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Transcript

Daniel Okrent: My name is Daniel Okrent  I am the author of Last Call, The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, former Public Editor of The New York Times, and veteran journalist. 

Question:
What got you interested in Prohibition?

Daniel Okrent: My last book was a history of Rockefeller Center, which I did in the early part of the past decade.  And the land that the Rockefeller is built on was, during the ‘20’s, the heart of the speakeasy belt in New York, between 48th and 51st Street between Fifth Avenue and Sixth Avenue.  There were 228 brownstones, and they were largely speakeasies, flop houses, whorehouses, it was really a lousy neighborhood.  And the Rockefeller interests to assemble the land the needed to acquire the ground leases for each of these buildings.  So, I did a lot of research in the city records and found the Rockefellers coming up against speakeasy owners who had more political clout then they did.  I said, "How did this happen?"  Which is the best way to begin a book.  So, that got me going.  

And then I found myself then wandering in this wonderland of this impossible-to-imagine period, when in the Constitution, not just by law, but in the Constitution it said Americans couldn’t get liquor; couldn’t get alcoholic beverages.  And there were only two things in the Constitution that limit the rights of individuals rather than the rights of governments, the powers of government.  And the two things were, the 13th Amendment, you can’t own slaves, and the 18th Amendment, you can’t get liquor.  Pretty bizarre.  So that set me going.  

I think it relates to where we are today because of the notion of a divided country and what Prohibition was really was a stand-in issue.  There were people who cared a great deal about Prohibition and they had reason to want liquor to be cut back because the rampant drunkenness of the 19th century combined with the fact that women had very few legal rights, did lead a lot of women particularly, and children, being horribly damaged by the drunkenness that captured so many of their husbands.  It led to bankruptcies, bringing home disease, ruined marriages

In 1830, the average adult consumption of liquor – of alcohol is triple what it is today.  So, imagine the society we live in now where the booze seems to be flowing pretty freely, and then multiply that by three, and even – and that was on a per capita basis.  So, there were people who abstained.  So those who were drinking really drank a great deal.  And particularly in rural areas, and then as the immigrant populations came in, in the cities as well.  

But it was other than the concern about drinking, was a, as I said, a battle over the control of the country.  The Prohibition was largely, but not exclusively, a movement that came from the middle of the country, the native born white Protestants who feared losing their country to the Irish, the Italians, the Jews, the Eastern Europeans who were coming into the cities.  It was a really intense divide in which this stand-in issue could represent everything else.  And I think we are going through exactly the same thing now.  And there is no question that there are people who really don’t like Obama’s health care, but they really don’t like the people who support Obama’s health care.  And last year the dividing issue could have been gay marriage.  A few years before that, or possibly it is also abortion.  There are stand-in issues that represent a wide, wide range of issues.  And that was the division that we had in this country that led to prohibition.

Question:
What were some lesser-known reasons for Prohibition?

Daniel Okrent: You know, there’s an extraordinary thing about Prohibition, though there was a real issue about alcohol consumption, there were three other issues that made Prohibition happen: the Women’s Suffrage Movement, the Income Tax Movement, and World War I.  Now what does these things have to do with alcohol?  Well this is the peculiarity of the theater of politics that things do not seem to be what they are.  

So, the Women’s Suffrage Movement had a lot to do with the fact that women had no marital rights.  They didn’t have any rights to divorce, they didn’t have property rights.  They needed to be able to express themselves for their own self-protection.  And they recognized that they had kindred spirits in the prohibitionists.  So, it was really, "We’ll support you if you’ll support us."  And the Women’s Christian Temperance Union was the engine; the first engine that really got he Prohibition Movement going.  

Then it was realized by the people in the Prohibition Movement, "We can’t get rid of alcohol without something to replace it as a revenue producer," because as much as 40% of federal revenue came from the excise tax on liquor, going back to the Whiskey Rebellion of the 1790’s.  So you couldn’t suddenly say, no liquor, no wine, no beer.  You wouldn’t be able to run the government any longer.  So they made common cause then with the populace who wanted an income tax.  And they passed the income tax amendment, the 16th Amendment in 1913, and only then did it become even possible to seriously consider the possibility of Prohibition.  

