- Some highlights from this interview
- Breaking the Trent Lott/Strom Thurmond story
- Why Washington reporters are feeling the heat from liberal blogs
- Blurring the line between reporting and political activism
- The economics of Talking Points Memo
Marshall is a blogger and the publisher of Talking Points Memo and its spinoff sites TPMCafe and TPMmuckraker.com. Marshall's sites combine the opinion and news commentary found on many other blogs with original reporting by him and his staff. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on April 24, 2006.
What's your background in journalism?
Well, I came out of opinion journalism, magazine opinion journalism. I was doing that full time for about four years before I started the Web site. So that's where I come from in the journalism world.
So what you've done is, in a sense, recreated an opinion journal on the Web.
Yeah. I would say that most blogging really is opinion journalism. The difference is that, if you look at magazines like The New Republic, the classic journal of opinion in the 20th century in the United States, opinion journalism has always been for these minute audiences -- 60,000 to 70,000 circulation or something like that. So blogging has really taken opinion journalism and made it, if not a mass-circulation form of journalism, really opened it up outside of D.C. and New York. ...
And you don't have to pay for paper.
Yes. That is a big advantage. ... The distribution or paper costs that always keep the tiny opinion journal magazines from ever making money, they don't apply to us. The costs of production, in relative terms, are very, very cheap. ...
Where does the word "blog" come from?
The word is actually a contraction of "Web log," so an Internet diary, basically, which is how these sites started. The basic convention is you have a diary written in reverse chronological order. It's just one long column.
“A newspaper has to have a news peg to come back to a story the second day. ... Blogs can keep making the case for a story. They have freedom that conventional news publications don't have.”
They started in the mid- to late '90s with people writing actual diaries [on] every topic under the sun. A lot of them started in the technology world. Political blogging started in the very late '90s, really around 2000. Many of the people who do this and have very big audiences today are people who are, in the best sense of the word, total amateurs -- don't have a background in journalism, have very strong opinions, etc. Others are professional journalists who got into this, like myself. ...
What are the advantages of doing it this way, as opposed to, let's say, doing it for the magazine you used to work for?
Well, when I first started doing it, there was a big disadvantage, which was that I couldn't make any money at it. When I first started, I actually did both, since not only did I not make money with the blog; it never occurred to me that I ever would make money with it. So when I started doing it, I was still a freelance journalist. I made my income from writing for different newspapers and magazines and so forth.
The advantages -- one we've spoken of, which is that the costs of production are very low. … The other advantages -- for me, it allowed me to work outside of a large institution. It gave me a lot more editorial freedom.
In some ways, a lot of the online media has cropped up as an alternative, a counterforce to all the consolidation that's taking place in the conventional media. Most of the conventional media is owned by a handful of companies. The economics of the online world allows a company like mine that publishes three blogs to exist as an independent and be economically viable.
So you sell ads? Or how do you make money?
We do a combination. We sell ads, and we also have contributions from readers. So it's sort of a hybrid.
Wait a second now. You have contributions from readers?
Contributions from readers.
This is a profit-making organization?
Yes, it is. Yes, it is.
Sounds like, you know, the Reverend Ike: "Send money."
Well, it's a hybrid. Our existing sites are funded by paid advertising. When we launch a new site -- and we've done that twice so far, we launched a site called TPMCafe, which is a discussion site, another called TPMmuckraker, which is an investigative journalism site -- when we do that, we go to readers and basically say, "Here's a new site that we want to start." We raise money in small amounts: $20, $50. We raise that much, though, from a few thousand people, and that gives us enough to run that site for a year while it's getting off the ground, and before it can actually start supporting itself through paid advertisements.
So it's not that different. A traditional news organization would go to a few big investors or funders who either thought they were going to make money or had an ideological motivation for funding it. We go to our readers. I prefer that for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is I'm not beholden to really anybody. I'm beholden for 20 or 50 bucks a pop from 2,000 or 3,000 people. But that's not something that affects us editorially or gets us calls saying, "We prefer that you lay off this issue," or something. ...
So this is an opinion operation. So you don't have any fact checkers, for instance? ...
Oh, that's not true. That's not true at all. I've done the main site for more than five years. It's always been made up of a lot of original reporting. When I first started, I was the reporter and the fact checker. But I've been both at conventional publications, so I know how to do both.
With the other sites, the most recent site we launched, we have two full-time reporters. They have two editors -- myself and our managing editor. So it doesn't work exactly like a regular magazine or newspaper, because we're usually reporting in real time. We have the same standards of accuracy and sourcing that, as far as I'm concerned, really any other kind of publication has.
