Art by Darrel Frost

Big Business

The disarray and discontent at Forbes

August 10, 2023

On December 5, 2017, an article appeared on the Forbes website: “This Phlebotomist Closed Almost $1 Million in Sales in Just One Year. Here’s How She Did It.” The author was Heather R. Morgan, identified as a contributor, whose bio read: “Economist, serial entrepreneur, SaaS investor, & rapper. Love robots.” Morgan—her rapper name is Razzlekhan—would go on to write more than fifty articles for Forbes, including “Should Your Company Worry About Getting Blacklisted?,” “What No One Tells You About Launching a Startup,” and “Snake Handling Techniques That Can Help You Deal with Stress.” Her last article for Forbes appeared on September 13, 2021.

Within a year, Morgan’s name appeared in Forbes again, along with her husband’s: Ilya “Dutch” Lichtenstein, an investor and part-time mentalist magician. This time, they were being written about, after having been arrested for conspiring to launder stolen cryptocurrency. Forbes reporters detailed their relationship and unraveled their schemes, which ultimately involved some $4.5 billion. The article mentioned that Forbes “removed her as a contributor” after Morgan’s September post, “during a routine semiannual review.” It didn’t explain the company’s contributor model—a system through which just about anyone can publish under the Forbes banner. Joshua Benton, of Nieman Lab, observed that Morgan had written on crypto and compared the situation to “finding out Smokey the Bear’s behind all the wildfires in California.” The journalists of the Forbes newsroom were mortified. “That was obviously not great,” Jemima McEvoy, a senior wealth reporter, told me. Members of the editorial staff had recently formed a union; they began petitioning their managers for, among other things, sturdier ethical guardrails.

Forbes has some six hundred employees, with around two hundred in the newsroom; professional journalists are vastly outnumbered by “contributors,” of whom there are at least two thousand. The company also enables people to pay to place an article; who is writing what can be hard to keep track of. The same goes for the multitude of enterprises at Forbes that, broadly speaking, fall into three buckets: “media,” “branded ventures,” and “consumer.” In the first category, Forbes has a print magazine with more than five million subscribers that publishes six issues annually, a website with about ninety million visitors per month, ads, and an events operation that draws crowds of as many as ten thousand people. (The events—among them the 30 Under 30 Summit, for which tickets this year are going for seven hundred and fifty dollars—make up around 30 percent of the company’s media revenue.)

The branded-ventures business includes BrandVoice, a marketing platform, which houses what’s known as the “paid program” for those seeking to place pieces—often a company or an entrepreneur. In some cases, an interested party will arrange with a Forbes marketing representative for a writer outside the newsroom to produce sponsored content; in others, a business will submit something directly, which gets a small “brand contributor” tag in the byline. BrandVoice also promotes something called Forbes Insights, which commissions studies from research firms on clients’ behalf, and Forbes Connoisseur, an advertising service that is, according to the Forbes 2023 Media Kit, “ideal for luxury and travel brands.” There are many layers; even Bill Hankes, the company’s chief communications officer, seems to have a hard time keeping track. “Yeah, there’s a lot of real estate there,” he told me. At one point he said, “I’ve never heard of Forbes Connoisseur.”

To round out its branded ventures, Forbes licenses its name, including to international editions: Forbes Africa, Forbes Bulgaria, Forbes Kazakhstan, and many more. There is Forbes Books, a publishing company; Forbes.jobs, a site for employment-seekers and recruiters; Forbes Global Properties, a platform for luxury home-buyers and real estate brokers; and Forbes Councils, “an invitation-only, professional organization where top CEOs and entrepreneurs like you build professional skills and gain connections and visibility on Forbes.com.” Magnom Properties is building a Forbes International Tower in Cairo; according to an announcement in Forbes, “The partnership agreement comes under the backdrop of a global study that has underpinned the strength of real estate in the Middle East as a core driver of economic growth.” The University of Arizona Global Campus offers programs at the Forbes School of Business & Technology. (When reached for comment on this story, the person acting as director of communications at the University of Arizona Global Campus inadvertently sent me a message intended for the dean: “It could be a semi hit job.” Neither the dean nor the communications director provided further comment.)

