|Is This Thing On?|
|By William Bunch '81|
In the winter of late 2002 and early 2003, Joshua Marshall ’93 AM, ’03 PhD was a fledgling freelance writer in Washington, D.C., who was also wrapping up the academic work for his doctorate in early American history. But Marshall was spending less and less time on his academic work and more and more time writing a political blog on his laptop, either in his apartment or in a Starbucks near DuPont Circle. It wasn’t a particularly profitable life; Marshall still occasionally borrowed money from his father to pay the bills.
Then, just before Brown’s winter break, Marshall switched from studying colonial history to helping write the history of the early twenty-first century. Working mainly at night from the bedroom of his small Washington apartment, Marshall helped topple one of the most powerful men in Washington, incoming Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi. On December 5, 2002, Lott spoke at a luncheon marking the 100th birthday of his Senate colleague Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. The Senate leader noted that Mississippi had supported Thurmond’s third-party run for the U.S. presidency back in 1948, adding that “if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years either.”
Marshall found the quote the next day on ABC News’ Web site The Note. He couldn’t believe there wasn’t more of a fuss about it. As he wrote at 3:20 p.m. that afternoon: “Of course, Thurmond ran as the presidential candidate on the ‘States-Rights Democrat’ or ‘Dixiecrat’ ticket—a candidacy that was based exclusively and explicitly upon the preservation of legalized segregation and opposition to voting rights and civil rights for blacks.”
Marshall didn’t stop there. Over the next few days, he excoriated CNN for not asking about the comments and criticized Washington Post columnist David Broder for soft-peddling the remarks in print. On his blog, TalkingPointsMemo.com, Marshall posted a Lott quote that had appeared in a magazine with a white-supremacist bent. In it, Lott praised Confederacy president Jefferson Davis.
Meanwhile, 100 miles to the north, in Philadelphia’s Center City, Duncan Black ’99 PhD, an economics lecturer at Bryn Mawr College, was also pounding away at Lott under the pseudonym Atrios on his Web site, Eschaton (atrios.blogspot.com). By the night of December 6, he had found and posted a 1948 campaign flyer for Thurmond’s campaign, which touted his opposition to federal anti-lynching laws. “If only Strom had won, and Truman’s anti-lynching law hadn’t passed, we wouldn’t be having all these problems,” Black wrote with his characteristic sarcasm.
Over the next few weeks, some Democratic politicians began to echo the bloggers’ comments, and the noise grew too loud for the mainstream media to ignore. The New York Times picked up the controversy on December 10, four days after Marshall and Black had stirred things up. On December 20, Lott surrendered his leadership post. Writing about the developments, the London Guardian ran the headline “Bloggers Catch What Washington Post Missed.”
The role of Marshall and Black in the downfall of Lott has since become the stuff of legend in the blogosphere, a powerful example of what two guys with modems and curious minds can accomplish in the Internet age. TalkingPointsMemo.com, or TPM, and Atrios are two of the more popular blogs (a contraction of the term Web logs) that now are unavoidable to anyone surfing the Web. Although most blogs have few readers and no effect on anyone beside a small circle of the blogger’s friends, the ability of bloggers to quickly upload documents and other information has given some of them a profound influence on reporters and editors at print publications and broadcast news shows.
Four years after the Trent Lott affair, in fact, Josh Marshall is creating what amounts to a new form of journalism on the Web. By the time I finally met up with him in February of this year, he had gotten married, moved to New York City, fathered a son, and created TPM Media LLC, the company that runs his now growing number of Web sites. The new office of TPM Media is an airy, one-room, third-story walk-up at the intersection of 28th Street and 6th Avenue in Manhattan. On the ground floor of the building is a wholesale florist; its pleasant scents sometimes drift up to TPM offices.
Inside, the office has a polished hardwood floor and completely bare walls. The room is open and about the size of a large suburban living room. On the right is Marshall’s large desk. Two diaper boxes sit next to it. On the left, five young men clad in blue jeans sit at bare tables and type away on laptops in an almost eerie silence. A jumble of computer wire runs along the floor behind them, and a television tuned to C-Span is propped nearby with the sound turned off. Looking at the five young men, I can’t help but think that it is almost as if Marshall has been cloned and replicated, like a scientific experiment on blogging run amok. The quiet young men are generating content for a growing number of Marshall Web sites, including TPM Muckraker (for political investigative reporting), TPM Café (where a variety of political experts and voices write blog opinion pieces), and the Horse’s Mouth (which reports on the media).