And then World War I, what does World War I have to do with Prohibition?  Well, after Congress had enacted the amendment and it had to be ratified by three-quarters of the states, during that period World War I begins.  All the brewers have German names.  Their names are Anheuser, Busch, Pabst, Schlitz, Rupert, Schaffer, and on and on and on.  And it made it possible for the Prohibition forces to demonize the brewers as serving the interests of the Kaiser when we were at war with Germany.  And that’s what put it over the top.  So you get these three things that have nothing to do with each other and really nothing to do with the issue at it’s center, namely prohibition, making it possible for there to be, not just the law, but a change in the damned Constitution.

Question:
Did banning alcohol have a measureable effect on crime?

Daniel Okrent: Well, there was probably an increase in crime.  You could argue that there was for a period a net positive.  Drinking did go down and it remained down.  The level of alcohol consumption in the U.S. did not come back to pre-Prohibition levels until the 1970’s.  In fact, we’re a little bit lower than the 1970’s now.  So, if you think there is too much drinking, it did have a positive affect in that sense.  

Criminal behavior on a large scale, of course, was rampant.  Every time somebody acquired a drink, every time you bought a drink, or you moved liquor from one place to another, you were breaking the law.  It is also true that the criminal syndicates, the national syndicate were entirely a product of Prohibition.  Until then, in each city, you might have a criminal element, a criminal gang that controlled vice of all sorts; prostitution, gambling, drugs, but there was no reason for them to stretch beyond the limits of their own neighborhoods, as it were, or their cities.  

Once you had to move great quantities of alcohol from one place to another, you needed cooperation.  So the mobs in various cities got together, there was the famous conference in Atlantic City in 1929, the sort of peace conference in which they divided up the country and there was one syndicate that agreed not to poach on each other’s territory.  Without Prohibition, there’s no reason to do that.  So, yeah, a lot of increase in crime.  

On the other hand, the image that we have of the ‘20’s, is this era of lawlessness and machine guns, or was known as the Chicago typewriter; rat-tat-tat-tat-tat, the sub-machine gun.  There were exceptions, obviously, but it was criminal on criminal warfare.  There were not a lot of innocent bystanders who were hurt by that kind of violence.

Question:
What are some of the parallels between Prohibition and the current drug laws?

Daniel Okrent:
What’s comparable – what’s interesting to me about the comparison to the drug trade today is there is a human appetite that drugs are satisfying.  There is a human appetite that liquor satisfied and it appears to be the case, I think it’s undisputable, that people are going to get their drugs, or their liquor, whether or not it is against the law.  The consequence of the limitation on it, the legal limitation on it, is that the federal government... the government gets no tax revenue from it.  And it’s unable to regulate it effectively.  So, peculiarly, it was easier to get a drink during Prohibition when it was against the law, then it was after Prohibition, when it was legal.  

During Prohibition, there was not regulatory system of any kind.  It was simply against the law.  After Prohibition, you had age limits.  You had to be 18 or 21, liquor stores couldn’t be open on Sundays, you couldn’t be near a church.  There were closing hours, there was an entire superstructure of laws that made it possible to control drinking and to bring in a great deal of revenue.  Franklin Roosevelt in October of 1932... he gave a speech in Newark in which he said, “If we brought back beer alone, that would be a quarter of a billion dollars in the U.S. Treasury in one year.”  And it was.  So the notion that we are right now seeing a similar illegal substance that is nonetheless desired being traded in huge quantities by criminal syndicates, the notion that that could be something that’s regulated, made safer, and provide revenue for the government makes it a very appealing argument for legalization.

Question: What stands out from your stint as New York Times public editor?

Daniel Okrent: Well, the thing that I learned while I was there, much to my surprise, was the—well there were several things.  One was the defensiveness of journalists, which I should have known having been a journalist myself for several decades.  Secondarily, the impact of what’s said in The Times is enormous.  And I think even moreso today, even though the paper is under attack, than it was five or 10 years ago. Because as other news organizations are weakened, as you see yet another cut in the staff of this newspaper or that television network, The Times, which has had very few cuts relatively speaking, becomes yet more important.  It’s the place where the rest of the news industry turns for its news.  It’s where the rest of the news industry goes to get its leads on what’s important to the day.  And that came on to me very, very clearly during the time that I was there.  

