When we decided to rent a theater with 1,600 seats for our first-ever live debate, most of our friends looked at us with a mixture of pity and concern.
Never mind the fact that we would have to fill all 1,600 seats. The theater we’d booked was in Los Angeles—not exactly a city known for its culture of public debates. And not just in L.A., but smack in the middle of downtown, where after-hours can look a little bit like San Francisco during the day. To make matters worse, we had only managed to get the place on a Wednesday night.
We did it anyway. And we sold every seat in the house.
What did we learn? A few things.
The Free Press Isn’t Just a Newsletter. It’s a Community of Curious People.
The line was wrapped so far around the block that we had to start 30 minutes late. People were begging the box office to find them just one seat minutes before the debate began. Moms emailed us asking if the theater would allow children under five so they could attend but keep to their breastfeeding schedule. (There was at least one mother with a very well-behaved newborn strapped to her chest; jury’s out on how he feels about the sexual revolution.)
People came from all over. I met Free Pressers from Vancouver, Seattle, New York, Nevada, Montana, and so many other states.
Someone drove a retrofitted school bus down from San Francisco to hold an after-party for whoever wanted to come. There were three young priests who drove many miles to see the action, and at least one porn star who took a flight.
Also: libertarian frat bros in suits; e-girls with Elf Bars; trad boys who wondered aloud if the concession popcorn had seed oil; dads who had to run out to check in with the babysitter; actors from your favorite TV shows; comedians you’ve never heard of; writers you hate to love; angry Catholics; resigned atheists; closeted Trump voters; Mormons who saved themselves for marriage; young gay couples in crop tops; feminists; anti-feminists; and a whole lot of podcasters.
We had a sense of how diverse—in all ways—this community was. But no comments section is a substitute for actually being with you guys. And holy shit, was it exciting.
Debate Isn’t Dead
We live in an upside-down moment in which disagreement is too often taken as dislike. A culture in which it’s too often deemed heresy to consider the other side of an argument. A culture in which speech itself is too often considered a kind of violence.
At The Free Press, we simply don’t believe any of that.
We believe that you can wrestle with complicated ideas without being contaminated by them. We believe that you can survive being a little bit offended. And that it’s actually really good for us.
What’s so gratifying is that you think so, too.
One of our takeaways from this inaugural debate is that this community is hungry for healthy disagreement (ideally with drinks!), and we’re already hard at work planning more of them in a city near you.
We Make News
And not just with our reporting.
We made news in the old outlets (New York magazine) and in the new ones (Rob Henderson; Smoke ’Em If You Got ’Em; Jessica Reed Kraus, we are grateful). Right-wingers were pissed off (The Carousel), but then again, so were lefties (LA Review of Books). If you read one of these pieces, please make it Emily Jane Fox at Vanity Fair.
It’s probably not a good sign about the state of our country that a group of people getting together to debate is a major news story. We live in fear that the mainstream media might think of something crazy like this. Until then, we’re happy to be your purveyor of wild, shocking events in which several people publicly disagree. (Please note that at present, we do not provide pearls to clutch.)
So, What’s Next?
We’re going to do more of these things. We’re going to throw big after-parties for those of you who schlep to town. And we’re going to aim to do at least a handful of these in 2024—a year that will be full of empty, make-believe debates—on subjects that actually matter to our lives and to the future of our country.
We’re also going to make it easier for all 450,000 of you (and growing) to be a part of it.
It felt right, as a news organization focused in part on what the digital age has done to us and our relationships, to hold a debate that required participants and audience members to really look at and hear each other. The electricity of that interaction cannot be created via Zoom.
But too many of you are in far-flung places, and we want those of you who weren’t able to make the trek to L.A. to be able to grapple with this important subject.
That’s why we’re releasing the full film of the event this coming Thursday, only to subscribers of The Free Press.
You can get a taste of what you’ll see on Thursday right here:
So if you want to watch, become a paid subscriber today by clicking right here. It’s the price of a decent sandwich!
And to those who have been longtime supporters, thank you. I’m blown away by what this has become.