Although Marshall, with his vaguely hipster wardrobe that runs from polished brown shoes to rectangular-framed glasses, still looks the part of a big-city blogger, his monologue sounds increasingly like that of the online entrepreneur that he is unexpectedly becoming. “What I’ve been trying to do,” he says, sounding mildly exasperated, “is create a structure that can run without my moment-to-moment running of things.” Marshall is trying to find a way to keep writing at least some of the TPM blog while running his Web sites. Indeed, even with five full-time employees and a couple more on the way, Marshall still finds himself drawn to his laptop, sometimes at 1 a.m., after his son, Sam, is down for the night. That’s when he writes long posts, musing on such topics as whether the Bush administration is heading inexorably toward a new war, this time in Iran.
In recent weeks, Marshall has written extensively about the U.S. Justice Department’s firing of U.S. attorneys around the country. As he explained recently on the PBS show Bill Moyers Journal, he and his staff had been following the bribery trial of California U.S. Representative Randy “Duke” Cunningham, who was sentenced to eight years in prison for taking $2 million in bribes from two different defense contractors. Following the bribery trail, the Bush-appointed, Republican U.S. Attorney, Carol Lam, began investigating a senior official at the CIA, and was fired shortly after e-mailing Washington to say she was seeking a search warrant for the official’s office. Marshall and his crew of young reporters began looking more deeply into what cases the fired U.S attorneys had been pursuing.
“One of the unique strengths of our journalism model,” Marshall told Moyers, “is that we use our readers a lot to do basically sort of the front-line research for us. That doesn’t mean we just take things people say and print them willy-nilly. But there’s a wealth of information out there in small metropolitan papers around the country. So, there were reports about the Arkansas U.S. Attorney who had been fired that [only ran in] local Arkansas media. And there was another similar case with the U.S. Attorney in Michigan.” Marshall and his crew connected the dots between all these local media reports, did some additional reporting of their own, and posted the information on the TPM site the minute it was ready—something conventional newspapers and broadcast outlets can’t do. “Marshall and his reporters,” Moyers told his audience, “belong to a new breed of journalists. They use the speed and breadth of the Internet to constantly update the story.”
Marshall’s TPM Media takes blogging out of the random and idiosyncratic realm it has inhabited over the last decade and creates a model that could be one indication of its future: blogging 2.0, if you will. The question of blogging’s future looms large for a sizable portion of the Brown community, both on campus and in the larger world, where so many alumni have taken their ideas and their words online. There are at least sixty million blogs on the Internet, and more crop up every day. There’s no easy way of knowing the Brown community’s overall representation in that group, but one could certainly make the case that Brunonians were early adapters, and that their influence has been disproportionately large.
It’s not just Marshall and Black and their ongoing efforts to nudge the American political debate a tad to the left. Were you aware of all the Internet hype last year surrounding the B-movie called Snakes on a Plane? It all started on the blog of Hollywood screenwriter Josh Friedman ’89. The popular gossip blog Gawker and its sister blogs—the political-gossip blog Wonkette and the leading sports blog Deadspin—are guided with the help of Gawker Media’s executive editor, Lockhart Steele ’96. One of the first blogs by a newspaper reporter for the paper’s own Web site, the Philadelphia Daily News’s Attytood, was launched by … well, it was launched by me.
And yet to focus solely on these influential blogs (A-list or the B-list blogs, in blogging parlance) doesn’t fully do justice to the remarkable diversity of Web journals and sites—both in subject matter and in the style of online writing—that have sprung forth from the community of Brown alumni and students in recent years. In researching this article, I read more than forty blogs, a number that sounds large but is probably just a fraction of the sites created by members of the Brown community (see Sidebar).
The origins of blogging remain somewhat murky. Some accounts say that the first “Web log,” or online journal, was published in late 1997 by a 1960s computer pioneer named Jorn Barger, on his Internet site called Robot Wisdom. The name was soon shortened to “blog,” and the basic format was established: short entries, typically with links to primary sources of information, with the most recent posting on top. The earliest bloggers tended, not surprisingly, to be computer geeks, but by the turn of the century blogging had been discovered by the political world. Marshall, who’d been writing about politics for the liberal American Prospect magazine, first launched Talking Points Memo to chronicle the Florida recount in the 2000 presidential race.