All the more reason why it is essential for The Times to do the best possible job and all the more reason for its journalists not to be defensive about it because as the best of them will say, if I make a mistake, I want to know, I want to be able to correct it.

Question: Did you encounter any hostility from the paper's staff?

Daniel Okrent: When I arrived, people were very, very dubious, and in some cases openly hostile.  A few remained hostile for the entire period I was there, but by and large, I think they learned that though I could say whatever I wished to say in my column in the paper, I was not speaking for their bosses.  I was speaking only for myself.  Though it could be embarrassing, it could be enraging, they’d come in, in the morning on Monday after my column would appear on Sunday and it was still their newspaper, it wasn’t my newspaper.  So, the more extreme hostility did begin to fade away, although, you know, no one likes a cop.  I was Internal Affairs, except I was not representing the institution.  I was internal affairs from the outside.  No one wanted to see my name on the caller id’s box because I couldn’t be calling about good news.  No one wanted to see me walk up to their desk; I wouldn’t be there because somebody had written to me to say what a good job the journalist did.  I was the bearer of bad tidings.

Question:
What was the toughest issue you had to deal with as public editor?

Daniel Okrent: Well the toughest thing was not about something that had happened while I was at the paper.  The toughest thing was dealing with The Times’ coverage of the weapons of mass destruction and the Bush Administration’s reason for going to war in 2003.  I arrived at the paper in December, 2003, after the scandal, the Jayson Blair scandal.  I like to refer to myself as the unwanted love child of Jayson Blair and Howell Raines, after Raines was replaced by Bill Keller, they then created this job.  They brought me in.  But the thing that seemed to continue to nag at a huge portion of the readership and a very large portion of the people on the staff was what had happened before.  And I had established as a rule when I began: I can’t write about things that happened before I came to The Times, because I’d be writing about the coverage of the Holocaust, which The Times did a very bad job on.  I’d be writing about The Times’ coverage of Stalin, which they did a horrible job on.  It would disappear into the mists of history.  

Nonetheless, over a period of months, after I arrived there, I realized that the absence of The Times’ own coverage of its own mistakes wasn’t fair for me to comment on.  The Times should have been writing about what it had gotten wrong, what it and the press had gotten wrong.  So, the absence, The Times’ failure to cover that became, I thoughti justification for me to write about it.  And that was without question, the most controversial issue among readers and also people at the paper.  

As it happened, it was received pretty well at the paper.  There were very few people who are proud of that coverage.  It was also true that the management, Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd, they were gone from the paper. But there were still a few people in important positions who had been responsible for some for the bad coverage and they weren’t very happy with what I did.  

Then the next most consequential thing was when I was there during the 2004 Presidential campaign, and of my advice to all who had contemplated becoming public editor of The Times, don’t do it during a Presidential campaign because half the people are going to be displeased with absolutely everything that appears in the paper.  So, in one day, there would be this picture of John Kerry looking foolish, let’s say, a stupid grin on his face. And there would be this wave of emails and phone calls and people visiting the office saying, “this proves that The Times is anti-Kerry.”  They didn’t notice the picture of Bush looking foolish the day before because they expect Bush to look foolish, and vice versa.  If there were a picture of a smiling John Kerry, looking great and heroic, the Bush supporters would complain that, “See, you’re supporting Kerry,” not having noticed that they had run a similar picture of Bush the day before.  

So headlines, captions, photographs, everything displeased, angered half the people.  And I came up with kind of a philosophical construct about it, which is that people, particularly about things they care about, as they read the newspaper and encounter news from any other source, what they think, how it conforms to their view of the world, they accept as fact.  And that which does not conform to their view of the world they think is biased; not different, they think it’s biased.  And in these divided times, it makes it very, very hard to put out a newspaper and not be perceived as following one way or the other.