As part of the consumer business, Forbes Profiles comprises a LinkedIn-like networking site for individuals and companies that have been featured in Forbes. There is Forbes Vetted, a product-review site that collects affiliate revenue. A Forbes subsidiary called Forbes Marketplace had a vertical identified as “the place to find detailed information about the many products and services Forbes has to offer”—but after I reached out to Hankes for clarification on what that meant, the page was deleted. When shown a recent post, written by someone identified as a “subscriber” and promising “detailed information about Forbes branded products & services” as part of a “paid program,” Hankes called it “an example of bad labeling.” Hankes, confusingly, said Forbes Marketplace was the same thing as Forbes Advisor, which provides a service akin to Nerdwallet: a dedicated staff of journalists reviews financial services (auto insurance, credit cards). Apart from that, at a Forbes store, you can buy a “Future CEO” onesie. “It’s another type of revenue stream,” Hankes told me, of the assorted consumer ventures. “That segment is very exciting. It connects thematically with all of the things for which Forbes is known.” Through its technology division, the company also operates ForbesOne, which collects proprietary data on Forbes readers.

Of all the myriad monetization endeavors at Forbes, the most popular may be the 30 Under 30 list‚ despite the fact that alumni—such as Martin Shkreli; Sam Bankman-Fried; and Charlie Javice, who founded a student-loan assistance company called Frank and was later charged with several counts of fraud—have a mixed record. The New York Post covered the “relentless mockery on social media” received by Forbes honorees, including an observation that they “have been arrested for frauds and scams worth over $18.5B.” Among Forbes employees, there is a running joke: if you’re on the cover of Forbes, you’re going to be arrested soon.

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At embarrassing moments, journalists have been known to ridicule Forbes. “I don’t know what I would go there for,” David Lieberman—a former media reporter at USA Today and elsewhere, now an associate professor of media management at The New School—told me. Yet, according to a recent YouGov survey, Forbes is one of the most trusted names in media, ranked above the Associated Press. After the poll was published, Mike Federle, the chief executive of Forbes, wrote in an email to staff, “We should be proud of this” and “we are stewards of truth in a time when trust in our institutions, including the media, are at all-time lows.” It’s notable that Forbes has earned the respect of audiences across party lines; trust levels were reported to be similar among Democrats and Republicans. To be sure, Forbes has featured robust reporting, providing in-depth coverage of chief executives and the world of cryptocurrency, in particular. Amy Edmondson, a professor of management at the Harvard Business School, told me that Forbes is a “consistently reliable source of ideas and business news.” Among the corporate-inspiration set, listicles that unabashedly celebrate capitalism are widely followed, and endorsements from Forbes are touted; Malala Yousafzai has appeared at multiple events, and Kylie Jenner expressed awe when she was featured on the cover for being projected as “the youngest-ever self-made billionaire.” (Jenner’s cover appearance sparked controversy, however; she later lost her billionaire status, and Forbes published a story on what it called her “web of lies,” which alleged that she had inflated the success of her business.) In recent years, Forbes has become something of a media Rorschach test: To some, Forbes is a North Star for commerce and innovation. To others, it’s a mess.

For decades, Forbes was housed in a stately building on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 12th Street, in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. Malcolm Forbes, the magazine’s longtime publisher, occupied the townhouse next door. In 2010, the office building was sold to New York University; the townhouse was later bought by the founder of an “airflow solutions” company called Big Ass Fans. Forbes moved its offices to a generic glass-windowed corporate headquarters across the Hudson, in Jersey City. Only a handful of newsroom employees tend to go in; since the pandemic, there’s been no return-to-office mandate. When the Forbes union stages pickets, they often do so in Manhattan, when the company hosts an event that overlaps with their demands. In June, Forbes put on its annual “Iconoclast” gathering, featuring “bigwigs from the financial world,” as Andrea Murphy, the chair of the Forbes union, put it. The iconoclasts met up at Chelsea Piers. The union was on the waterfront.