Today, there is a huge digital divide between the millions of people who not only read blogs daily but have launched their own, and many others who’ve never visited a blog and wouldn’t know where to find one. Despite the hype, 60 percent of Americans told a Gallup poll in early 2006 that they never read blogs.
How to sort through it all? One thing is clear: Most of those more than sixty million sites don’t receive anywhere near the traffic of Marshall’s TPM Media sites, which attract a remarkable 750,000 unique Internet users every month. Many, in fact, number their visitors in the hundreds, even the dozens, but for these bloggers, a high traffic count is not the point. For many bloggers, the existential journey of putting text into cyberspace matters more than the destination.
Consider the personal odyssey of Molly Birnbaum ’05, who graduated from Brown with a mixture of excitement and apprehension familiar to any twenty-two-year-old. The difference is that nowadays Birnbaum could spill her adventures, and her anxieties, onto a public Web domain for anyone to read:
“Thoughts on entering the ‘real world’ leave me with a sensation of a free fall—an ungrounded floundering,” Birnbaum wrote in her first blog entry on May 12, 2005, just days before she was handed her Brown diploma. “I am thoroughly sick of academics; there is no career path I am sure I want to pursue.”
On her blog, My Madeleine (mollysmadeleine.blogspot.com), she records her passion for cooking, and tells the unlikely tale of landing a job washing dishes in a trendy Providence restaurant, where the chef has offered to train her. “It smelled like a crisply roasted chicken; I wanted to lick the air,” she writes of the restaurant. But a few weeks later her life takes an unexpected turn, and so does her blogging. On August 30, 2005, Birnbaum was out jogging when she was struck by a car; she suffered knee injuries and fractured her pelvis and skull. She recovered quickly, but with one major problem that she revealed to her readers three weeks later: she had lost her sense of smell.
“There is,” she wrote, “the possibility that the ligaments connecting my smell neurons to my nose were broken completely; I will never smell again. And without smell, taste is a mere invisible possibility.” Her budding career in cooking—although not her love of the culinary arts—ground to a halt after the accident. Today she works for an art magazine in New York City and continues to post to her blog once or twice a month.
Those unfamiliar with the blogging world probably have no idea what a life-altering experience posting online can be. I know, because I’ve lived it firsthand. Like Birnbaum I used blogging to work through a problem—not a personal issue, however, but a career rut. In 2004, the merry-go-round of the chaotic (and ever-shrinking) twenty-first-century newspaper world had stopped for me in Philadelphia and its Rocky Balboa–esque tabloid, the Philadelphia Daily News. After nearly a quarter-century in newspapers, I longed to write more often about national affairs, and to connect with a national audience. I had also grown appalled as I watched the Bush administration manipulate passive news media into a war in Iraq that I felt was not only misguided but flat-out immoral. Tentatively, albeit intermittently, I found my voice on the “dead tree” pages of the Daily News, writing about the unanswered questions that would later be tackled by the 9/11 Commission, and identifying the neoconservatives who had long spoiled for a war against Saddam Hussein.
Under the auspices of the Daily News, Attytood—the name may look like a typo but, as I’ve had to explain to more out-of-towners than I care to count, it is just the way a true Philadelphian pronounces attitude—has slowly grown into solid “B-List” territory. It averages more than 10,000 visits a day, and has taken me places I did not expect to go. On October 24, 2005, alarmed at the pending collapse of the Daily News’ then-owner, the Knight-Ridder Corp., and at rumors that my newspaper might close, I posted a plea for help at 11:13 p.m.: “If we don’t change,” I wrote of the newspaper industry, “we will die—and it will be our fault.” Sitting alone with a keyboard on my clutter-encrusted desk on North Broad Street, I even did something that seemed more than a bit silly at the time: I invented a new word, norg, to describe my idea of a news organization that would be as nimble at using the Internet and other new media as it was at publishing old-fashioned newsprint. I’d forgotten that other bloggers were paying attention; five months later, inspired by my norgs idea, a large group of journalists and bloggers gathered at the Annenberg School on the University of Pennsylvania campus for a daylong conference. One of those attending the event—and one of those friends I never expected to make—was Duncan Black: Atrios.