Question:
What issues were readers most concerned about?

Daniel Okrent:
There’s a great displeasure about anonymous sources, and though The Times has made an effort to put that phrase after, “according to a source who choose to remain anonymous because he didn’t want to make is boss angry,” or whatever it might be, or "didn’t have permission to talk."  That mitigates a little bit, but what I found, and this did surprise and dismay me—because even though I’ve always been suspicious about anonymous sources myself I have, in fact, used them in my career as a journalist—is that readers thought that the reporter was making that up.  Readers... "here’s a quotation about what went on behind closed doors in the White House and according to a highly placed source."  And readers thought, well that was the reporter wanting to get his or her thoughts into the piece.  It really didn’t happen.  

And that, if you stop to think about it, I mean I can’t imagine anything that is more destabilizing and potentially ruinous to the reputation of journalists than people thinking the journalist is making things up.  

I have come to believe that we’re much better off if the journalist puts it in his or her own voice.  Makes the assertion without quotations that this is what was discussed behind closed doors.  Then we know who it’s coming from and whom to blame.  I see that name at the top of it and I say, "Do I trust that person?"  Well, you know, if it’s David Sanger, for instance, you bet I trust it because he has a wonderful record of being right.  And I don’t need to have this invented... or not invented, I’m sorry.  I don’t need to have this ghost, this scepter, this unnamed source be there as an authority because that source is not an authority if he or she does not have a name. 

There’s a lot of questioning among readers about the relationship of journalists and their sources.  So that, for instance, when I was at the paper, two very senior journalists and the Washington Bureau Chief, several people at the Washington Bureau, had dinner with Condoleezza Rice.  And it was reported and I don’t know where it showed up, but it was a friendly dinner.  It shows up in a society column, a gossip column, whatever it might be.  And that led a lot of readers to say, "Wait, I thought you were supposed to be policing these guys.  I thought you were supposed to be holding Condoleezza Rice and her policies at arms length.  But if you’re palling around with them, if you’re buddy-buddy with them, then can we really trust you?"  So, there was a lot of anger from the left, from Democrats, over that, just as I imagined there would be if it were now, if it were Hillary Clinton sitting down and having a pleasant dinner with people.  

There is a lot of doubt among readers about whether journalists can really be honest about people with whom they had decent social relations.  And I think in some cases, they’re right to have that doubt.  Although generally not.  I think that it is a measure of a good journalist that you are willing to, not stab your friends in the back, but if you stab them in the front, that’s okay.

Question:
How can journalism organizations prevent Jayson Blair-style scandals?

Daniel Okrent: You know, I think that there will always be small scale scandals.  There will always be plagiarists.  There will always be people who didn’t make the phone call they claimed to have made, but the chronic repeated abuse that Jayson Blair was engaged in, I don’t think could happen at a newspaper that has a public editor, or ombudsman.  

Yes, there was a phone number published in the newspaper in The Times every day for people to call if they had something that they objected to.  And when I got there, I thought I’d try out the system.  Well, it said mailbox full.  Nobody had been paying attention to it.  If you have somebody whose job it is specifically to respond to readers who are complaining or are pointing out error, or pointing out misbehavior on the part of reporters, it’s very hard... I can’t imagine that it would not be caught after the second or third time because somebody’s reading that mail.  Somebody’s paying attention to it.

Question:
What ethical issues do today's journalists face that previous generations didn't?

Daniel Okrent: My biggest concern about the digital technology as it’s coming to the newsroom is it’s anonymity of writers; whether that’s the person who’s writing a blog, or who’s commenting on a signed blog.  We don’t know who those people are.  And one thing, and this is not an ethical issue, this is a question of civility and taste.  I mean, it allows cowards to hide behind that scrim while they have the freedom to say really awful and disgusting things.  And I can’t stand that.  It’s very upsetting to me.  

But beyond that, there have been a few instances where that person whose been commenting on this Web site or that Web site, in fact is a principal in the story, is in fact a figure who has a self-interest, but is hiding that self-interest.  I would really be delighted to see the Web sites of the world just suddenly declare, put on your real name or we don’t care what you have to say.  And in fact, I don’t care what you... you shouldn’t care what I have to say unless I’m willing to put my name behind it.

