Blogs: Political pundits are here

NYT has a story on the political bloggers by Matthew Klam. Just for the record, the entire text follows.

Fear and Laptops on the Campaign Trail:
Nine blocks north of Madison Square Garden, next door to
the Emerging Artists Theater, where posters
advertised ”The Gay Naked Play” (”Now With More
Nudity”), the bloggers were up and running. It was
Republican National Convention week in New York City, and
they had taken over a performance space called the Tank. A
homeless guy sat at the entrance with a bag of cans at his
feet, a crocheted cap on his head and his chin in his
hand. To reach the Tank, you had to cross a crummy little
courtyard with white plastic patio furniture and half a
motorcycle strung with lights and strewn with flowers,
beneath a plywood sign that said, ”Ronald Reagan Memorial
Fountain.”

The Tank was just one small room, with theater lights on
the ceiling and picture windows that looked out on the
parking garage across 42nd Street. Free raw carrots and
radishes sat in a cardboard box on a table by the door,
alongside a pile of glazed doughnuts and all the coffee
you could drink. The place was crowded. Everyone was
sitting, staring at their laptops, at bridge tables or
completely sacked out on couches. Markos Moulitsas, who
runs the blog Daily Kos, at dailykos.com, was slouched in
the corner of one squashed-down couch in shorts and a T-
shirt, his computer on his lap, one of the keys snapped
off his keyboard. He’s a small guy with short brown hair
who could pass for 15. Duncan Black of the blog Eschaton,
who goes by the name Atrios, sat at the other end of the
couch, staring out the window. On the table set up behind
them, Jerome Armstrong of MyDD worked sweatily. Jesse and
Ezra, whose blog is called Pandagon, were lying with two
cute women in tank tops — Ezra’s girlfriend Kate and Zoe
of Gadflyer — on futon beds that had been placed on the
tiny stage of the performance space. Their computers and
wireless mice and some carrots and radishes and paper
plates with Chinese dumplings were scattered between them.
A month ago, at the Democratic convention, Zoe had
accidentally spilled a big cup of 7-Up on Jesse’s
computer, killing it. She and Jesse now looked as if they
might be dating.

Moulitsas pulled a 149-word story off nytimes.com linking
Robert Novak, the conservative columnist, to ”Unfit for
Command,” the book that attacked John Kerry’s service in
Vietnam; the article revealed that Novak’s son is the
marketing director for the book’s publisher, Regnery.
Moulitsas copied and pasted the story, wrote ”Novak blows
another one” at the top and clicked Submit. A couple of
seconds later, the item appeared on Daily Kos, and his
hundreds of thousands of readers began to take note, many
of them posting their own fevered thoughts in response.
Moulitsas read some e-mail messages and surfed around,
trying to think of the next rotten thing to say about the
right. Beside him, around the same time, Atrios was
assembling a few words about Ed Schrock, a conservative
Republican congressman vocal in his disavowal of the
rights of gays, who had now been accused of soliciting gay
love. A Web site dedicated to exposing closeted antigay
politicians had posted an audio clip of what they said was
Schrock’s voice, and he had pulled out of the race. A
pizza-stained paper plate sat between Moulitsas and
Atrios. Together, they have more readers than The
Philadelphia Inquirer.

A year ago, no one other than campaign staffs and chronic
insomniacs read political blogs. In the late 90’s, about
the only places online to write about politics were
message boards like Salon’s Table Talk or Free Republic, a
conservative chat room. Crude looking Web logs, or blogs,
cropped up online, and Silicon Valley techies put them to
use, discussing arcane software problems with colleagues,
tossing in the occasional diaristic riff on the birth of a
daughter or a trip to Maui. Then in 1999, Mickey Kaus, a
veteran magazine journalist and author of a weighty book
on welfare reform, began a political blog on Slate. On
kausfiles, as he called it, he wrote differently. There
were a thousand small ways his voice changed; in print, he
had been a full-paragraph guy who carefully backed up his
claims, but on his blog he evolved into an exasperated
Larry David basket case of self-doubt and indignation,
harassed by a fake ”editor” of his own creation who
broke in, midsentence, with parenthetical questions and
accusations.

All that outrage, hand wringing, writing posts all day
long — the care and maintenance of an online writing
persona — after five years, it takes its toll. I had
talked to Kaus earlier in the summer at a restaurant in
Venice, Calif., and he had said he didn’t know how much
longer he could stand it. After the election, he said, he
might just give up. Once, he told me, ”I was halfway
across the room about to blog a dream I just had, without
ever regaining consciousness, before I realized what I was
about to do. If the computer hadn’t been in the other
room, I probably would have.”