“Conservative criticism of the media is all about bias,” Black was saying on a recent winter night back in Philadelphia’s Center City. But, he says, when liberal bloggers criticize the MSM—Internetspeak for the mainstream media—it’s more out of a sense of disappointment. “We just want to make journalism better.”
I’d been chatting with Black for roughly an hour in a booth at a popular, woody Irish pub, the Black Sheep, and at times he was so soft spoken that I strained to hear him over the drone of classic rock. Nothing in Black’s demeanor suggested the liberal firebrand whose enthusiastic use of the f-word heartily endorses the stereotype of left-wing bloggers as foul-mouthed.
Indeed, in person, Black turned almost monosyllabic when asked about his uneventful upbringing in the Philadelphia suburbs, or about his years in Providence during the 1990s living in an apartment on Waterman Street and working on his doctorate in economics. It is only with subjects that others might find a tad arcane—such as political journalism that he believes kowtows to its right-wing critics—that Black turns into the forceful and animated persona of Atrios.
“The blogosphere needed a liberal,” he said. The idea seems ludicrous now, with progressive sites like the group blog Daily Kos and Marshall’s TPM sites attracting more than a half million visitors each day. But in April 2002, when Black was living in Southern California and teaching economics at U.C. Irvine, he decided to create a blog as a counterpoint to the so-called “warbloggers,” conservatives who aggressively supported the push to go to war in Iraq.
“Is this thing on?” was Black’s very first post, on April 14, 2002. It took eight months before a reader posted a comment to that question on the Atrios site. Five years later, Black draws more than 100,000 visitors a day, and posts can receive hundreds of comments in a few minutes. Black was even portrayed by an actor in an episode of The West Wing.
After briefly teaching economics at Bryn Mawr College, where his wife is a professor, Black began working fulltime in Philadelphia. He had chosen the name Atrios to protect his academic career, but by 2004 he was earning enough money from selling ads on Eschaton that he abandoned the academic life to become that rare thing, a full-time blogger.
He now spends a dozen hours online every day and is bombarded with hundreds of e-mails from link-seeking B- and C-list bloggers. He is constantly watching CNN and other news outlets for new material. Black is one of the few A-list bloggers who still writes almost all his blog himself, enlisting guest bloggers only when he’s traveling. As a release, Black sometimes blogs about nonpolitical topics. He posts pictures of his cats on Friday afternoons, and videos of rock bands at one in the morning. Recently, when the childless Black went to dinner and a movie with his wife, he returned and confessed to his readers he felt slightly guilty, like a parent who’d left his kids with a sitter for the night.
One of the most successful Brown alums in the blogging world is Gawker’s Lockhart Steele. Among the sites that Steele runs for his entrepreneurial boss Nick Denton are the potty-mouthed D.C. political gossip site Wonkette as well as Deadspin, which is probably the most popular blog about national sports. Gawker’s fourteen Web sites are believed to take in at least $2 million in revenue, not a huge sum, perhaps, but enough to tempt venture capitalists at Japan’s Softbank recently to invest $5 million in the rival Huffington Post blog and Web site. More and more MSM newspapers and magazines are starting up blogs as well, not just quirky sites like Attytood, but slick productions like Time’s new Swampland political blog.
Then there’s Marshall’s one-room blogging empire. Unlike blog doyenne Arianna Huffington, Marshall is forgoing the venture-capital route, but he has been forced into the role of small businessman. When I arrived at his office for our interview, he was on the phone, not pestering a Capitol Hill aide for dirt but wooing an advertiser.
Still, success, and managing a small payroll can’t stop Marshall from doing what he does best. His recent work on the eight fired U.S. attorneys drew the attention of a number of journalists, including Time’s Washington bureau chief Jay Carney, who at first dismissed Marshall’s musings by writing on Swampland that “suspicions aren’t facts.” Two weeks later, when Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was facing hostile questioning from Congress, Carney had to admit he was wrong. “Very nice work,” Carney wrote to Marshall, “and thanks for holding my feet to the fire.”
Marshall acknowledged the compliment with one word, “Classy,” and went back to work. He later typed: “Who wants to guess how many days remain before Gonzales decides his presence at Justice is becoming an obstacle to the fulfillment of President Bush’s important law enforcement policy objectives?”
The time stamp read 1:32 a.m.
William Bunch is a BAM contributing editor and author of the forthcoming The News Fix: Ink-stained Wretches and Digital Rabble Rousers Reviving American Media.