m a I’m continue to be a rich white guy blessed with every privilege that anyone’s ever been blessed with. And it’s, it’s so unfair. But at least I do feel like a sense of a sense that I’ve learned something. And I’ve learned, I’ve learned I’ve learned how to be a better a better friend to people. Can you and to, to acknowledge my own weakness and failure more.
Will Bachman 17:02
Tell me a little bit about what it was like to kind of rekindle some friendships that had been dormant. You know, we was it kind of surprising to you, when you started reaching out to some old older friends like that it was possible to just, in some ways get back to where you’d been or what was what was that process like, of building friendships?
David Plotz 17:25
Well, um, I guess it was, some of it was, was explicit, like, I’m reaching out to you because I need I need your shoulder to cry on Emily to Aslan. That, and, and those people almost always are my brother, like reaching out and my brother’s friend, exactly, but he’s my closest person. And reaching out and, and just asking for help. And just saying, I need somebody to talk to Can I please just talk to you the number of hours I spent just walking the streets of Washington. Just on my phone, wearing out my my phone talking to people and I hate talking on the phone. And just let it they just let sat there and listened to me. So it was a period where just I didn’t get to talk, talk and talk and talk and wasn’t an the gift that people were giving was listening. And then once my emotional volatility in the volcano of it sort of died down. It was it was like we’d gone through something they had been there for me. And it was now we could talk intimately about all kinds of things. And so there are a bunch of friends who I now can call, you know, some of them I talk to once a week, some of them I talk to once every three months, but when I talk to them, I can talk to them without a lot of the just sort of surface. This just this, getting past a lot of surface stuff pretty quickly and getting to where they’re where they’re really facing something grappling with something like whether it’s professional, whether it’s their heart, whether it’s health, whatever it is, and that’s it’s so great.
Will Bachman 19:15
I want to ask you a little bit about your current company. And tell me about what’s going on with that local city podcast.
David Plotz 19:26
So our hope is that there’s a growing audience of people who want to get news and who don’t like the traditional sources of local news that they have and they want something that’s different and that’s going to help them be feel more connected to their city. And podcasting as a medium is this really emotional, medium that human voice you know this you’re talking to, you’re talking to people all the time now that the human voice is so powerful and and it really can make people feel so much and So what we’re trying to do is make people feel more deeply about their city by giving them a podcast every day that’s going to love their city more than anybody, and think their city’s more fucked up than anybody else does. And to kind of convey that. And hopefully, we don’t think podcasting is the world’s best source of news. It’s not like it’s not really a great medium to get news. But it is a great medium to tell stories and a great medium to sort of feel things and so we’re hoping that if we can give people a daily dose of of Denver or a daily, a daily injection of Houston, that gives them news they can use but also gives them just a chance to to feel why their city is great. That that will be valuable to people. And we’ll see it’s it’s early days, and so far. People really love podcasts, but not everyone listens to them. So we’re we have to find the listeners. So so we’re in, we’re in Denver, Chicago, Houston, Salt Lake, Boise, Vegas, Pittsburgh, DC. We’re about to be in Philly, and Portland and Madison. And in some cities, the podcasts have really taken off and others they’re still getting them off the ground. But but the real idea is just that, that a lot of people love within listening to podcasts and local There isn’t. There are not really great local podcasts except for sports. And we want to we want to make we want to make we want to make people engage with with podcasting, or on their local news.
Will Bachman 21:47
What are some of your favorite stories that you’ve run so far?
David Plotz 21:53
One of them it was I mean, it sounds so silly. When you talk about it. It was about a gay couple in Denver that wanted to build an adu and it developed they want to take their garage and make a bedroom for one of their moms in their garage in Denver. And it required the permission of a particular zoning board in Denver, and the zoning board for reasons that were really opaque and not very good, just delayed and refused to let them do it for months and years. And it was it was simply about this one struggle of this one company to get one couple to make their family work a little bit better by by bringing by bringing a parent in to live with them and and how these cold and bureaucratic forces arrayed against them. It was great that that’s that’s the kind of thing which because it’s it’s, you know, it’s one story, but it’s also a story to all of its face all of us have, at some point to deal with a government bureaucracy. That is that is unfeeling or incomprehensible. And, and to deal with that is to tell that story was really good. I mean, there’s I think one of the things I love about doing local is that the company, the country as a whole, everything is so fucking poisonous right now. And politics is so poisonous and, and national politics and the issues around national politics are so toxic, and it’s so hard for people to talk to each other. But on local issues. The it’s not that people don’t feel the issues, they feel deeply, but they feel them not on the same. It’s on the same axes of red and blue. And it’s not the same kind of toxicity. And so, there’s a lot that the issues are played out with a lot more vibrancy, not necessarily more civility, but you do have to live with your neighbors. So there’s a little bit it’s a little bit different. Saying something your neighbor than it is tweeting something to an anonymous person across across the globe. So you do have to the fact that people have to live with each other does mean they they tend to treat each other more like human beings and I just like that. I like not marinating in the poisonous cauldron of national politics. I like, like local for that reason.
