In this edition of ‘Banter M’:
Six Amazing Years with Ben Cohen and The Daily Banter – A farewell letter from our managing editor Bob Cesca
The Fight (Part 2) – Ben Cohen concludes the story of a violent street fight in Los Angeles that changed the course of his life
Why I’m Glad I’m Not Famous – Chez Pazienza writes about the discomfort he feels with the familiarity unknown fans treat him with.
Six Amazing Years with Ben Cohen and The Daily Banter
by Bob Cesca
When Ben Cohen first wrote to me, I was struggling to extricate myself from the harrowing belly of the Great Recession. It was 2009 and the pain of the financial crisis was devouring my life, both emotionally and financially. I simply wasn’t making enough money through my struggling media company or from my blogging efforts to meet my repulsively overwhelming obligations. Not only was I coming to terms with an inevitable foreclosure, but I had already short-sold a business property and I was actively assembling my paperwork to file Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection that would in-effect ruin my credit for the foreseeable future while permanently dissolving a business I had founded 10 years earlier.
At the time, the concept of maintaining a solo website and earning a living in the process was dying, if it had truly existed at all. And it was made even worse by an economy that hadn’t quite yet finished screwing most of us in one way or another.
So, at that time, Ben and his partner Ari devised a strategy to lasso a group of like-minded blogs together to form a singular yet individualistic flotilla, with the goal of, as Ben Franklin once said in a time of crisis, hanging together rather than hanging separately. Ben’s pitch sounded appealing and I immediately agreed. The plan was to run banner ads across all of our individual sites. In doing so, our revenue would rise due to increased visibility for each advertiser (this is the short version of how it worked).
I signed on immediately, followed by Chez’s blog, Oliver Willis’ blog, Suzie Madrak’s blog and of course Ben’s blog — the proto-Banter lineup.
Our income was still in the range of beer money, but it was better and more stable than it had been. Blogs came and went from the team, but the core group remained the same until 2012 when Ben announced that he’d be launching a full-on group blog with contributions from each of us. It sounds bizarre given what’s happened since, by my pitch to Ben was to write a daily article in the style of what, yes, Glenn Greenwald used to write for Salon and The Guardian. For this, Ben would pay me a flat fee every month.
Through our ongoing discussions Ben had always dreamed about taking a stab at a business model that included actually paying his writers. Banter wasn’t my first paid writing gig, but it was definitely my first paid writing gig in politics. Of course, The Huffington Post didn’t, and still doesn’t, pay its bloggers, so this would be the first time in my political writing career that I’d receive a regular monthly income for my work. Chez and Oliver followed soon after that, joined by Ben as the flagship of the team. It was then that The Daily Banter was birthed.
For the last three years, writing for Banter was a dream gig. Ben offered Chez and I carte blanche — complete latitude to write whatever we wanted with zero editorial interference while receiving enough of a monthly paycheck to cover our bills, our rent and then some. Frankly, I wasn’t sure whether the site was generating nearly enough revenue to justify our salaries, but we could always rely on Ben’s savvy to make ends meet. We were always paid on schedule and in full.
I’d like to think I returned the favor by writing articles that were both thought-provoking and appealing enough to generate my share of traffic to the site. Honestly, I wasn’t sure whether it would be possible to write a column-length article every weekday. Prior to that, my Huff Post columns were published once-a-week. I quickly discovered, though, that it was possible as long as I was disciplined and inspired. The latter goal was far more elusive than the first. Every three months or so, I found that burnout was a very real thing. Politics is perpetually fascinating to me, yet finding the passion to construct a thousand-word article was impossible if my outrage tank was empty. Fortunately for all of us on the team, Ben was always very generous about taking time off — with pay.
It was never lost on me how rare this opportunity was, given all of the various perks, especially the aforementioned paid time off. For this, I will be eternally grateful to Ben.
As the site grew, the demand for content grew as well. In 2013, we were each required to write two, then eventually three articles per day. By that time, I had a system fairly well locked down. I’d write a long-form article the night before, then save it to be robo-posted at 8 a.m. eastern the following day. I’d write two smaller posts (when news permitted) throughout the day, culminating in another long-form article at the end of the day in preparation for the next day. And so it went. Publishing every weekday morning also meant writing a column on Sundays. While having a six-day work week was occasionally a point of consternation, it, again, was a small sacrifice given the rarity of the opportunity.
Four years after Ben and I first spoke, Banter officially broke through and grew into a significant force in online publishing. 2013 was the year of Snowden and Greenwald, and we were perhaps one of just a handful of online sources for articles that questioned the reporting on that saga.
The following year, Chez, Ben and, at the time, Bryce Rudow each had huge viral successes — charting in the millions of views per article.