In a recent national survey, the Pew Internet and American
Life Project found that more than two million Americans
have their own blog. Most of them, nobody reads. The blogs
that succeed, like Kaus’s, are written in a strong,
distinctive, original voice. In January, a serious-minded
former editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education named
Ana Marie Cox reinvented herself online as the Wonkette, a
foulmouthed, hard-drinking, sex-obsessed politics junkie.
Joshua Micah Marshall, in his columns for The Hill and
articles for The Washington Monthly, writes like every
other overeducated journalist. But on his blog, Talking
Points Memo, he has become an irate spitter of well-
crafted vitriol aimed at the president, whom he compared,
one day, to Tony Soprano torching his friend’s sporting-
goods store for the sake of a little extra cash. When
Marshall’s in a bad mood, he portrays mainstream
journalists as a bunch of ”corrupt,” ”idiotic” hacks,
mired in ”cosmopolitan and baby-boomer self-loathing,”
whose bad habits have become ”ingrained and chronic, like
a battered dog who cowers and shakes when the abuser gives
a passing look.” Moulitsas’s site, Daily Kos, teems with
information — sophisticated analysis of poll numbers,
crystal-ball babble, links to Senate, House and
governor ”outlook charts.” But what pulls you in is not
the data; it’s his voice. He’s cruel and superior, and he
knows his side is going to win.

Early in 2002, Joe Trippi read on Armstrong’s blog, MyDD,
that Howard Dean might be running for president, and after
Trippi joined the campaign as its manager, he helped bring
the Dean movement to life online, in part through the
campaign’s massive community blog, which connected
Deaniacs all over the country, helped them organize and
became the access point for the $40 million that fueled
Dean’s explosive run. The Dean phenomenon drew so many new
people to the grass roots (or ”netroots,” as the Dean
bloggers used to call them) of presidential politics that
a kind of fragmentation occurred in what had been, until
then, a blog culture dominated by credentialed gentlemen
like Kaus, Andrew Sullivan and Glenn Reynolds, a
conservative law professor whose blog, Instapundit, is
read faithfully at the White House.

But just as Fox News has been creaming CNN, the traffic on
Kaus’s and Sullivan’s sites has flat-lined recently, while
Atrios’s and Moulitsas’s are booming. Left-wing politics
are thriving on blogs the way Rush Limbaugh has dominated
talk radio, and in the last six months, the angrier,
nastier partisan blogs have been growing the fastest.
Daily Kos has tripled in traffic since June. Josh
Marshall’s site has quadrupled in the last year. It’s
almost as though, in a time of great national discord, you
don’t want to know both sides of an issue. The once-
soothing voice of the nonideological press has become, to
many readers, a secondary concern, a luxury, even
something suspect. It’s hard to listen to a calm and
rational debate when the building is burning and your
pants are smoking.

But at the same time that blogs have moved away from the
political center, they have become increasingly
influential in the campaigns — James P. Rubin, John
Kerry’s foreign-policy adviser, told me, ”They’re the
first thing I read when I get up in the morning and the
last thing I read at night.” Among the Washington press
corps, too, their impact is obvious. Back in 2002,
Marshall helped stoke the fires licking at Trent Lott’s
feet, digging up old interviews that suggested his support
for Strom Thurmond’s racial policies went way back;
Marshall’s scoops found their way onto The Associated
Press wire and the Op-Ed page of The New York Times.
Earlier this month, a platoon of right-wing bloggers
launched a coordinated assault against CBS News and its
memos claiming that President Bush got special treatment
in the National Guard; within 24 hours, the bloggers’
obsessive study of typefaces in the 1970’s migrated onto
Drudge, then onto Fox News and then onto the networks and
the front pages of the country’s leading newspapers.

During the 1972 presidential campaign, Timothy Crouse
covered the campaign-trail press corps in Rolling Stone
magazine, reporting that he later expanded into his
revealing and funny book ”The Boys on the Bus.” Crouse
described the way a few top journalists like R.W. Apple
Jr., David S. Broder, Jack Germond and Jules Witcover,
through their diligence, ambition and supreme self-
confidence, set the agenda for the whole political race.
This summer, sitting in the Tank and reading campaign
blogs, you could sometimes get a half-giddy, half-
sickening feeling that something was shifting, that the
news agenda was beginning to be set by this largely
unpaid, T-shirt-clad army of bloggers.

A few blocks down Eighth Avenue, thousands of journalists
with salaries and health benefits waited for the next
speech and the next press release from the Republican
campaign. Here in the Tank, Jesse and Ezra sat resting on
the futon with some dumplings. Moulitsas was crashing on a
friend’s floor for the week. Atrios had just quit his job
as an economics professor, and Armstrong could fondly look
back on stints in his 20’s as a traveling Deadhead, a
Peace Corps volunteer and a Buddhist monastery dweller.

Like almost everyone in the Tank, Moulitsas started
blogging to blow off steam. He seemed as surprised as
anyone to find himself on the verge of respectability.

————

That week, while Moulitsas blogged with gusto — posting a
doctored photo of Senator Zell Miller with fangs and
bloody eyes and the comment, ”Try not to puke,” staying
late at the Tank to boo during the televised speeches —
Wonkette walked through the hall and saw what she
described on her site as the ”Whitest. Convention.
Ever.” She wondered on her blog if anyone had seen any
photos anywhere of, say, a minority in the house; later,
to her relief, someone sent her, and she posted, a few
shots of black and Hispanic people, cleaning the floors.