Will Bachman 24:21
And it’s a gap where there’s less and less local newspapers really serving local story. Right?
David Plotz 24:29
Right. Exactly. Exactly.
Will Bachman 24:33
What’s, what’s it take to get a city set up? Like what’s the staffing look like to do a daily podcast in a Detroit in a you know, in a Denver or a banger?
David Plotz 24:45
We do staff a for where we have a host two producers, one of whom is the senior one. And then we also have a newsletter. So we do a daily newsletter we write a daily newsletter. So it’s a staffer for and then we have, we have an a headquarters team that provides sort of support on finances and support on marketing and support on all all kinds of other things advertising that they need help with. But it’s hard it’s doing doing anything daily is really hard. When you have to make a podcast day after day after day, it grinds, people. So we have to be very, we think a lot about how to make it easier and how to make their jobs somewhat easier to do less.
Will Bachman 25:32
Stack them up, get a get a bit of a back backlog ready?
David Plotz 25:39
Yeah. Yeah. That’s, that’s one thing to do.
Will Bachman 25:42
For the days when the ghost has hosted its COVID or something. You were at Slate. You’ve been at slate for a long time. And it’s you’re one of the biggest names in American journalism. Now. I mean, people know, everybody knows slate. What are some of the things that you like that you what are some of the ways that your outlook on journalism or on America, or just your kind of mental models changed? From your long involvement at Slate, just the way you kind of think about the news think about the world?
David Plotz 26:26
God, I don’t know I become so it’s so hard. Let me try to answer this in a cogent way. I, I got out of doing national, I still do the weekly podcasts which I talked about national politics, which I taped on Thursday morning, I did that this morning. I would never start doing that. I would never, if I wasn’t already doing that I would never start doing it. I hate talking about national politics. I hate thinking about national politics, I do it only because I love my co podcasters. co host, John and Emily. And we have you know, we love what we’re doing. We have great fans. And it’s a nice source of side income, too. But I would never choose to spend time thinking about national politics. And I think one of the things that I don’t like in myself, and this is a time of peril. And I don’t, I don’t think the country is going to thrive in the next generation. And I worried sick about what we’re leaving our children and just environmentally, but that the that the structure of how we’re governed is falling apart, and that the the way the Republican Party is acting suggests that American democracy will not survive in any true way for another generation. I really believe that. And, and so it’s all of us kind of should be on the barricade that should be the most important thing we should all be fighting. But you know what, I’m a middle aged guy. And I don’t really have as much energy for it anymore. And I That, to me, is what’s in a way, what I’ve learned is that it’s very hard to maintain the kind of joyous energetic idealism that one had 26 When you’re 52. And it’s easier to, like, do other things and not look like I don’t look at the ugly things in the face nearly as often as I should. And it’s because it’s so hard. It’s so hard when you think you have children, and maybe one day grandchildren. And to think that you have to look at the fact that maybe they don’t vote maybe maybe they don’t have meaningful votes. Maybe they live in a country where they are there because they’re Jews or some kind of in danger to them, where where the environment they live in is despoiled. And the climate is impossible. And they’re terrible catastrophes, and every turn. And so I’ve, I’ve become, really, I don’t like this I’d like I feel like I’m hiding from the horror that that we faced when really what we need is a whole bunch of people fighting against the horror. I hope everyone else is fighting. It’s a horror. Well, I will I like, watch Netflix.