At the street entry of the pier was a large inflated pig dressed as a businessman, holding a green bag of cash with one hand and strangling a laborer with the other. “In my fifteen years here, I think my average workweek has probably been about fifty to fifty-five hours, and all of that overtime has been unpaid,” Merrilee Barton, a photo editor, told me. Her colleagues distributed pamphlets enumerating their grievances: insufficient pay, unfair treatment, ethical breaches. After a few minutes, they were joined by a couple of members of the Starbucks union, who began handing out their own flyers, in opposition to Mellody Hobson, the chair of the board at Starbucks and a speaker at the Iconoclast event. The union members traded stories. “We just wanted to have a presence in front of management and the public to show that we’ve been bargaining for more than a year and we feel we haven’t made enough progress,” Hank Tucker, a Forbes money reporter, said. Barton chimed in: “I can’t continue to watch my coworkers be abused.” 

Courtesy of the Forbes union

Murphy followed along from home, in Amherst, Massachusetts. She is forty-eight, with friendly blue eyes and metallic-gray hair. During the pandemic, she and her husband decided to move to Amherst with their son to be closer to relatives. Murphy works remotely, covering billionaires, and comes down to New York to join her colleagues when she can. “There’s a shift from being family-run to being a company that is run by an investment company,” Murphy told me. She’d been around long enough to observe how much Forbes has changed. After graduating from college, Murphy was hired at a history magazine called American Heritage, which was then owned by Forbes. In 2007, American Heritage was sold, and she stayed with Forbes, joining the newsroom as an editor. “There was a lot more emphasis on doing things for your employees because they have been loyal and worked really hard,” she said. She recalled a Veterans Day tradition, now defunct: employees who had been at Forbes for five years or more would go to the Forbes family’s New Jersey estate for a day of relaxation—catered lunch, golfing, swimming, hot-air-balloon rides. At the end, Steve Forbes—Malcolm’s son, who eventually took over the company—distributed bonus checks. “You basically got this day off to socialize with your colleagues,” Murphy said. “That’s not the case anymore.” 

When Forbes was founded, in 1917, B.C. Forbes, a financial columnist for Hearst, and Walter Drey, the general manager of the Magazine of Wall Street, set out to create a biweekly publication that told stories of people shaping corporate life. The first issue’s cover story was a competition to find the best employer in America. In a column, Forbes wrote, “Business was originated to produce happiness, not to pile up millions.” B.C. passed the magazine empire down to his elder son, Bruce Charles; Malcolm, the younger son, succeeded him. Malcolm expanded the scope of Forbes, in part by introducing what became known as the Rich List, which ranked the four hundred wealthiest people in America. Known for lavish bashes—festivals at his French château; get-togethers with Elizabeth Taylor; a birthday party at his Moroccan palace with Rupert Murdoch, Barbara Walters, and Henry Kissinger—Malcolm was apparently more interested than his father in amassing millions. When he died, in 1990, a New York Times obituary called him “the embodiment of the phrase he used to market his magazine: ‘Capitalist Tool.’”

That year, Forbes went to Steve, a two-time Republican candidate for president; other family members also held shares. Over the next decade, the magazine struggled to sustain ad revenue; as the internet era dawned, Forbes slimmed down its publishing schedule. In 2006, the family sold a significant minority stake to a private equity group, Elevation Partners, in which Bono was a member. In 2014, Elevation moved out and the Forbes family sold 95 percent of the company to Integrated Whale Media Investments, a group in Hong Kong, at a valuation of $475 million. But that was never intended to last long-term and, for the past several years, Integrated Whale Media has been looking for a buyer—at one point, through a SPAC (“special purpose acquisition company”) deal, which included taking money from Binance, the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchange. (In 2020, Forbes reported that Binance allegedly had an “elaborate corporate structure designed to intentionally deceive regulators and surreptitiously profit from crypto investors in the United States.” Binance filed a defamation lawsuit against Forbes, but quickly withdrew the case.) By 2021, the market for SPACs had cooled, thanks to regulation and inflation; Forbes went looking for private buyers. (Integrated Whale Media could not be reached for comment. When asked about the firm, Hankes said, “It’s just a few guys.”)