The Wonkette is more fun to read than Daily Kos. She’s
also more fun to hang out with. Before we went off to the
fabulous party that Americans for Tax Reform were throwing
at the New York Yacht Club on Monday night, we had time
for an expensive dinner at a really nice restaurant in
SoHo. Wonkette hadn’t been anywhere near the Tank, and
when I told her about the scene there, she
laughed. ”They’ve got the raw carrots and radishes,” she
said, ”and we’ve got the raw tuna appetizer.” The
candlelight reflected off the Champagne bubbles in her
glass. ”Other bloggers don’t consider me a real
blogger,” she said. ”Kos is the platonic ideal of a
blogger: he posts all the time; he interacts with his
readers.” She swallowed an oyster and smiled. ”I hate
all that.”

Ana Marie Cox has peachy cream skin and eyes of a very
bright blue, strawberry blond hair and a filthy mind; she
likes to analyze our nation’s leaders in their most
private, ah, parts. She has been talking this way all her
life. Until January, no one listened. She’s the daughter
of a six-foot-tall blond Scandinavian goddess and one of
the bright young men who worked under Robert McNamara in
the Pentagon. Her parents split when she was 12, and she
was shuttled between them, and like most kids who grow up
that way, she made an anthropological study of what’s
cool. She was a loud, pudgy kid with milk-bottle-thick
glasses, and when she finally settled into high school in
Nebraska, she immediately ran for class president. She was
thrown out of ”gifted and talented” camp for weaving,
drunk, through the girl’s bathroom one night, and when she
told me about it, she described it as ”the story of my
life”: the smart girl getting booted out of a place where
she belonged. She dropped out of a Ph.D. program in
history at the University of California at Berkeley and
found happiness for a few years at Suck.com, a snarky
social-commentary Web site from the first Internet heyday.
She tried freelancing after that, and then spent five
frustrating years being fired from or leaving one job
after another, such well-meaning, highbrow institutions as
Mother Jones, The American Prospect and The Chronicle of
Higher Education — plus another place she won’t name,
where, she says, they chastised her for raising her
eyebrows wrong and for sighing too loud in meetings.
Finally, last fall, she gave up on journalism. She was
filling out applications for a master’s in social work
when Nick Denton called.

Denton is the world’s first blogging entrepreneur. He owns
a bunch of these smart-alecky blogs — Wonkette; a New
York City gossip site called Gawker; a Hollywood site,
Defamer; and Fleshbot, a porn site. Anytime somebody
builds a media empire, especially one that includes
pornography, you assume the money is good, but in the
Wonkette’s case, it isn’t. Her starting salary was $18,000
a year. (She’s getting bonuses now for increased traffic,
but not much.) But she likes the fact that Denton hasn’t
put a lot of restrictions on her. ”The only thing he said
was that he wanted it to be funnier than Josh Marshall,”
she told me. ”The bar isn’t raised too high.”

Imagine a fairly drunk housewife stuck in front of CNN,
growing hornier as the day wears on. The Wonkette reads
like a diary of that day. Cox quickly found her voice —
funny, sex-obsessed, self-indulgent. ”The Wonkette is
like me after a few margaritas,” she said. She started
with two basic themes: questioning Bush’s sexual
preference and praising Kerry’s anatomical, well, gifts.
In March, she discovered a terrific new feature on the
Bush-Cheney Web site that let voters generate their own
official Bush-Cheney ’04 posters with personalized
slogans. She dubbed it ”The Sloganator,” and until the
campaign got wind of her project and shut down the
Sloganator, Wonkette solicited slogans from readers and
printed up very professional-looking Bush-Cheney posters
with phrases like ”Christians for purification of the Mid
East,” ”Because Satan is coming to eat your kids”
and ”Crackers Unite” emblazoned across the top. Readers
loved it. It took Wonkette just three months to reach the
traffic numbers Marshall had been working to build up for
three years.

While the Wonkette likes to make fun of Washington’s
capacity to take itself seriously, sometimes she seems to
take it more seriously than anyone. She spent about a
month out of her mind with excitement on one totally
pointless story, the White House Correspondents’ Dinner,
wondering online if any of her readers might get her in. A
friend finally came through and took her as his date, and
the following morning she posted several very keyed-up
reports: ”Arrive with J. in cab to Hinckley Hilton: Omg.
There really is a red carpet. Paparazzi. Sort of junior-
varsity feeling, but still. Fumble with wrap, bag,
umbrella . . . remember . . . don’t show teeth in smile,
suck in gut, stick out chest. The paparazzi go nuts!
Smile, prepare to wave. . . . Realize that we have entered
just behind Jessica Lynch.” And then later: ”More
wine. . . . Keep thinking I see Harvey Weinstein, but it’s
just random heavy-set mogulish types. . . . Lights flash.
Time for mediocre surf-and-turf! . . . waiter passes with
tray of Jell-O shots, and for a brief, beautiful moment,
it appears that Wolfowitz might take one.” She was
finally getting paid for being drunk at gifted-and-
talented camp.

Not long after Wonkette came to life, Cox’s hometown
newspaper, The Lincoln Journal Star, profiled her. Then an
online crew from The Washington Post came to videotape her
blogging, and then bookers started calling from talk
shows. By midsummer, she had been on ”Scarborough
Country,” on MSNBC, which she likes to call ”Scar-Co,”
four times. TV stardom seemed to her to be the ideal next
step.