Will Bachman 29:32
Having been, you know, a journalist for so long. What’s your point of view on the perspective about the news that it is actually, you know, sort of the common sort of sense is that, oh, it’s a good thing to read the news you should read, you know, like the elite, you know, New York Times or Washington Post and keep up with things. There’s a point of view out there. That’s kind of the opposite, which is, look, the news is a business. Its job is to get your eyeballs and it’s sensational. lism it’s trying to make you scared and worried and tell you things are going terribly. So you’ll tune in tomorrow. And that you should focus on things that you can actually control. And so maybe it’s better to pay attention, if anything to local news, like the garage and your mom, or maybe you could actually go to the zoning board versus national politics where unless you’re going to be like you and have a podcast, that with followers, we’re just going to worry about it and stress and yell at your TV, maybe you should just turn it off.
David Plotz 30:32
I suppose if I had to pick one of those two sides, I guess I’d pick the second one. Yes, like, don’t, don’t engage. If you’re going to focus on anything, cultivate your garden, focus on what’s around you and where you can act. On the other hand, it does feel and maybe I’m just a sucker for the alarmism it does feel like we’re in a time of particular peril, it feels that the the foundational structures of our government and our democracy are breaking. And it feels like the catastrophe of the climate is going to have kind of just impossibly huge consequences for maybe for us and mostly for our children. And to not to not engage with that seems sort of irresponsible to those with those two questions. Like do I think, you know, you have to engage with the with think about Ukraine at every second, I don’t do I think you have to think about you know, the some, some other particular national issue that you don’t, it’s not interesting, I don’t but I those two, they that the the destruction of the the basic contract that we have as citizens and the destruction of the planet feel like you, you actually do have something you do need to know about it and think about it and somehow have a role and trying to stop them, I guess, but not that I’m doing it not that I’m really doing it.
Will Bachman 32:08
So you follow national politics very closely, even though you’d rather not what what, you know, having paid so much attention to it more than the average news consumer? What are some things that you’ve learned about kind of the behind the scenes of national politics? Like what’s, what are some things that are going on behind the scenes that maybe you’ve learned over the years, from having a lot of contacts and just following it closely? Either about sort of lobbyists or money influence or just what politicians need to do to survive, or the Darwinian aspect of it, that you maybe just the ordinary York Times reader is not aware of?
David Plotz 32:51
Well, I actually don’t think there’s that mean, I think that a lot of it’s really obvious that that, that on certain issues, if you look at like the chips act, that just passed this act, which I don’t know if it’s actually going to finally pass because of of the what’s happening. But you know, it’s a huge amount of corporate welfare, massive lobbying by technology firms, it is not at all surprising that this huge corporate welfare would pass given how interested technology firms are, and given that there does seem to be a legitimate national security reason to shift things to shift production to the US have these certain kinds of technology that does seem, but it’s nothing, nothing of that is at all surprising. I think, to me, what’s surprising, is actually how little is going on behind closed doors these days. That really, most of politics and this is not just Trump, it’s also just the way the right wing media ecosystem works, where, where it’s it, everything is is how you can trump it, and everything is how you can trump it on Fox or on on Breitbart, or whatever those channels are. That that a lot of what is happening is just like we’re gonna do it blatantly right out here in public and, and because because people aren’t really in politics to serve a public interest, particularly, they’re, they’re kind of in politics to make their career and to be famous. That there’s just a lot of there’s a lot less smoke filled room than I think people think there is there’s a lot less we’re getting together and doing deals to shape the future of the country than people think on the margins. There is certainly like you know, tax breaks are tweaked to benefit certain industries. Absolutely. That’s happening and certainly at state level that’s happening a ton. But, but like a lot of what shape the big forces Such a politics are kind of like very out in the open. It’s it’s gross appeals to populism mediated through Fox and other and other big ideological media platforms.
Will Bachman 35:13
That’s interesting, I guess, as someone who’s not following it as closely as you but like, you know, only moderately informed. My, my sense of the whole situation is that, like the 1% of issues that really are polarizing, there’s maybe not as much backroom stuff going on there like abortion, okay, people are just, you know, people have very clear positions on it, and so forth. But like, 95%, of what Congress is working on just random, you know, transportation, road deals or, you know, random regulatory stuff that we never hear about in the New York Times, that that there’s a, you know, so much corporate lobbying, and you know, things going on. Yeah, you lick and all these kinds of things. Yeah,
David Plotz 36:00
that’s true. That’s true. You’re right. Yes, that is certainly true. Yeah, and mostly people don’t have the kind of a huge amount of energy to pay attention to it. And so they can it’s, it’s they can get away with, they can get away with it. But I don’t, for example, I don’t think like people say, what the reason why there’s no real gun safety legislation in this country is because they people are taking donations from the NRA, I don’t think has anything to do with taking donations from the NRA, the NRA, is that the politicians have recognized that if you want to be a politician of a certain stripe, you have to hold certain positions on on guns, because that’s their huge motivated voters who will make sure you lose your election if you don’t do it. And so you just stake out these really outrageous positions about gun safety and in forms of gun regulation, because your your political base requires it not because you’ve took $50,000 Me and RA that doesn’t, you doesn’t the NRA doesn’t need to buy the vote that you that was bought the voters is your fear of your own constituents. And that has to do with like, how we’ve gerrymandered everything, how we’ve sorted, we now live in these communities that are totally sorted ideologically. And so politicians are, like, don’t really aren’t running for election against. They’re just running to to protect the rent to serve a particular small base rather than to serve the gross, larger general public.