Question:
Were journalistic standards better in the past?

Daniel Okrent: I think that the peak years for quality journalism in this country were 1970’s and early 1980’s.  If you go back before then, I mean, pickup a copy of the New York Times in 1965 some day.  It was unbelievably dull.  It was official-ese.  If the new Peruvian Ambassador appointed, there it was in the paper, the shipping news, just the sort of the kind of deadly required drone of news in those days was really pretty awful.  The paper got much, much better after that as did all of American journalism.  And I think that Watergate, obviously, had a great deal to do with that.  Watergate and also the magazine writers of the ‘60’s, the people like Gay Talese and David Halberstam who both came out of The Times, but then moved to other arenas to be able to do more than simply chronicle.  They could write.  They did more.  

Coming together, that and the great victory for journalism that was Watergate created a, I think in the ‘70’s attracted better people to the industry, it was a more exciting thing to do and people did their greatest work then.  And the standards were very, very high.  As we get into the ‘90’s, and we begin to have economic trouble begin to show up, Time Magazine, where I worked for quite a while, in 1990 had eight full-time critics on staff doing different things.  Today, I think there’s one full-time critic and that’s not that criticism is not the most important thing in the world, but I use it as an indication of how things have shrunk back because of the economic problems.

Question:
Do you still take issue with the Times's coverage?

Daniel Okrent: You know, when I was at the paper, I would let my assistant, Arthur Bovino, a very good journalist.  He and I had a game.  We would both read the paper before we came to work and we would bet on what was the mail going to be about.  What will people be complaining about?  And, of course, within a couple of months, we knew exactly what people would be complaining about; we learned how the average Times reader, or not even the average Times reader, the Times readers in general, responded to the newspaper.  

So, I’d begin to respond that way and I would see things that would irritate me that I might not have noticed at an earlier time.  I tried to stop doing that when I left the paper, and I’ve been pretty good about it.  The only time that I really wanted to go and grab somebody around the neck was the Duke Lacrosse case, and I’m happy to say... but I’m proud to say, I gave a speech to the Nieman Journalism Fellows at Harvard while that was breaking... very early, within the first month.  And I said, this is going to be a catastrophe.  This journalism is not good journalism.  This is something where a story is being blown up to much larger scale than it deserves to be because it fits so many preconceptions of so many of the editors at The Times.  You know, it was white over black, it was rich over poor, it was educated over uneducated, it was male over female.  "Aha, let’s go do something about this."  And because The Times did it, that led to everybody else doing it.  So, Newsweek does a cover story that never would have happened had not The Times been putting it on the front page for several days.  So that as driving me crazy.  

On the other hand, it wasn’t my job any longer to be the cop, so I left that to my successor.

Question: What are the biggest problems the New York Times is facing?

Daniel Okrent: Well, the biggest problems confronting The Times specifically are the same problems confronting everybody in the new business, which is that people don’t seem to be willing to pay for their news.  Or let me turn that around, I think The Times seems very reluctant to charge people for the news, although they have announced that they are going to begin charging online in early 2011.  I still sense a trepidation.  And I wish it were otherwise.  I wish they had more confidence.  I think it may be hard for this regional paper, or that metropolitan paper, or this small town paper to charge for news, but I think The Times can get away with it because it is the, for a large portion of the educated populace, it is the authoritative voice on what’s happening in the world.  You know, there are something like, I don’t know how many tens; I think it is now over 10 million people.  I need to restate that....

There are millions of people who go to their website every day all over the world.  Now, if you started charging $10 a month, would a lot of them stop?  Yes.  Will all of them stop?  No.  Would 50% stop, I don’t know, but I did the math not long ago and I think that if 20% of them stayed, that would cover the cost of the newsroom.  And what the people in the news business seem to be reluctant t realize is that’s the only thing that matters, that it’s the production of news being rewarded with revenue to cover the costs and perhaps produce a profit, that’s what counts.  The making of a newspaper isn’t what counts.  