Sure enough, in July, MTV called and asked her to report
from the Democratic National Convention. She was thrilled,
and she fixed on the idea that this convention gig might
turn into a real job at the network. Whatever it is that
makes a person want to be famous, need to be famous — and
not everything about a ravenous hunger for fame is bad —
Cox has that. The carrot of fame now hanging over her was
distracting, and I got the sense that certain situations
were playing out in her head. ”I watched ‘Breakfast at
Tiffany’s’ a lot as a kid,” she said.

A couple of weeks before the convention, she flew to Los
Angeles for a screen test, and when she got back, she told
me that she had aced it. ”I am very good at this,” she
said proudly. She was getting a little obsessed. ”It’s
weird,” she said. ”It’s like discovering you can yodel.
You know what I mean? I’m good. I really never would’ve
known.”

In Boston, at the convention, she hardly blogged at all.
MTV had scheduled a single short piece for her to do from
the convention floor. ”I’m not really doing anything for
MTV,” she said at the start of the convention. ”I’m
doing interviews about being hired by MTV.” A couple of
days later, I ran into her at the FleetCenter. She was in
a hurry. ”I have to go be interviewed by ‘Nightline,”’
she said. ”’Oh, and what do you do?”’ she went on,
pretending to be Ted Koppel. ”’I get interviewed about
what it’s like to be the MTV special correspondent. I
forward media requests. I try to find free food and
liquor.”’ That evening, from my seat up in the rafters
next to Moulitsas, I saw Cox in action down on the floor,
holding a microphone, kneeling, interviewing a delegate.
It took me a moment to realize that there was no
cameraman; it was just Cox, with a microphone and a
producer hovering over her shoulder offering little bits
of advice.

I couldn’t figure it out. Why was she so excited about
working for MTV? MTV is for 9-year-olds. It’s so 1992. It
was as if her sense of what was cool and what was stupid,
so unerring on her blog, had abandoned her. How could she
think that 18 seconds with those cocky jerks on ”Scar-
Co” was better than a perfect joke about a president, his
dog and a blown kiss? Four months of setting the blog
world on fire making dirty political jokes suddenly wasn’t
enough any more.

But then she wasn’t asked to cover the Republican
convention for MTV. It would be fair to say that this
upset her. Wonkette had seemed like the perfect stepping
stone to something big. Now she had to consider, What if
Wonkette was as good as it gets?

By the time we sat down to dinner in New York, she was
employing that old trick of pretending to be happy with
just this. She was focusing on the blog again and its many
perks. ”I haven’t bought my own dinner or drinks in
months,” she said. She tipped her head to the side and
shrugged. ”That’s the best benefit of being Wonkette.
That’s the sad truth. They all want something. But that’s
fine. All I want is dinner and drinks.”

In Boston, the day before the convention started and after
a long, glittering night following the Wonkette to fancy
parties, I came back late and found Josh Marshall in my
hotel room, lying sideways on a cot, blogging. He was
drinking a Diet Coke, his face illuminated by the glow of
his laptop, legs crossed, socked feet hanging off the
edge. Earlier in the day, when he mentioned that his hotel
reservation didn’t start until Monday, I had offered to
share my room with him for the night.

The first time I had met him, back in April in Washington,
he was drinking a large Coke from Chipotle and a foot-tall
iced coffee. He explained that he spent most afternoons at
Starbucks, and then he would head back to his apartment to
blog all night, drinking coffee, sometimes even editing
and revising while lying in bed. ”You edit something when
you’re literally falling asleep,” he said. ”It can be
kind of scary.”

In my room in Boston, he had a little hotel ice bucket by
his side with two more Diet Cokes in it, and he finished
them off before bedtime. It was late, and I was tired and
he was disoriented, trying to blog under such
circumstances, but before we turned off the lights he
wanted to show me his Talking Points Memo ID, which
resembled a press badge. He wondered if I thought it
looked real. The credentials we would all be receiving the
next day didn’t require any press badge, but staff
reporters of actual news organizations always seem to have
separate institutional ID’s, thick plastic magnetized
deals that can open locked doors. Working off the model of
a friend’s ID, Marshall had, using his girlfriend’s
computer and photo printer, made a sober little knockoff,
including his picture (in coat and tie), an expiration
date and an explanation of company policy: should the
company’s only employee be terminated, the badge would
become the property of Talking Points Memo. He laminated
it at Kinko’s. He had also brought his own lanyard (each
media empire has its own necklace strings) and his own
little plastic badge holder. I told him it looked
completely legit.