Will Bachman 37:35
Yeah, I guess I’ve I, that certainly makes sense to me on the very polarizing issues. My understanding is that there’s also the kind of literature around how there’s also kind of the reverse happens is that people, you know, voters will adopt the positions of the leader that they’re following. So if it’s, you know, if your tribe supports X, you’re like, Okay, I support x, right. Once you’re once you’re attracted, and part of that tribe, people’s preferences actually get, you know, adopted to the tribe instead of vice versa.
David Plotz 38:12
Right, right. Yeah.
Will Bachman 38:15
Yeah. What were some of your favorite stories that you worked on at Slate may be talking about your Bible project, which you just sort of elided? You mentioned, you wrote a whole book, but you blurb the whole Bible, right? You read the whole Bible and you blogged it.
David Plotz 38:31
I blogged the Bible. Yeah, I’d never read the Bible. And I kind of had a weird encounter with a Bible story I’d never heard that’s like, that’s a weird story. I didn’t know that was the Bible. And so I just thought I would read the whole Bible. And because I worked for an internet magazine, I just blogged it. This is back in 2006. And just read, read the whole the whole Bible and and had this really interesting, very unspiritual encounter with it. And ended up turning that blog, which ran for about a year and slate into a book called Good book. And, yeah, it made me it made me much less religious. My other book was much more fun. I did this, I had stumbled across the existence of this what was called the Nobel Prize, sperm bank, or nicknamed the Nobel Prize sperm bank. And, and it really, it’s been a thing that had gotten a ton of press when it opened in 1990 and 80. But then it vanished and sort of like dropped out of sight. But it continued to exist. In fact, hundreds of kids were born from this Nobel Prize sperm bank, but no one knew who the kids were. No one knew who the donors were. No one knew what had happened. And I managed to piece together this crazy history of a of one of the most ambitious and definitely the weirdest experiment in human genetic engineering in American history. And that was a really fun project. Still, to this day, I’m still in touch with a lot of kids who are from the sperm bank, and sometimes the donors. And it’s just, it’s a, it was a really strange story to do, but very fun.
Will Bachman 40:16
Tell us a couple anecdotes of the strangeness.
David Plotz 40:22
So, the, the the guy who started the sperm bank had, he was he’d invented shatterproof plastic eyeglasses and he’d made what was and then making seven days a huge fortune, you’ve made like $100 million, selling his company armor light to three M. And he just what he decided was that he was going to breed a cadre of super children. And what he was going to do was he was going to get Nobel Prize winners, as the fathers and women who belong to Mensa to be the mothers. And they were going to, and he was going to create the sperm bank for, for Nobel Prize winners that Mensa women could could access. And that would create a next generation that would, he was really worried about the the the rise of the the US would fall into a communist dictatorship, an idiotic communist dictatorship. And so he thought, if we only could breed some super children, this will be much less likely to happen. And he set out to do it. And he kind of did it. Except what happened was that Nobel Prize winners didn’t want to be part of this project, most Nobel Prize winners thought it was crazy. And also, Nobel Prize winners are really old. And when you’re really old, you have a very low and bad sperm. And so you’re it’s actually your terrible sperm donor, if you’re a Nobel Prize winner is there, he had this, he was trying to start this Nobel Prize sperm bank, but nobody, like he couldn’t find the Nobel Prize winner. So he kept, he kept like trying to protect changing the standards. And he’s like, and, you know, it became sort of, we’re looking for younger men, we’re looking for Renaissance men. Also women, it turned out when women came to the sperm bank, they didn’t want Nobel Prize winners, because actually women and anybody who’s thinking about what they want their child to be, their first thing isn’t I want them to be like an intellectual giant, that first thing is I want them to be happy and healthy. And so people want their kids to be happy and healthy. And that was the thing. So they had to like, go, instead of searching for just people with high IQs. He had to search for people with high IQs who were like happy and healthy and also tall. Because people, you know, no one chooses to short sperm. And it was it was a and he ended up he ended up from going from Nobel Prize winners. And he had this sperm bank that was called Nobel Prize sperm bank but but no Nobel Prize donors and then getting men who are increasingly less and less qualified and more and more egregious, until like the men the ultimately like the men who were the donors. Later on. We were among the worst people I’ve ever met, like, truly among the worst people I’ve ever met in my life for the donor sperm bank, because they they were men who kind of went to him and said, I’m a genius. Take me in the sperm bank. But like any asshole who says I’m a genius, Take me in your sperm bank is something you definitely don’t want to be in your sperm bank, because they’re an asshole. So it was it was anyway, there’s just a lot of it was, it was a fiasco. But there are hundreds of children who were born from it, and many of them are quite wonderful.