That basically ended almost exactly one year ago when Facebook, our primary source of traffic, adjusted its algorithm for how often status updates with outside links appear in news feeds. This one small change decimated traffic to Banter as well as dozens of other independent publications. The goal, naturally, was to hold our traffic hostage in hopes we’d pay to “boost” the visibility of our links. Even when we acquiesced — each of us out of our own pockets — the traffic never matched what it had been. Thanks, Zuckerberg.
Fast forward to this year. In the struggle to find loopholes around Facebook’s firewall, revenue declined with the traffic. Speaking for myself, I was faced with few options but to explore other opportunities. That’s when I landed at Salon, while continuing to write for Banter.
Meanwhile, significant changes in my personal life have mandated that I hunker down and augment my income. Last week, I was offered an opportunity to write for a site called Addicting Info. The offer was too enticing to ignore. Unfortunately, my publishing commitment to Addicting Info meant that something else had to be cut from a work day that includes three podcasts and four articles for Salon every week.
It’s for these reasons that I have no choice but to step away from The Daily Banterafter six years of working with Ben and the rest of the team in one capacity or another. It wasn’t a decision that I took lightly, and I hope that Ben will have me back once-in-a-while to shout obscenities at Republicans now and then. I’ll surely welcome any invitations along those lines.
I’d like to once again thank Ben Cohen for being a great friend and a true mensch. Along with Roy Sekoff, who invited me to blog for Huff Post, Ben was one of two men who changed my career for the better and I’m eternally grateful to him for much more than I can fully describe here.
Likewise, I want to thank everyone who’s followed my work, especially those of you who pay cash money to do so. I strongly encourage you to continue supporting Banter and independent media. So, don’t nobody move.
One last thing before I go: Glenn Greenwald can feel free to go fuck himself.
That felt good.
The Fight (Part 2)
(Continued from Part 1)
by Ben Cohen
As we drive down Sunset Boulevard, my breathing begins to slow down and I begin to assess the damage I’ve done to myself. My hands are red-raw and beginning to swell badly. My index finger on my left hand does not look good at all and is quickly doubling in size. I look in the rear view mirror and see blood trickling down my face from my eyebrow. My shirt is torn to shreds and there are gash marks all over my neck and chest from being punched and mauled. My head is ringing slightly and every time I open my jaw, I feel a dull, aching pain shooting up to my temple.
My apartment is nearby, and the girl insists on coming in to look after me. I am impressed with how she is handling everything and seems to now be more in control of the situation than I am. The adrenaline is wearing off and I’m starting to feel a lot of pain. She comes in, tends to my wound and insists I go to hospital. It’s now almost 4 in the morning and she has to go to work in a few hours.
“Go home. I’m fine. I’ll drive myself to the hospital,” I say, trying to mask the pulsating pain spreading through my hands, arms and shoulders.
We argue for a few minutes – she doesn’t want to leave me. But I’m feeling strong enough to get myself to Cedar’s Sinai 10 minute drive south of my apartment. She relents and agrees to go home, insisting I text after I leave the hospital.
As I attempt to get into my car, I realize I cannot grip the door handle properly. My hands are now so swollen and painful that the slightest movement is agonizing. How the hell am I going to drive like this? I sit in my car for several minutes, sucking in air and trying to manage the drastically increasing pain that is now shooting through my body like a fire hose. OK, I can do this, I say to myself. I gingerly put the key in the ignition and use the least damaged part of my right hand to turn it. It is shockingly painful, but I know I only have 10 minutes of this until I’m at the hospital. As I pull out of the garage, I realize I can actually grip the wheel with my elbows. There is barely anyone on the street, so driving like this is manageable if I go slowly.
15 minutes later, I’m at the hospital and feeling quite faint from the relentless pain. I am seen quickly, given painkillers, a tetanus shot, stitched up, and X-rayed within 45 minutes. There are no signs of concussion, and no visible breaks from the X-ray but the doctor suspects I have fractured my knuckle. The powerful painkillers kick in, and almost immediately I can think more clearly. I call my parents in the UK from the ER room and tell them I’m in the hospital, that everything is OK and there’s nothing to worry about.
“Take photos of the damage,” my dad tells me hurriedly, as always thinking like a dad. “If this guy is badly injured, he could sue you.”
Then it hits me. What happened to him? As we drove off, we left him slumped on a railing in a very bad state. From the condition of my hands, I instinctively know he has been injured badly. I have never hit someone so hard, and if I am in this type of pain I can only imagine what he is going through. While my dad is right, I am not thinking of the legal repercussions.