Marshall had been wondering about that for a while. Even
before he had finished his Ph.D. in American history at
Brown, he was thinking about the impending problem of how
to look legit, where to fit in. His father is a professor
of marine biology, and Marshall knew, as Cox had known,
that academic life wouldn’t work. He wanted to be a
writer, and he wanted to write about serious stuff, and he
wanted to do it with a lot of passion. Marshall’s mom had
died when he was still in grade school, in a car accident,
and he says losing her made it impossible for him to live
without believing strongly in something. And he does: he
is a guy whose waking state hovers right between irate and
incensed, and for him those beliefs require action. Coming
out of school, he had a love for history and a handle on
American policy issues, and he figured the rest would be
simple, job-wise, if only somebody would let him write.
Marshall spent three years after his Ph.D. program working
as an editor at The American Prospect, the liberal policy
journal, and I got the feeling — not so much from him,
because he didn’t want to talk about it, but from former
colleagues — that by the time he quit, he had decided
that it would be better to starve than to work for someone
else. So for a while he starved.

Marshall started the blog in 2000, during the Florida
recount, as a release valve, and it’s still working that
way; oversimplifying weighty issues, reducing them to
their essential skeletons, somehow relaxes him. Since
February, with the explosion of blog traffic and the
invention of blog ads as a revenue source, a few elite
bloggers have found themselves on the receiving end of a
Howitzer of money, as much as $10,000 a month. Marshall is
one of them, and now that the release valve has become a
job, albeit a well-paying one, he has to resist the
tendency to ruin it. He wrestles with the question of how
many posts are enough, since he’s a one-man operation and
his advertisers have paid ahead of time, and then there
are also those obligations to The Hill, where he writes a
low-paying weekly column, and The Washington Monthly,
another underpaid gig that harks back to his hungrier
days.

When I fell asleep in my hotel room, Marshall was
complaining that there are no good books on the Crusades.
The next morning, he got back into his clothes from the
night before. He looked like a wrinkle bomb had hit him.

The big news, the only piece of news, it seemed, about the
Democratic convention was that bloggers had been
credentialed as news media, sort of, and after so many
months ripping the mainstream press coverage of the
campaign, a little tingle hung in the air. How would the
new breed thrive on the ancient media’s home turf, a news
event by and for the big news folks? I spent the day at
the FleetCenter, in the terrific accommodations the
Democrats had arranged for the bloggers: up in the
nosebleed seats, Section 320, where 35 of them, the lucky
ones who had been credentialed, could fight for any of the
15 bar stools they had been provided, along with some
makeshift plywood desks built along the railing. Whoever
got there late sat in the cramped, yellow, steeply banked
folding seats, no elbowroom, bad lighting, their power
cords snaking down the rows to a couple of surge
protectors. Moulitsas was in Section 320, and so was
Armstrong from MyDD, Atrios of Eschaton, Zoe from
Gadflyer, Jesse and Ezra, Jeralyn of Talkleft, Dave Pell
from Electablog, Chris Rabb from Afro-Netizen, Bill Scher
from Liberal Oasis and Christian Crumlish of
radiofreeblogistan. But no Josh Marshall.

I ran into him later on in the press stands, to the right
of the stage, where he had set up shop, squatting at a
spot designated for an official news organization in the
coveted blue section. He was fiddling with his computer
and finishing a cellphone call about what he called ”the
biggest story of my life,” one that would quell any fears
about his legitimacy as a real journalist, at least for a
while. But right now he was just trying to get online.
That damned wireless modem he had spent so much money on
really stunk. Verizon was driving him nuts. He had by this
point changed into a fresh shirt and different pants from
the ones he had been wearing when he left my hotel room,
but he appeared, from head to toe, to be entirely wrinkled
again, as though his clothing wrinkled at a faster rate
than other people’s. He gave up on trying to get online,
finished his call and sat back. With his arms folded
across his chest, in an incensed yet somewhat professorial
tone, very up-all-night, very corduroy, he talked on and
on about Douglas Feith and Ahmed Chalabi and Karl Rove.

For the entire time we were in Boston, he never seemed
curious about where the bloggers were supposed to sit, and
whenever I told him I had just come from there — at one
point I even called from my cellphone, up in the
nosebleeds, and waved — he never went up to visit. He
skipped the blogger breakfast that morning, and I had to
drag him out to go party-hopping at night — though when
he got there, look out! (Just kidding.)

Marshall often seemed stuck between two worlds. In the
blogger world, he was a star, author of one of the most
popular and most respected sites. But unlike Moulitsas,
who consulted on campaigns and helped develop software for
political fund-raising and dreamed of marble statues in
his image, Marshall seemed unsure of where blogging was
leading. In the mainstream media world, he was not a major
player, not yet anyway. He published occasional, well-
regarded magazine pieces — one in The Atlantic, one in
The New Yorker — but nothing earth-shattering. He didn’t
really seem at home there. Writing for magazines, he said,
had become a big pain. Blogging was easier, freer. ”In
blogging,” Marshall said, ”there’s no lead, no ‘What’s
my point?”’ The blog ad money had fallen from the sky,
and it had saved him.

”Now I’m not under any financial pressure to write,” he
said. ”What I backed into, in doing this blog, was
freedom. And not having to write things I didn’t believe
and not having to write ways I didn’t want to write.” It
is this unique amount of leeway that has allowed him, over
the past two years, to run at his own pace, dig deeper. On
his blog, he brings attention to overlooked stories. He
wrote about Valerie Plame’s cover being blown eight days
before The New York Times did. And a paper put out by
scholars at the Kennedy School of Government analyzing the
fall of Trent Lott singled out Marshall for keeping the
focus on a story that had otherwise slipped off the
mainstream-media radar.