Late last year, Forbes seemingly found a buyer in SUN Group, an Indian media conglomerate that owns several news outlets; its vice chair Shiv Khemka, who accumulated billions while living in Russia, was to be the lead investor. In April, Sara Fischer reported for Axios that SUN Group had been dropped from its leading role—likely because of potential scrutiny from the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which reviews overseas ownership of American companies in the interest of national security. In May, Forbes announced that Austin Russell—the twenty-eight-year-old CEO of Luminar Technologies, an automotive-technology firm—had entered an agreement to acquire an 82 percent stake in the company, which was valued at eight hundred million dollars. SUN Group—and Khemka—would still be involved, only now with fewer regulatory concerns. Integrated Whale Media would retain up to 10 percent. Russell set about finding other American investors to seal the deal; Axios also reported that Nikhil Sinha—formerly an academic, now a Silicon Valley businessman—committed two hundred million. (Per Fischer: “It’s unclear where exactly all of the money originates.”) Some paperwork was submitted to CFIUS for review. Details were murky, with more apparently forthcoming.

The staff of Forbes followed along, uncertain of what new ownership might mean, if the sale became finalized. “Like everybody else, we’re just going to wait and see if the financing comes through, and then we’ll go from there,” Murphy said. For the moment, Steve Forbes, at seventy-six, is chairman of the Forbes board and remains atop the masthead—but he is present only in title, and is reportedly expected to leave if the deal closes; the Forbes family would end its involvement with the company. A spokesperson for Russell told Axios, “The new Forbes board has not been decided, with top tier and diverse media, tech and AI leaders currently being curated to oversee the next generation of Forbes.” In an email to staff announcing the Russell acquisition plans, Federle, the Forbes CEO, called him a “true innovator,” a “visionary,” and “the new steward for our brand.” He continued, “The management team will remain intact, reporting to me, and the only staffing changes we have contemplated are to continue growing our team in support of the growth plans we continue to execute so well against.”

Randall Lane—who has been the chief content officer of Forbes since 2017, founded the Under 30 list, and wields significant influence at the company—would appear safe. Not that anyone can be sure where they stand. Neither he nor Federle has spoken to the union at the negotiating table—about the sale or anything else. (Federle and Lane deputized the head of human resources; the managing editor; and Ogletree Deakins, the company’s outside counsel, to speak on behalf of management.) At the June picket, a few placards read “Wanted for bargaining: Mike Federle.” Hankes said they don’t have time in their schedules. (Both also declined to speak with me; I first tried to make contact with Forbes more than a year ago.) Barton told me, of the union battle, “They seem to just be closing their eyes and pretending it’s not happening.”

Lane—who serves as the editor of Forbes magazine, in addition to his other roles—is often described by employees as a polarizing figure. He is fifty-five, with a thin mustache and trimmed beard; he wears a signature fedora. During the summer of 2020, he rented out a lakeside ski chalet in the Catskills, where he established what he called a DIY camp—which stood for Dad Innovates, Yo!—for his teenage daughters and their friends. (“I bought a bunch of cereal dispensers,” he told the New York Post. He judged the girls in a Chopped-style cooking contest.) Recently, he found a new side project: starting a national league for horse racing, which is set to debut in the fall; team owners will reportedly include the rappers Nelly and Rick Ross. At Forbes, Lane appears at company events. “He tends to be focused on projects that he’s really interested in—like Forbes 30 Under 30—and less interested in other parts of what’s going on in the newsroom,” Murphy told me. (“Randall runs a large, multi-platform, multi-product newsroom,” Hankes said. “He actively works with his newsroom leadership team, with a focus on new and growing editorial initiatives.”) Ruth Umoh, a former Forbes employee, told Insider last year that Lane has a “swashbuckling, machismo persona” that “made him the poster boy for Forbes.” But, she added, “as a leader who has to manage an increasingly millennial workforce, the braggadocio can be seen as abrasive, and they’re not willing to let it slide, and nor should they accept it as the norm.” Insider described staffers blaming Lane for their unhappiness, citing “questionable decisions and problematic comments”; some told me that he takes an unfair approach to compensation. Murphy said that Lane is a “key player” in overseeing salaries: “I know from speaking to colleagues that if Randall wants to get you a raise, you can get a raise.” (“Forbes has a corporate compensation team that manages compensation throughout the company in collaboration with people managers,” Hankes said. “Naturally, as the senior editorial executive, Randall has overall responsibility.”)

Recently, union members looked into who among them had gone without a raise since they’d organized. Their study found that almost two-thirds were women—and, on average, women in the bargaining unit make about $11,300 less than men do. Forbes pays the average female senior writer $22,250 less than the average male senior writer. The salary discrepancies reflect broader gender inequity at the company. “Historically, for women in the Forbes newsroom, it’s harder to get promoted through the ranks,” McEvoy told me. Since unionizing, Forbes has lost at least fifty unit employees—and 60 percent of them have been women.  

