When bloggers ruled the internet
For Markos Moulitsas, in white shirt and shown here with other bloggers during the Republican convention,
Fear and Laptops on the Campaign Trail
By MATTHEW KLAM
Published: September 26, 2004
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.''
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.
Well if Kaus wasn't an irrelevant asshole, he might not be regarded as a joke. Kaus needs a shrink, not readers. And as a side note, I have more readers than most opinion magazines, including the New Republic and National Review. And we're a rather modest operation. Which still amazes me to no end, as does people's generousity. Kaus is a fucking drama queen, sure, after the election, I'll probably write about topics other than politics (TOTP), but I went to school to write every day. Fuck tha angst and bullshit. It's a job, you do it.
Cruel and Kos don't really go together for me. The guy is an animal rights vegeterian for God's sake. He doesn't eat meat because it's cruel, a notion I don't quite agree with. But there it is. He doesn't usually take cheap shots, whereas I love them when appropriate.
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.
Uh, not quite. Kos, Atrios, Jerome and Josh, among others, make a nice living from Blogads. I'm much less aggressive in seeking ads, but I have no complaints. The idea here is that these are just some guys who rant because they have to, but it isn't serious. Wrong. They make money. Contributions and ads are a great combo. They're running businesses, not just screwing around.
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.......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.''
If I wrote gossip, I wouldn't have gone to the Tank either. Gossip columnists live better than working reporters. But I like what I do and how I do it, and I've had raw tuna, eaten in the Plaza and all that shit.
As far as Suck goes, Joey Anuff is a thief. Because Anuff stole people's work for Plastic and NEVER paid them. If I didn't hold a grudge about that, I'd be stupid. He's still rich and still a scumbag. I know NetSlaves never got a dime. Maybe others did, but as far as I'm concerned, he's a thief.
Why did Suck fail? Greed. The inability to change. Which is why Salon is still alive. Suck was all smarm, blogs arenot. Blogs are human, with real people behind them. Suck was like a cut-rate Spy and despite great journalism, people grew tired of their smarm as well.
Although, I'd be more charitable to other people if I were her. Because she writes shit that will, eventually, get her hammered. There may come a day when she needs us schlubs to cover her ass, and while being breezy is cute, rubbing your potential allies the wrong way may leave you hanging when you need a rope.
She needed him to make $18K? Atrios raised over five figures on his last fundraising drive. You can check Kos's ad rates and figure out his income on your own.
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.''
If you made $18K and a TV network came calling, you'd shit your pants with glee.
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.
No, he was sandbagged. The fine gentlemen of LGF, with an assist from racist t-shirt wearer Glenn Reynolds, blew this up into something stupid. So how was his ass saved? Well, Wonkette, pay close attention. His fellow bloggers leaped all over the Kerry campaign and people who pulled ads and said, bluntly, don't come to us for money if you fall for this shit. Now, my former partners at Netslaves had talked to him before, but I hadn't. And while grateful for his support, it wasn't like he was a friend of mine. And some folks (Oliver Willis, Kevin Drum) got weak in the knees about this. Then the readers sent e-mails as well.
What I realized was two things: one, Kos was right, legally these men were mercenaries, and I won't call them anything else. Because that's what they are. Second, if the racist turds at LGF could have campaigns back down because of this, we were all fucked. Because no one checks them for their racist comments. So what people did was rally around Kos and tell the campaigns the truth about the people complaining.
I think a far more important moment was the Ginny Schrader campaign. When Jim Greenwood pulled out, Schrader was on a fast track to defeat. Kos saved her ass by doing a fundraising drive and many of us chipped in. In one day, she went from loser to serious contender, and that was what Kos did. Beating back some chickenshit griping from Reynolds and LGF was easy, doing something positive is a lot harder.
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.)
See, if Jim Bonham had said that to me, I would have strangled him. But then, I have poor impulse control. See, that's why I thought Boston was a mistake. Bonham mistakenly thought Kos was his underling and would take orders. I don't want or need the DCCC to pay for my booze and food or to give me creds. That deal always leads to hard feelings when someone doesn't get what they want, like oh, like subservience. Once you take their money, they want you to be their date. Well, screw that. When I told people this would happen, they whined about their lack of money. Well, when you take money from people, they want something. The Tank was a far smarter setup all the way around. Bloggers paid for it, they used unaffiliated space, and they didn't have to deal with hurt feelings.
The DCCC can't move as fast as a blogger, but the reason there were hard feeling was that Bonham was less than supportive of Schrader when Greenwood dropped out. They didn't say they were going to back her immediately, and Kos was pissed. It looked like a clear shot to him. Bureacracies work differently. But Bonham forgot himself by yelling at someone who doesn't work for him and who he needs.
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.''
Simple answer: not every blogger is a journalist. Kos isn't. While I live by different rules. But he doesn't have to abide my mine.
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.
THEY'RE NOT JOURNALISTS. Jesus, is she just pissed no one hits her site 200K times a day? Now, as people who read this site know I called this. Because this is what all new reporters do. The GOP bloggers did the same thing. It takes time and a clear head to perform adequately in such a situation. But instead of bitching, she could have offered some tips. Kos actually engaged in a debate with her instead of not telling her to go fuck herself, which would have been my approach.
But then I handle politics differently than Kos does. I don't campaign for people, and with the exception of Schrader, don't raise money for them. I did in that case because it was critical to get her some cash to protect her from being sandbagged by the party.
Teachout misses the larger point. People don't read Kos because he's an objective voice, but because he isn't. Bloggers aren't pretending to be objective. They don't have the same conflicts of interests. Hell, Kos is a consultant, he knows the law and what a conflict is. But that's not the point of the blogs. It's to be opinionated and to have a point of view. So her stupid, pointless bitching misses the point by a mile. Blogs may or may not be journalism, but they are opinionated. Which is why they make more money than any other venture online except for porn.
The one point the article missed was the changing economics of the web. Blogs make money and are cheap to run, compared to what came before. By going small and doing most of the work yourself, you can make money. The real hero in this is not any blogger, but Henry Copeland of Blogads. The first truly honest ad broker. I don't think Kos, Atrios or Jerome Armstrong would disagree. Copeland makes blogs possible, along with generous readers. Those two make this more than the hobby of the frustrated.
posted by Steve @ 6:10:00 PM