Like the Wonkette, Marshall loved the idea of being tapped
by those who had once ignored him. Over the summer, he
paired up with a big network news show on an investigative
story, hoping some of its credibility would rub off on
him. But then the network bumped the story at the last
minute. If only he could turn his back completely on the
old way, concentrate on nothing but the blog; but letting
go of institutional approval and the security and
camaraderie that goes with it is like jumping out a
window. He can’t decide between loving the big media,
linking to it, hoping they’ll pick up on stories, and
hating it, despising it, insulting it, trying to convince
you, or himself, that it’s the worst thing in the world
and that it’s ruining American democracy.

Marshall did a little more heavy sighing and wrinkled
himself up some more, rubbing his sour face, and launched
into what was really irking him at this moment. ”Going it
alone is harder than it looks,” he said. He had been
fairly aggressively attacking the Swift Boat Veterans for
Truth and had attracted plenty of fire himself. ”I’ve
gotten tons of hate mail over the last few weeks,” he
said. ”You get a very thick skin for it. But it’s hard.
There’s something on the karmic level. You feel the level
of hate, and when you get a hundred of those, it’s
exhausting. Normally I’m oblivious to it, but lately it’s
getting to me a little.” He had blocked mail from certain
e-mail accounts, and yet, he said, ”even though I haven’t
answered them — some I haven’t answered in a year —
they’re still writing. This one guy has subject headings
like ‘Why you’re an idiot today.’ Certain people read the
site to counteract their heart medication.”

On April Fools’ Day, Moulitsas really blew it. In a
swaggering reaction to a Daily Kos reader who wondered in
the comment section whether the four American civilian
contractors strung up in Falluja deserved the same respect
as American soldiers, he wrote, ”I feel nothing over the
death of mercenaries,” and then added, ”Screw them.”
Within hours, he became the focus of an international
letter-writing campaign to drive away all of his
advertisers. It worked, too. House candidates, Senate
candidates, they all pulled their ads. But in a matter of
weeks brand-new ads came in to fill the void. ”It was a
blip!” Moulitsas told me later, a little triumphantly. He
had nearly destroyed himself, but not quite.

In the aftermath of what was maybe the worst week of
Moulitsas’s life, friends asked him if he might not
consider choosing between his two roles, as a
clearinghouse for activism and an outlet for information.
But the site continued to grow, fund-raising chugged along
for his candidates, and he wanted me to know that his
survival was a big finger in the eye of anyone who said a
blogger couldn’t be two things at once.

But there was another role Moulitsas hadn’t quite mastered
yet: his place in the established machinery of the
Democratic Party. Moulitsas is a rabid Democrat, devoted
to the idea of the party, but he also feels a deep
distrust for the party system, and so do many of his
readers. Moulitsas has always been an outsider. He was
born in Chicago, but moved to his mother’s native El
Salvador at age 4, and as the civil war there heated up in
the 1980’s, he remembers stepping over dead bodies. He
only returned to Chicago after rebel soldiers passed along
photos of Moulitsas and his brother to the family, an
invitation to leave or lose their sons. Moulitsas speaks
of himself, at the time of his return to Chicago when he
was 9, as a tiny geek with a big mouth who couldn’t speak
English and who quickly learned to say things to bullies,
in his heavy Spanish accent, that were just confounding
enough for him to make a getaway before the bully realized
he had been insulted. In high school, his American
experience didn’t improve. ”I had to eat fast and run to
the library to read, because I didn’t have any friends,”
he said. After graduation, at 17, he enlisted in the U.S.
Army. He was 5 foot 6 and weighed 110 pounds. Like
everyone else, he carried a 65-pound pack on those 15- and
20-mile marches. He had been pushed around all his life,
but in basic training, within spitting distance of his
drill sergeants, he learned to fight back.

In Boston, I went with Moulitsas to a really swanky party
given in honor of the bloggers at a Middle Eastern
restaurant on the Charles River. At 2 a.m., as people were
filing out to leave, a discussion that had started online
spilled onto the middle of the floor. For the last few
weeks, Moulitsas had been conversing on at least two
different blogs with Jim Bonham, the executive director of
the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The
D.C.C.C. is the arm of the Democratic Party that provides
money, expert advice and technical support to candidates
in close House races, and Moulitsas had been complaining
that the group was abandoning some viable candidates,
especially liberal ones, and leaving them to ”flail
around.” Moulitsas became especially worked up about a
Congressional candidate in Pennsylvania named Ginny
Schrader. Her race against an incumbent Republican looked
unwinnable, until her opponent suddenly dropped out of the
race. Moulitsas immediately started soliciting donations
for Schrader on Daily Kos, and within a couple of days he
had raised $40,000 for her campaign, which the day before
had had $7,000 in the bank. The D.C.C.C. was slower to
react, and Moulitsas felt outraged and free to take a
whack or two at them.