The union study also found that “Forbes has routinely struggled to hire and retain staffers from underrepresented backgrounds.” Just 8 percent of union members are Black; only 6 percent identify as Hispanic. (The vast majority of the company’s executives are white.) The average Black staffer in the Forbes newsroom makes about $15,000 less than the average white staffer. Last October, the union held a bargaining session focused on its diversity, equity, and inclusion proposals; Federle and Lane were invited to attend but didn’t show. Current and former employees were initially asked to speak, but management representatives pushed back against the presence of ex-staffers, who instead had to submit written and video testimonials. Murphy told me, of the company’s leadership, “They seem very resistant to hearing about people’s personal experiences at Forbes when you are not a white person.” (“Forbes is committed to pay equity and more broadly to DEIB [diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging], and has put into place practices that have led to greater opportunities for women and people of color,” Hankes said. “We take this work very seriously.”)

Perhaps most frustrating has been that journalists on staff at Forbes have felt displaced in the hierarchy of importance by diversified revenue streams, including “contributor” and “BrandVoice” pieces that they believe undermine their work as reporters. The contributor model—engineered by Lewis DVorkin, formerly the chief product officer of Forbes—debuted in 2010; DVorkin called it “incentive-based, entrepreneurial journalism.” At the start, vetting was minimal; some contributors were compensated based on unique visits. Under Mike Perlis, who was then the company’s CEO, Forbes also began selling the privilege of planting, essentially, a press release, in a form even less thinly veiled than you’ll find on the site today. Before long, the downsides of this arrangement were evident. Poynter called Forbes “less website, more operating system.” (DVorkin told Poynter, “It’s always, at the end, about money.”) Jeff Jarvis, the director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism, deemed Forbes “the definition of a diluted media brand.”

The era of unique-visitor-based pay is over, but hundreds of contributors now publish with Forbes every day, and the problems persist. The Times reported that a PR firm paid a Forbes contributor six hundred dollars in 2013 to publish a positive story on Jeffrey Epstein. Benton, at Nieman Lab, later noted the existence of a website called GetOnForbes.com, which claims to provide assistance with the article-placement process. This past May, the Fine Print newsletter reported on a now-former contributor who solicited copy approval from a musician’s publicist when writing a profile and ran “surreal fiction” on Forbes

The union is seeking stronger protections of editorial integrity—applied to both the contributor model and to advertising. Samar Marwan, a former editor at Forbes, told me that, while she was overseeing a technology landing page focused on artificial intelligence, the business side asked her to email the ten articles she planned to display each week, in order to seek approval from an advertising agency working with Microsoft. “The direction I was given at the time was that Microsoft didn’t want competitors to be featured on the page while they were sponsoring it,” she said. Marwan recalled complaining to her supervisors that the situation made her uneasy; eventually, she said she was told, Lane was filled in. (When reached for comment, Hankes said, “Randall and editorial leadership would never approve a practice like this, and it’s inaccurate to suggest any practice like this exists or has continued.”)

“I think that a lot of people in the unit would like it if things were made clearer—between what’s done by contributors and advertorial-style content, and what’s done by Forbes staffers,” Murphy said. Lane established a designated desk for reviewing contributor work, but staff believe it to be inadequate; besides, it’s impossible for a casual reader to differentiate between reporters, editorial “contributors,” and BrandVoice sponcon. “With the sheer number of articles that go up from the contributor network,” McEvoy told me, “something is going to go wrong.” 

On another day in June, chief executives, human-resources officers, and a few venture capitalists gathered for the annual Forbes “Future of Work” summit. The event took place at Forbes on Fifth, originally a hotel that opened in 1926—three blocks from where the magazine’s office used to be—which has become a venue for the company to play host. Diane Brady, an assistant managing editor who frequently conducts interviews onstage, greeted me inside. She was there to moderate panels on the self-service economy and employee experience. “I like to think of it as live journalism,” she said. Brady, who is fifty-seven with a blond bob, wore a pastel-purple suit. “Events at Forbes on Fifth are often highly curated, invitation only,” she told me—so it seemed fitting, as we walked past dark gray walls decorated with large tinted mirrors ornamented by floral macramé decals, that, before Forbes moved in, the space was used for wedding receptions. We arrived at what had been the dance floor—sunken, glossy, a checkerboard of cream and yellow—now the staging area for speeches about artificial intelligence and the leadership strategies of tomorrow.