The following few days are unbearably painful, and I cannot sleep. I wake up constantly in agony in the middle of the night and have to put my hands in my freezer to stop the throbbing pain. Sometimes the physical discomfort is so bad I find myself crying – something I haven’t done since childhood. Worse are the nightmares. In the moments when I can sleep, I am overcome with vivid memories of the trauma I caused another human being. I relive the punches landed on his skull and with every blow I feel his pain. Over and over again, I am hitting myself and the violence makes me sick. The nightmares continue for weeks, and my badly damaged hands serve as a day to day reminder that despite coming out on top, there were no winners in our confrontation
My friends are proud of me and everyone who knows about it tells me I did the right thing. I can sense adulation from my male friends, most of whom have never been in a violent confrontation. “He deserved it man, you kicked his ass!” says a close friend. “That’ll teach him to fuck with Ben Cohen!”
As word spreads of the fight, my reputation as a fighter grows. I teach a boxing class and my students can’t stop talking about it. I go to the gym and almost everyone wants to know what happened and how badly I “fucked him up.”
A part of me swells with pride, while the other cringes with shame.
Before the fight, I had wanted to get back into the competitive kickboxing I engaged in as a university student. I was 28 and had several years left of my athletic prime so wanted make the most of it. After the fight, I can’t think of anything I want to do less. The thought of hitting someone makes me physically ill and I don’t even want to teach my class. As I take my students through punching drills, I can’t stop thinking about the guy I hit over and over and over again.
On one evening, I am in a bar with friends, and a small guy I don’t know who has tagged along starts asking me about my bandaged hands.
“So you got in a fight?” he asks abruptly.
“Yeah, I’d rather not talk about it to be honest,” I say, trying to change the topic.
“So you got your ass kicked?” he replies sneeringly.
Normally, I wouldn’t let something like this slide.
“Erm, yeah, something like that,” I say, turning to talk to someone else.
“So you’re a tough guy?” he continues, still trying to provoke me.
At that moment, it dawns on me that there must be something wrong with me. I have no idea who this guy is, but he seems to want to get into a confrontation. Am I attracting this violence? None of my friends or family get into these types of situations, so logically it must be something I am doing. I continue to ignore my increasingly agitated provoker, and attempt to make myself look as non threatening as possible. If he doesn’t see me as any sort of rival to his masculinity, maybe he’ll back off.
After a few moments, he gets the picture and stops trying to engage with me. Lesson learned. If I don’t respond to threats, they don’t actually exist.
Months later, my hands are mostly healed and the nightmares have largely stopped. I finally feel like myself again, and I can get back to training properly. While my thirst for competitive fighting has diminished significantly, I still love to train and want to get back to practicing Martial Arts – a huge part of my life that I know I will never give up.
On my first day back of boxing sparring, I catch my training partner with a right hand to the temple that momentarily stuns him. I feel bone on bone contact, even through 16 Oz gloves, and get an instantaneous, violent flashback from the fight. I call a stop to the sparring immediately, take my gloves off and sit down. My sparring partner looks puzzled.
“You ok man? Nice shot. I’m good – no need to stop sparring though.”
I explain why I had to stop, and he looks even more perplexed. He is training to become a professional fighter and has no problem dealing out, or taking punishment.
Then and there, I decide I don’t ever want to hit anyone in the face ever again.
Five years later, I still have pain in my hands from that fight. I am thankful for it because it reminds me how utterly stupid violence is. I still practice Martial Arts, but have switched to the gentler, more flexible styles of Wing Chun and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu – arts based on the concept of pure self defense and defeating an attacker without hurting them. I still train boxing and kick boxing, but have not engaged in any sparring. I have also walked away from potentially violent situations without any feelings of shame or damage to my ego. I no longer care whether someone I don’t know thinks I am coward or afraid to fight. These days, those situations don’t happen anyway, because there is no longer the same violence within me.
I often think about the person I beat up on that horrible night, and I hope that he is OK. More than that, I hope took the same lessons from our encounter as I did and no longer has that destructive violence within him.
Why I’m Glad I’m Not Famous
by Chez Pazienza
Earlier this week, I used a common annoying Facebook meme to demonstrate how after all these years I’m still kind of a misanthrope. Maybe you’ve seen this chain status update moving around from person to person on your friends’ walls: It starts off claiming to be an “experiment” to see who will read to the end of the message and after a few lines predictably morphs into a cloying — but oddly standoffish — request for the poster’s Facebook friends to respond with however and wherever they first met him or her. The idea is supposedly to see both who’s paying attention and who cares enough to play along. Once a bunch of “friends” answer, they’re supposed to cut and paste the entire message and post it on their own walls so that the cycle of Facebook insipidity will continue into eternity.