So when Moulitsas and Bonham met by the door at the party,
they started screaming at each other. People gathered
around to watch, blocking the crowd attempting to leave.
Jim Bonham is taller and stouter than Moulitsas, but
Jerome Armstrong of MyDD stood behind Moulitsas, kind of
grinning and shaking his head. Stirling Newberry, a
blogger buddy of Moulitsas’s from the Draft Clark
movement, tried to act as peacemaker, but it didn’t work.
Nicco Mele, the official liaison between the D.C.C.C. and
the blogosphere, just stood back, horrified.

When I reached the blogger section the next day, Moulitsas
was still pumped up. ”Did you see my epic battle?” he
yelled over to me. Armstrong turned around, grinning his
head off. ”The D.C.C.C. has never been challenged,”
Moulitsas said when I got over to his seat. ”It was a
shot across the bow.” Then he re-enacted the fight. ”You
should’ve heard him yelling: ‘So you can raise $20,000,
but I can raise $2 million! You have to understand your
role in this!”’

Armstrong said, ”I’d have hit him if he said that to
me.”

Moulitsas said: ”I told him: ‘Don’t yell at me. The rules
are changing. You gotta adapt. You gotta wake up and
realize your role.”’ (I talked to Bonham later, and he
said he didn’t get why Moulitsas thought the D.C.C.C. was
slighting bloggers. After all, Bonham said, the D.C.C.C.
had paid for the very top-drawer blogger bash where the
fight broke out.)

For Moulitsas and for a lot of other people new to
politics in 2004 — amateurs who liked the thrill ride
Dean had taken them on — the idea that the rules had
changed seemed entirely obvious. What was important to
these new activists, he told me, was winning — winning
the presidency, winning back the Senate, winning as many
Congressional seats as possible. Soon after we met,
Moulitsas tried to convince me how important it was for
the old guard to start seeing politics through the eyes of
the bloggers. That meant rapid response, he said, smart
use of technology, constant two-way communication with the
voters and grass-roots fund-raising. He told me the story
of a flash advertisement that the D.N.C. had posted on its
Web site. Moulitsas hated it. ”It was horrible, the worst
thing I’d ever seen,” he said. ”So I blogged a post
saying, ‘That’s the biggest piece of garbage I’ve ever
seen in my whole entire life”’ (although he used stronger
language than that). ”What the hell were they thinking?”
he asked. ”I was embarrassed to be a Democrat. So then I
get phone calls and e-mails, ‘Well, why didn’t you talk to
us?’ I’m like: ‘What’s there to talk about? The thing’s a
piece of garbage.’ And then they say: ‘It was done by a
volunteer. If you attack them, then volunteers aren’t
going to want to do stuff like that.’ I’m
like: ‘Good! ‘Cause it’s a piece of garbage.’ I’m like,
Here’s the way it goes. O.K., from now on, keep this in
mind: whenever you put up anything on this site, think,
How are the blogs going to react?” He was smiling, but
all the veins were pulsing in his neck. ”You can pout all
you want,” he said, ”but I’m not here to make friends
with you guys and go to your little cocktail parties. And
that piece of garbage is going to lose us votes.”

Although the D.C.C.C. raises a lot more money for
Congressional candidates than Moulitsas does, candidates
have caught on to the fact that Moulitsas’s help can be
invaluable. While we were sitting up there in the blogger
nosebleed section, his phone rang. It was Samara Barend, a
young community activist running for Congress in upstate
New York. When Moulitsas hung up, he told me she was
calling ”either to get my endorsement or to get me to
write about the race.”

Then we headed to the Westin to meet another Congressional
candidate hoping for some of the same attention from Daily
Kos: Diane Farrell, a selectwoman from Westport, Conn. We
sat down in the hotel’s ornate lobby, where delegates and
journalists were checking e-mail and chatting. After some
friendly introductions, Farrell made her pitch. ”The
problem is that we don’t have a TV station,” she
said. ”We have three daily papers, but direct mail will
probably be our biggest expense. Radio costs too much.”

Moulitsas said, ”Are you doing the heavy ground game?”

”Oh, most definitely.”

Moulitsas wondered if the remnants of the Dean movement
could help out. ”Are there any Dean organizations around
you?” he asked.

”Bean?”

Moulitsas cleared his throat. ”Dean.”

”Oh, yes,” she said.

Later, Moulitsas decided to add Barend — but not Farrell –
– to the short list of candidates he deemed most worth
backing and raised more than $10,000 for her campaign.

Moulitsas’s ”friendly relations” with particular
candidates got him into a public fight with Zephyr
Teachout, who became briefly famous last winter as the
guru of the Dean Internet campaign, which in fact employed
Moulitsas for several months. Over the summer, she
complained in several online forums, and to Moulitsas
directly, that he and other bloggers were blurring the
lines between editorial and advertising, lines that had
always been sacred in journalism. According to Teachout,
they were posting comments in support of candidates for
whom they were also working as paid consultants and not
explaining that conflict of interest, or at least not
fully enough for Teachout. In an online discussion with
Jay Rosen, who heads the journalism department at N.Y.U.,
she wrote, ”I think where we essentially disagree is that
transparency alone is enough.”