A hundred and sixty-four attendees filled the room, all in Forbes guest lanyards, many of them women. They came for a day of panels featuring, among others, the CEOs of Slack, Vimeo, and Instawork, as well as Charlotte Burrows, the chair of the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and several Forbes journalists who held talks on women’s health in the workplace, hybrid office models, and equal pay. Tiffany Dufu—the founder and CEO of The Cru, a networking and professional coaching service for women that matches clients using an algorithm—beamed onstage under the Forbes logo. “I’m so excited to be here,” she said. Kristin Stoller, a Forbes deputy editor who moderated a panel, declared, “It’s kind of like theater.”

Photo by Jamel Toppin, courtesy of Forbes

One of the most popular sessions was a conversation between Sherry Phillips, the chief revenue officer of Forbes, and Everette Taylor, the chief executive officer of Kickstarter. An alumnus of the 30 Under 30 list and “friend of Forbes,” as Phillips told the crowd, Taylor, now thirty-four, had come to speak about “Crowdfunding Equity” and his company’s adoption of a four-day workweek. (“I’m a fan of it,” Phillips said.) Phillips asked Taylor to describe his approach to hiring, noting that he’s been “diligent about diversity.” Taylor made a point of highlighting the union at Kickstarter, the first major tech company to have one, and shared a thought that sounded more like vintage Forbes than something from its present-day pages: “I think that one thing that a lot of CEOs forget is that your duty isn’t just to the board and your shareholders and to growth and revenue, but your duty is to the well-being of the people that work for you—and work with you.”

“I found the conversations quite thoughtful and relevant and just energizing,” Amy Edmondson—the Harvard professor, who spoke at the event—told me. Meghan Durso, the industry manager of a nonprofit, and her friend Shawni Davis, the founder of an electrical contracting firm, had taken a train down from Albany to attend. “I was impressed with the event’s discussions and strong DEI focus,” Durso said. Davis added, “Forbes is a household name, so to even get to go to an event for me was huge.” (Other attendees shared their impressions on LinkedIn, where Forbes was hailed as “brilliant,” the event as “a great opportunity.”) By all appearances, Forbes was an inspiring champion of progressive workplace practices. Over the course of the day, it was never mentioned that the company’s employees were waging a campaign attesting otherwise. (A four-day workweek seems, to the union, an impossible fantasy; they have been trying to set firm boundaries around a workweek lasting five days, at forty hours.)

For now, the bargaining committee has more immediate concerns, especially the status of the company’s sale. As in the case of so many bids for media ownership, those lined up to buy Forbes have no visible attachment to its editorial mission; they have other motivations. “Few of these people are from the world of journalism, and they’re all looking to make a good deal,” Lieberman, the associate professor of media management, said. (Hankes said that Russell is “highly interested” in all three of the Forbes business buckets.) Still, Lieberman predicts that it will be difficult to raise more money—which is needed by November to secure the Russell–SUN Group acquisition. “What exactly you are buying when you buy Forbes is not clear,” Lieberman told me. “They keep saying, ‘Well, the brand name,’ but how much the brand name is worth is whatever the highest bidder will say it’s worth.” (Russell declined to speak with me.) Per Hankes, “Forbes has been growing. We posted a good fourth quarter, on top of meeting our goals for last year as well. So the idea is that: If you can actually infuse some capital into the company, can you actually accelerate that growth? That’s really the investment thesis.” 

When the union was announced, members released a video introducing themselves and their goals. Now half of the people from that video have moved on to other jobs—thanks, in part, to the fact that Forbes has managed, despite its flaws, to maintain standing with outsiders. “If you have opportunities to publish stories, both online and in the magazine, then you can parlay that into another job,” Murphy said. Which is a shame, in a way: for employees, Forbes has become a means to an end. For young journalists in particular, “there’s not this idea that you can build a  career here.”

Feven Merid is CJR’s staff writer and Senior Delacorte Fellow.