Will Bachman 43:21
And I, my understanding is that actually Nobel Prize winners are not necessarily the highest IQ, that you have to sort of have a certain bar to pass, but then above that, at least my understanding whatever it is, like additional intelligence isn’t necessarily the thing that makes you a Nobel Prize winner. It’s more like grit, determination and creativity or relationship building or other kinds of stuff.
David Plotz 43:48
I mean, the whole the whole exercise was bizarre and and misbegotten and based on very crude assumptions, and it actually all fell apart because the only the only public donor to the Nobel Prize firbank was a guy named William Shockley, who had invented the transistor. He’d won the Nobel Prize for inventing the transistor truly one of the most important inventions of all time. And he then founded the first company in Silicon Valley and had been that had been had been really important. He was a very important figure, but he’d become a racist nutbag. By the time he became a donor he was just this really unpleasant racist provocateur who went around the country talking about how people with low IQs need to be sterilized and how black people need to be sterilized. And and so when it came out that this guy was the only public donor to the sperm bank, it kind of made the sperm bank feel like a Hitlerian project and it was it had to went underground essentially. So that’s kind of what happened.
Will Bachman 44:53
Not very good. Brand representative. Awful What’s the benefit of driver to someone like yourself? That’s busy working for Slate to say, Oh, I’m going to write a book now, like is that is it just kind of expected that journalists will crank out a couple books or something? Does that help you your prestige or status? I mean, it’s not usually a big way to make a ton of money, right? So, like, what, what was the big driver?
David Plotz 45:22
Probably prestige and status, there was some there was money, there’s enough money that was worth it. It was a way of not being bored. I think one thing that happens when you do any job, in my case, I find absolute like a six year, I have a six year window, we do the same thing. After six years, you get kind of bored, so you need to find some way to spice it up and do something different. So that’s, and then there’s just the mostly it’s like the vanity of it, that you, you get to write a book and your names on the, on the cover of the book, and you get to go on TV to talk about your book, and you get to go on radio, talk about your book. And people throw book parties for you. And they come and listen to you read from your book. And what if you’re if you’re vain person as I am a vain person? Yeah, twice. It’s it’s pretty gratifying.
Will Bachman 46:13
You got any more books in the future?
David Plotz 46:16
No, I don’t think so. Alright.
Will Bachman 46:19
So we won’t hold you to that we’d love to see more. And, okay, so we talked about works. And I wanted to hear just beyond what you’re doing now, like helping create city podcasts. What else is going on in your kind of day to day life, your, you know, morning routine or your weekends, you and your girlfriend? And you know, I guess your kids are mostly out of the house. But what’s, what’s the day to day like for you?
David Plotz 46:47
Well, it’s been really old cat who I spend a lot of time with, that’s really nice. My girlfriend is just a delight. So it’s just to have a kind and caring and lovely person to hang out with is great. And was that was great for COVID. And then probably the biggest thing is, as so many of us and in our class are dealing with my parents are not doing well, my dad is my Dad has Alzheimer’s. And he’s just been he’s in really terrible shape. And it’s taken a huge toll on my mother. And they live. I live in DC and they live in DC. And so just helping them and trying to make that passage as pleasant as possible for them has been a big part of my life for the last few years. But it just feels you know that that part of it feels terrible, feels like we should if there were there if they if I could have one thing in the world would be like some easy thing where you can end your life at the at the moment when you should end your life at the moment when, when, when it’s not there for you and what’s causing such agony for those around you. I hope I hope by the time we’re in our 70s and 80s that exists, but it won’t.