”Zephyr can go to hell,” Moulitsas said at the
Democratic convention. ”I’m not about to censor myself on
any issue,” he later wrote on another Web site. ”If I
care about something, I’ll write about it. It’s the
essence of blogging. As for the mainstream media, who
cares what some joker journalism professor wrote? Just
keep blogging, doing your thing, and the blogosphere will
continue to do just fine. We should let our
accomplishments speak for themselves, and they will.”

For Moulitsas, the bigger problem these days is his own
success. When we met up again at the Republican
convention, we walked around ground zero, and he told me
about his rising page views. ”I was losing sleep over how
I’d survive the traffic,” he said. His daily readership
had surpassed 350,000, and by most counts he had become
the most-read political blogger in the country. He told me
he had hired a full-time programmer to take over the
technical work of running his site. ”I never intended to
be here,” he said. ”Nothing foreshadowed the attention
Daily Kos is getting.”

Moulitsas said that people had been coming in from
Brooklyn and other places just to shake his hand, because
they knew he would be at the Tank. ”It’s weird,” he
said. ”It makes me uncomfortable. People who achieve a
certain amount of celebrity plan it. They expect that
public attention will be part of the package.”

Away from the Tank now, he could relax for a moment and
reflect. ”I’m really self-conscious of how the blogger
community perceives me,” he said. ”I feel guilty that I
don’t link to more bloggers, I feel guilty that I’m more
successful than other bloggers. I feel guilty that I make
as much money as I do now, that I get more traffic. Rather
than enjoy it, sometimes I feel really guilty about it.
It’s silly.”

As we neared Wall Street, Moulitsas said: ”The other
angst I have about blogging is that because I depend on
the income, it has become a job. You’d think I’d be happy.
I make a living off of blogging! But it’s interesting how,
once it becomes a job, there’s a certain angst that I’m
kind of afflicted with. I can’t quit.”

When the bloggers first arrived in Boston for the
Democratic convention, some of them had high hopes for
what they would be able to accomplish there — that
together they would cough up an astounding Rashomon
collective of impressions and insights, interlinked, with
empowering conclusions. With their new form of journalism,
at once smaller and larger than the mainstream, they
planned to bring politics back to the people. But those
first few posts, so highly anticipated by their fellow
bloggers, the ones who didn’t score credentials, were more
about the bus ride from the hotel, the heavy security in
the parking lot; their seats in the rafters were terrible,
they had trouble getting floor passes and, anyway, out on
the floor, who would they talk to? Were they supposed to
pretend to be regular reporters? Up in the nosebleeds, the
delegates overran their special section, and it got so hot
at night you could die, especially with a nice warm laptop
baking your thighs; the WiFi kept fading, cutting them off
from the world, from their Googling and pondering; from up
in the cheap seats, the stage was minuscule, the speakers’
faces were dots, the sound didn’t travel. The only thing
the bloggers really had the inside scoop on were the
balloons hanging a few feet away from them in the rafters,
in huge sacks of netting.

The bloggers had spent this year hammering the mainstream
media for failing to tell the ”real story” of Howard
Dean or John Kerry or George W. Bush. And they hammered at
the campaigns, too, for failing to make their message
clear, for failing to adapt to surprises on the road, in
the glare of all that attention. But now they were finding
the campaign trail could be rough. Zephyr Teachout sat
down next to me on the night of Kerry’s speech and started
needling the bloggers. ”Look how hard it is to work when
the conditions are awful, when you’re star struck, when
it’s hard to find anecdotes that are good,” she said.

And as a seasoned reporter myself — after two whole
conventions — I can safely say that you get about as many
insights into the hearts and souls of the candidates on
the campaign trail as you would watching a plastic fern
grow. The ever-increasing scrutiny of candidates because
of cable and the Internet has only made more evident how
impregnable and unfathomable our political machinery has
become. Political reporters hanging around drinking and
smoking at the conventions said that the bus had changed a
lot since 1972. You spend all day watching nothing, fake
deli-counter photo ops with six camera crews, and you get
yelled at if you walk into the camera shot — that is, if
you dare to go near the guy you’re covering.

The news media helped create the modern campaign, and now
they seem to be stuck in it. The bloggers, by contrast,
adapted quickly. By the time the Republican convention
rolled around in August, they had figured something out,
staying far, far away from that zoo down at Madison Square
Garden. They had begun to work the way news people do at
manufactured news events, by sticking together, sharing
information, repeating one another’s best lines. They were
learning their limitations, and at the same time they were
digging around and critiquing and fact-checking and
raising money. They still liked posting dirty jokes and
goofy Photoshopped pictures of politicians, but they had
hope, and more than a few new ideas, and they were
determined to make themselves heard.

Matthew Klam, a contributing writer for the magazine who
has previously written about ecstasy and the world of day
traders, is the author of ”Sam the Cat and Other
Stories.”

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company
http://www.nytimes.com/pages/magazine/index.html

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Author: Saswat Pattanayak

Journalist, Generalist, Atheist, Poet, Lover, Photographer, Communist, Third wave Feminist, LGBT ally, Black power comrade, Peacenik, Anti-capitalist, Critical media theorist, Radical film critic, Academic non-elite…

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