And I think, if somebody had gone to the newspaper publishers and magazine publishers of America 20 years ago and said, "I have a new business model for you: no paper, no ink, no truck, no Teamsters, no press men, no Printer’s Union, no newsstands."  They’d say, "Give it to me tomorrow.  This is heaven.  We just want to put our words and pictures out there."  But they were so intent on protecting the current revenue stream.  The money the advertisers pay, and the money that individuals pay for the paper, that they didn’t see that this was a boon for them.  

And they made the same mistake that the music business made.  And the music business lost control of their industry.  They lost control to the Steve Jobs because they wanted to continue to sell CD’s for $15 each.  And I think that the same thing is happening in the print business.  

I’m glad to see that The Times is moving and I think once The Times moves, many other institutions will move as well.  Charge people for your product; if they’re not willing to pay for it, maybe you’ve got a problem with your product.

Question:
What makes someone a good book editor?

Daniel Okrent: I think that the primary – well there’s some preconditions to be a good editor.  You have to be able to subordinate your own ego.  It’s not your book.  It’s the writer’s book.  You have to help—be willing to help the writer do what the writer wishes to accomplish and not what you would like the writer to accomplish.  That’s number one.  
Number two, is a general sense of empathy.  I guess that similar to what I just said.  Understanding what the writer’s trying to do.  

And three, in my case, frankness.  I mean, it doesn’t do me any good to hear an editor say, “Ah, it’s great, it’s great, it’s great.”  I really want an editor to say, “I didn’t understand this," or "That sentence is awful," or "This stuff doesn’t belong here, it belongs there.”  Now, I won’t always be persuaded, but I want my editor to make that case a firmly and as supportively as possible.  And supportively means not telling me I’m good, but telling me, this is how to be better.

Question:
What's the best writing advice you've ever been given?

Daniel Okrent: I think the best advice I’ve ever had as a writer was, hope that your research disproves your preconceptions.  And push further so that you can get there.  Now that doesn’t always happen, but we all begin on a subject having an idea where we are going.  And the most satisfying work that I’ve always done is when I start going this direction and then I find, oh, no, no, no.  Go back this direction.  

I know writers who have completed books, or nearly completed books and then realize, "Oh my god; I’ve got it all wrong."  Jean Strauss, the wonderful biographer.  Her J.P. Morgan book took, I don’t know 14 or 15 years because she was nearly done when she realized she really hadn’t gotten Morgan right.  And she went back and did it all over again.  The willingness to be wrong and to recognize that is absolutely essential.  

The other great advice is, this is an aphorism that has been attributed to Hemingway, to P.G. Woodhouse, to... I don’t know, every writer of note in the 20th century.  You have to be willing to kill all your little darlings.  By which I mean, or whoever said that meant, you write a sentence that you think is so clever and so perfect and has such great rhythm to it and what a great joke it is, and you fall in love with the sentence for its own sake rather than for what it’s meant to convey.  That’s a little darling that you have to willing to go "pow" and just get rid of it.

Question:
If you were starting out today, would you still want to be a  journalist?

Daniel Okrent: I think that I would still get into journalism if I had the opportunity to.  You know, again, I’d rather play centerfield, or I’d rather be a leader of a 16 piece swing band, but I’m not capable of those things.  So assuming that I had the same set of skills that I indeed do have, I think that journalism... I mean I’ve had a wonderful time doing it.  I have never had a boring day in my career and I think that most journalists will tell you that.  Let me take that back.  My first job as a reporter, I covered sewer boards in suburban Detroit.  [Snore]  You know, that’s not fun.  But once I was established as a professional, never a boring day.  

So I would like to do that.  Now, if I were coming up now, I would be looking and I’d say, oh there are no jobs.  The journalism business is falling apart.  And I would hope that I would have the willingness to live in the cold water flat or whatever I would need to do to get established.  I do think these other forms I’ve spoken about... I think that they will evolve.  They may not be here yet.  I think that the major institutions like The Times will survive and thrive, in somewhat different form.  And I think that there will always be an audience for books.  I don’t think we will have the physical entity necessarily, but the idea of writing as I did in this case, 155,000 words on the subject, and selling it to people who are interested in reading it.  That will still be here and so I would feel—it’s easy for me to say at 62, but if I were 22, I would want to do the same thing for a living.
 