Will Bachman 48:07
I’m so sorry to hear that. It’s It’s so tough. I saw my aunt decline from Alzheimer’s. And it’s just it’s just the roughest thing when someone starts just repeating the same stories and then like not really even recognizing the people they’ve been closest to. And it’s so sorry to hear that. Thank you one question that we ask is any courses or professors that you had at Harvard that have just continued to resonate for you?
David Plotz 48:45
Well, my thesis advisor Harvey Risha cough, I guess resonates I mean, that project of doing my thesis, but so important. In fact, I got my first job in journalism because my thesis it was, it was what I use to get a job. In journalism, I’d written a thesis about Marion Berry and so Harvey’s Harvey’s help with that was really important. Yo, Wilson, I took EO Wilson’s evolutionary biology class my freshman year, and I, I can’t it didn’t, the class didn’t affect me, but he gave me some advice. I went to office hours, the only time I ever went to office hours at Harvard, freshman year, first semester of freshman year, like the second week, I went to see a Wilson and his advice was you should specialize first and then generalize like you should learn everything about something and then once you’ve learned everything about something you should then generalize and I was like, it was great advice like never followed. But I always think about, I always think about it and I was like, was I wrong not to follow your Wilson’s advice? He was so smart. He is so smart. He’s so wise and and I went and did exactly the opposite, which I generalized and generalized and generalized generalized generalize, and now I’m too old to specialize.
Will Bachman 49:51
What are you talking about? You totally follow this advice. You I mean, you specialize in journalism.
David Plotz 50:00
Well, that’s not what you meant he meant mastery of a subject. He meant mastery this feat a particular field or way of doing things.
Will Bachman 50:07
You are not giving yourself credit here, David, you I mean, come on. You’ve had been 25 years you’ve been in journalism.
David Plotz 50:16
3030 Thank you. And, yeah, and I think, but I really do, like so much of what I feel I learned at Harvard, I’m sure everyone says this, I was not really, in class, it was I learned a ton of the crimson. So being at the crimson and that experience of, of just having to hit a deadline and having to work on the what has to be done with these attagirl, Melanie Williams, and just make sure that thing got out every week. And that discipline of having to do that was much more important to me, I feel like than any class I took. And then similarly, in terms of how I relate to people, the experience of sitting in the Dunster house dining hall, with Kelly Mason, and JD Connor and my roommates and, and just shooting the shit and just having those conversations you don’t get to have for the next 60 years of your life. That was much more important into shaping how I relate to people and think about things. And then any class as far as I can tell.
Will Bachman 51:28
David, for folks that wanted to reconnect with you follow up or just follow what you’re doing. Where would you point them online? What would you like to share in terms of links and so forth?
David Plotz 51:39
Well, my email is David plots at Gmail, very simple. First firstname.lastname@example.org. And city cast.fm. Is the website for the company I’m running and then I’m on Twitter at at Slate gab. Nope, not as like yet. Excuse me at David plots on my on the gavest. I’m on Twitter at at David plots. So, but happy to reconnect with anybody. And I was really bummed to miss the reunion. So this is a kind of fake way of, of having that connection.
Will Bachman 52:12
So reach out to David. He is in mode of, you know, reconnecting, right. He’s gone through this. And, David, it’s been such a pleasure for me to reconnect with you. We are good friends. We and we’ve sort of haven’t, you know, chatted that often. Right? Maybe occasionally at reunions. So,
David Plotz 52:34
yeah, yeah. It’s, I’m so glad you’re doing this. Well,
Will Bachman 52:38
thank you. And thank you, particularly for being so vulnerable. And, you know, being willing to share what you’ve gone through the past few years and the personal side, that it takes some courage to, you know, put that out there, and I really appreciate it.
David Plotz 52:52
Oh, it’s a pleasure. Thanks, guys.
Will Bachman 52:56
And listeners. If you go to 92 report.com, you can sign up for the email. I’ll let you know about each episode. And if you’re so inclined to write a five star review of this show on iTunes, it does help other people discover the show. David, thanks for joining.
David Plotz 53:11