Well, I did cut and paste the message and posted it to my wall — with a few minor adjustments. My take on the meme was pretty standard, right up until the line wondering who will read to the end. And then it derailed into a rant about how, if you appreciate my friendship, you should ignore this kind of crap completely and never, for the love of Christ, ever post something to your wall again asking that I play some silly little fucking game designed to stoke the treacly nostalgia center of your brain and generally make you feel like people actually like you, beyond the neologistic definition of the word. It was a dick thing to do, which is probably why I enjoyed doing it so much.
Since the podcast I do with Bob Cesca has taken off — and it really has, well beyond the meager expectations I had for the thing when we first started — I’ve been flooded with new Facebook friends and Twitter followers. Suddenly people I’ve never met are not only joining conversations I typically imagine having only with real friends or acquaintances, but they’re addressing me with a familiarity that I occasionally find disconcerting. Now before anybody calls me a snob — which I fully admit I can be — it’s important to know that I appreciate the fondness people have for what I do both on the podcast and through my writing and I’m utterly humbled by all the support I’ve been shown recently. But it’s fascinating, even to me, to watch my irascibility flare up in the face of those who think they know me when in reality they just have no fucking idea.
With this in mind, it’s probably not a surprise that I’m really glad I’m not somebody who draws real attention. I’ve always said that I could never handle being legitimately famous and that fact has grown exponentially since the rise of social media, with each and every one of us now living in a 24/7 Panopticon, where anything we do or say can be recorded and broadcast to the world. If I were a celebrity, I’d be on TMZ every other night, either caught on video furiously berating some idiot who’s decided to sample every single ice cream flavor at Milk on Beverly before deciding what he wants while I’m stuck behind him in line, or via an interview with a middle-aged tourist who’s crying on camera about how I threw a water bottle at her car for not pulling far enough out into the middle of the intersection to make a left turn. I’d be labeled a “Hollywood Bad Boy” because my patience for daily annoyances regularly sits at about zero. I’ve mellowed a little with age, but every now and then that misanthropic streak makes itself known again in a pretty major way.
I can’t imagine what it’s like to be famous for something worthwhile. I’m not talking about Lindsay Lohan, who can drink herself into a stupor and run into pedestrians without really ruining anyone’s impression of her since people aren’t expecting much anyway. I’m talking about, say, a Brad Pitt or a Meryl Streep — or outside of the showbiz world, even somebody like Neil deGrasse Tyson — somebody who has to be on their best behavior at all times, lest their sins be revealed to the American public and it chooses en masse to render a verdict of guilty. I’m talking about somebody people assume is a good person. It’s always possible a person like that will be busted for drunk driving or will otherwise make a mistake that would’ve been made public anyway. But what about all those offenses that used to go by unnoticed but now can’t be hidden, the times when you lose your temper the way any normal person does every now and then; the moments when you’re irritable and not in the mood to deal with a lot of crap; or particularly these days, the times when you say something off-hand that a bunch of people on Twitter think is an expression of privilege or thoughtlessness, deserving of your own condemning hashtag. How do you keep it together all the time in this kind of world?
I’m a nobody and I already can’t deal with people sidling up to me online and pretending they’re my new friend. (This isn’t everyone, obviously — if I like you or love you, you know it.) The past couple of weeks has seen me rethink my decision to accept anyone who friends me, even though I’ve always felt like I had to do it because I work in media and the more people I can push my inconsequential opinions out to, the better. Again, I’m thrilled people love the Bob & Chez Show so much and I can’t thank them enough for listening and circulating us, but people who feel that because they hear your voice a couple of times a week you want to hear from them incessantly — well, that’s never really been my thing. Maybe that’s how it works these days: If you’re in media you have no choice but to be available on social media, but there’s something about putting your personality out there — rather than just, say, reading the news — that makes some people feel like they know you, like they’re your family. Maybe it’s just because I only have a handful of close friends — and even my Facebook friends are people I either know in person or became so close to online during my DXM and throughout my Banter days that they feel like real friends — but I’m picky about who I actually want to have a conversation with.
I’m being a prick here. I know this. I’m bitching about something nobody in my position should ever bitch about, since I’m not actually famous and don’t have to worry about it if I occasionally get angry in public and nobody should complain about having a bunch of Facebook or Twitter friends. I think where some of this comes from is that over the past several months, as the podcast has risen in popularity, there are been some who mistakenly believe that my attitude on the show is some kind of put-on or shtick. That my pessimism and cynicism are a joke. I’m glad I can be amusing — like a clown — but the reality is that I truly am both clinically depressed and generally cynical (particularly these days). Because I can sometimes translate that into humor in no way negates the attitude and personality at the center of who I am. This is me. I’m a fucking pissed-off mess sometimes — and I can’t be bothered to worry about whether it isn’t what people paid to see, so to speak.
If you actually know me, you understand this. If not — oh fucking well.