Question:
How did you come up with the idea of rotisserie baseball?

Daniel Okrent:
Yeah.  I was a great baseball fan and like many baseball fans, I loved to play with numbers.  And in the off season of 1979-1980, I was 31 years old and I was missing baseball and I had this idea for a game.  And there was a game that some professors of mine at the University of Michigan in the ‘60’s played that had, it was like stone tablets and a steel chisel compared to the computer in its level of sophistication, but the idea was individuals predicting how players would perform.  And based on how well they performed or how well you predicted whether you the individual who is playing the game would win.  So, I typed up some rules, and I came down from Mt. Sinai and handed them to a bunch of baseball-loving pals of mine with whom I had regular lunches at a restaurant on 52nd Street called, La Rotisserie Français, and said, what do you think?  And a few of them said, "I think you’re crazy, or I think that’s boring, I think that’s stupid," and a few others said, "That’s great."  And we found some others and in April, 1980, we had our first draft.  

Now, eight of the 10 of us worked in the medium.  We worked at magazines, newspapers, television, books, and as a result, it got a lot of coverage because our friends would hear us talking about it and our friends worked at newspapers and magazines and television networks.  And it got a lot more attention than, you know, had we all been lawyers.  And from that attention, people began to pay more attention and by within a year or two, there were many people playing a version of it across the country and we began to publish an annual book.  And I would say that the end of the ‘80’s, it was well-established.  People knew what it was.  Big fans did.  But it was the Internet that really gave it retro-rockets.  

In 1990, the Editor-in-Chief... Editorial Director of ESPN told me they did a survey of their viewers and found that one and a half percent of them knew about or played fantasy, or Rotisserie, the original name, sports and so it did make sense for them to do a show about them.  

Well, now if you turn on ESPN during the season, I mean the amount of statistics that are being presented that are only for people who play fantasy games and particular shows devoted to it and experts that make their living, it’s enormous.  And that came about because the internet made it so damned easy to follow what your players were doing.  And in this film that ESPN has made about the origins of Rotisserie Baseball, it shows the control room at ESPN and I think at Yahoo as well, and the computer—the server farm that is handling the transactions of all the people who are playing Rotisserie sports, you know, it looks like the inside guts of IBM.  It’s gigantic.  Millions, and millions, and millions of people playing it now.

Question:
Are fantasy leagues partly responsible for the rise of statistical analysis in sports?


Daniel Okrent: Well I think that there’s no question that fantasy sports has encouraged and nurtured this explosion, this mushrooming of statistical material.  Yeah, I feel responsible, to some degree.  I once told a reporter from The Wall Street Journal who did an article about it 15 years ago.  I said "I feel like J. Robert Oppenheimer having invented the atomic bomb.  I mean, look what I’ve unleashed on the world."  On the other hand, there all sorts of good uses of nuclear power as well.  And I think though you have to look at the obsession with baseball statistics or sports statistics the same way.

There’s no question that the statistical record of the game that exists in a box score tells you virtually everything.  There’s no equivalent of that for football and the basketball box score approaches it, but you really can’t tell much about the flow of a game the way you can if you know how to read a box score carefully.  So the ability to reduce this dramatic event to several lines of type I think has really enhanced the appreciation of baseball, because I can imagine the game.  I can look at a box score and I can imagine what that game was like.  It can take me out of my pajamas and my cup of coffee at the breakfast table into the ballpark and see things in the stadium of my mind.

Question:
Who’s going to win the 2010 World Series?

Daniel Okrent:
I think the Philadelphia Phillies are an incredibly talented team.  I think the Yankees are also incredibly talented team, which is to say, I have no insight.  I've predicted two obvious teams.  Tampa I think is very, very good and they could—they are the ones.  If I were issuing... if I were a handicapper, I’d put the Yankees and the Phillies a co-favorites and Tampa very close behind.

Recorded on: April 16, 2010

 

Big Think Interview With Da...

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