Wednesday, April 02, 2008
Josh Marshall '91 spoke last night at Princeton University in a century-old lecture series established to give Grover Cleveland a forum after his presidency, and which has sponsored the likes of Theodore Roosevelt and Thurgood Marshall. Josh Marshall is, of course, the founder of Talking Points Memo and TPM Cafe, and is otherwise distinguished by his graduation from this fine university in 1991. A webcast of the talk is promised at this link, but in my experience will not materialize for a couple of days. When it does, you will hear and perhaps see me ask a question.
Marshall was joined on the stage by Professor Anthony Grafton, who described Marshall's blog and its affiliated enterprises as "an extraordinary organization." The political differences between us do not prevent me from conceding that this much is surely true.
Having gotten his start in the very early days of blogging, Josh Marshall is one of the genuine pioneers in the field, and he has continued to innovate. Most of his talk was given over to blogging, new media, and the survival prospects for old media, and none of it would be surprising or controversial to regular readers of this blog, Instapundit, Michelle Malkin, or any other blog of the right that reflects upon and revels in the changes in the production and delivery of news and opinion. He did, however, say a couple of things that struck me as new and interesting to sophisticated blog readers and otherwise worth passing along. (Quotations here are approximate, and may on full revelation of the webcast be proved inaccurate.)
Professor Grafton asked Marshall to describe what his blogging empire is "trying to do that is different than the horserace coverage in the media?" Marshall responded that his audience was the "political junkie", that he assumes that his audience knows what Democrats and Republicans think, and that his readers have a decent handle on policy questions. He also added, obviously, that "[TPM] makes no secret of the fact that [its] on the center left, and our organization speaks from that place, although we try and succeed in being even-handed in how we report the issues." That said, he added that "we are not approaching the primary campaign as partisans because we do not want large parts of our community to approach the site as outsiders."
Less diplomatic Marshall: We do not want to side with either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, because we will alienate some portion of our audience.
In fact, Marshall added that while supporters of both Obama and Clinton have complained about TPM's coverage, right now the mail was mostly coming from the Clinton side:
The clear majority of the hate mail we are getting right now, which is not insignificant, are from supporters of Hillary Clinton ... who feel we are committing one or another form of journalistic malpractice in how we are covering the race.
Marshall allowed that the last six weeks have presented his toughest challenges in running the site because of the divisions on the left.
It is obvious to wonder whether those divisions will change the character of the leading lefty blogs, which have until very recently thrived on attacking Republicans rather than enforcing ideological purity or political loyalty in their own ranks. There was some evidence that this will happen in Marshall's own discussion.
Professor Grafton -- who obviously shares the view popular in lefty circles that mainstream media coverage skews to the right -- asked Marshall why it was that traditional journalism had in recent years become so much less willing to confront and challenge the Washington establishment than it had in the past (this being an entirely unproved assertion, as far as I'm concerned). To his credit, Marshall did not leap to agree with Grafton's premise, reminding the audience that of old the Washington press corps famously buried "germane" stories about politicians because they were deemed too personal. He also argued, correctly, that blogs were filling real demand for confrontational journalism. Marshall did not notice, though, that to some degree TPM was by his own testimony also pulling its punches, at least against Democrats. The reason? To avoid alienating its audience.
Even more than the mainstream media, large general audience blogs thrive off the contributions of their readers, who supply stories, links and feedback and who drive "circulation" at the speed of electrons rather than by word of mouth. If a blog alienates a faction in its audience by hitting a favorite son of that faction too hard, it is cutting off its own blood supply. In this regard, therefore, blogs are probably going to have to choose between being "hard hitting" and intellectually honest; blogs that are both will have small, nichy audiences just like hard-hitting intellectually honest print publications, because intensely interested and partisan audiences will not want their iconic politicians subjected to even-handed scrutiny.
Indeed, one of last night's questioners seemed to notice this problem from a somewhat different angle, observing that TPM had made a living off of hammering on Republicans. What, the questioner asked, would TPM do once Democrats were in charge in every branch? "How will your audience react if you start to investigate Democrats?"
Marshall, who was addressing a room easily as left-wing as the TPM readership base, observed that "[c]orruption is a lagging indicator -- it will take a long time for Democrats to catch up." The implication being, of course, that TPM could continue to attack Republicans for quite some time after they are out of office. Eventually, though, "[TPM] will investigate Democrats. I would hope that by then we have an audience that's large enough in what we actually do that we will not lose the people who thought we were in business just to attack Republicans." (Early example here?)
Watching TPM go after the donks might be an unexpected dividend from a Democratic sweep in November. And, I suspect that if Marshall defines corruption as broadly as he has with Republicans -- as intellectual dishonesty and bureaucratic hardball in the pursuit of partisan advantage -- it will not lag the elevation of the Democrats for very long. The question is whether Marshall and other intellectually honest progressives -- Ezra Klein, for example -- will have to choose between their audiences and their honesty.
ezra klein is an intellectual..?
...good lord, you took such care in defining terms such as 'corruption' and 'intellectual dishonesty'...
one read's klein's ejaculations over obama's rhetoric and the adjective 'intellectual' seems so...inadequate...
as for marshall, there is nothing wrong with being a partisan or for pulling one's punches for partisan reasons...such forthrightness is admirable...
it would be swell if he had the grace not to accuse others practicing that behavior of hypocrisy
We can at least agree that Marshall and Klein are progressives.
Asking them to choose between their audience and their honesty is like asking them to choose between their audience and their claim to the Spanish throne.
I have to grab this tangent -
Professor Grafton -- who obviously shares the view popular in lefty circles that mainstream media coverage skews to the right --
If that does not prove the Political Theory of Relativity (if all you read is The Nation, then you think the NYT is too far right, if all you read is The American Conservative, then you think the WSJ is too far left, or at least too pro-immigration), I don't know what does. That's remarkable.
Anyway, wasn't it TPM that was boycotted by Clinton supporters a week or two ago because the flame wars in the postings were getting out of hand, or was that HuffPo or someplace else?
Josh Marshall point outed, as you rightly report, that the Washington press corps used to be less confrontation on some issues, like presidential health. But to add a little grace note from my lefty perspective: he also described the current press corps as very reluctant to confront powerful entities in Washington, partly out of a reasonable reluctance to lose sources and partly out of a new kind of privilege and clubbyness.
Come knock on my door, sometime, Tigerhawk: it would be fun to talk.
Sorry, let's try that one again, without the creative play with verbs:
Josh Marshall pointed out, as you rightly report, that the Washington press corps used to be less confrontation on some issues, like presidential health. But to add a little grace note from my lefty perspective: he also described the current press corps as very reluctant to confront powerful entities in Washington, partly out of a reasonable reluctance to lose sources and partly out of a new kind of privilege and clubbyness.
Come knock on my door, sometime, Tigerhawk: it would be fun to talk.