Do you feel an obligation to have the other side of the story, since you're a journal of opinion?
We're very clear about where we stand on issues. But our issue is fundamental honesty with our readers. ...
In every story that we present, we try to present the complete story. Probably what we see as the complete story isn't going to be the same as a conservative publication. The Weekly Standard probably wouldn't see it as we see it, but we don't see ourselves as purely advocates for a particular point of view. Factual reporting counts just as much to us as I think it counts to anybody in newspaper journalism or magazine journalism, and I would stand our reporting up to theirs on the same measure. …
Have you ever run a retraction?
Oh, sure. Absolutely. And there's different kinds of retractions. There's retractions when just journalistically you make a mistake, you get a quote wrong or something like that. More to the point is when you get something wrong or you change your mind.
In the lead-up to the Iraq war, there's a number of things that I wrote that I think in retrospect were wrong -- not journalistically wrong, not facts that I asserted that weren't supported or something like that. Just my basic position and the way I interpreted a lot of the information I think was just wrong. ...
Have you retracted those things on your site?
Sure. In various posts, I discuss the things that I thought I got wrong in the lead-up to the war. But I think when you're doing what I do, when you're covering news in real time, you can't help but reinterpret, come to different understandings over time with things you wrote in the past. …
So you decide to cover certain stories because of your political orientation, your analysis of what's going on in the world, rather than other stories?
Sure. I think it's often frankly not quite that thought out or not quite that systematic. On my site I report on the stories that seem most interesting to me. Often it's a matter of the ones I think aren't getting the attention they deserve, but sure, my whole political worldview plays into the stories that I choose to emphasize or choose not to. ...
[Do] you consider yourself a journalist operating on the same level as any establishment journalist?
I consider myself a journalist who is working on the basis of the highest standards of journalism -- sourcing, fact checking, things like that -- and one who strives at every point to be fundamentally honest with our readers about the information that we're finding out in the course of our reporting. At the same time, we're very open about what our opinions are, about what we think the facts mean and what they don't mean. ...
Too often, conventional newspaper journalism makes everything into a "one side says this, the other side says the other," even when it's clear that one side is telling the truth and the other isn't. We try to avoid that.
You're interpreting information.
You're interpreting the news for people.
You're not just presenting them with information.
We're doing both. I think you can do both. ... I wouldn't want there to be only opinion journalism in the whole ecosystem of the news world. I think there should also be conventional daily newspaper reporting, where opinion, to the extent that one can, is filtered out of the process of news reporting.
I think, in many cases, the kind of reporting we do is more honest, is more straight than a lot of things you see even on the front pages of great papers like the Times and the Post. But I think both kinds of journalism should exist, should coexist. They reinforce each other. They help people come to a complete appreciation of the world they're living in.
Any reliable sense of how many people ... click your site?
On any given weekday, for our sites, between 100,000, 150,000 people a day. It varies. There's all sorts of different ways in the online world you can slice and dice readership. About a quarter of a million page views on weekdays is another metric. One more that may help people kind of get their heads around it is a little less than a million people come to our sites over the course of a month. Those are all different ways to understand our audience. ...
Do you take ads from anyone?
Basically, yes. When I started taking ads for our first site, which was back in, I think, the fall of 2003, I gave it some thought, and what I decided was that we would accept ads, regardless of political content.
You take a Bush campaign ad.
Absolutely. Absolutely. For obvious reasons, it doesn't come up that often. People are trying to hit our audience. That tends to be people of the same political viewpoint. But in the lead-up to the 2004 election, we ran several ads. We ran an ad for an [conservative commentator] Ann Coulter book, which obviously got squeals of outrage from some of our readers.
But for us, it's a matter of the basic division that I think every news organization tries to have between the business side of the outfit and the editorial side. We reserve the right to reject ads on very general standards of appropriateness or taste. ... I've rejected a number of ads just on what I consider taste grounds. They were all, as it happens, anti-Bush ads in the lead-up to the 2004 election. But the basic answer is we don't pay attention to the politics or the content of an ad when we decide whether to run it. It's strictly a business decision.
So are you a partisan journalist? …
That's not a label I would use for myself. ... To me, "partisan" means that you have a side, and then you organize the information to help that side. I don't think that's what I do. I think that I approach every issue that I can with as open a mind as I can and as honestly as I can, and I write the pieces that I write from what I think is the most accurate, most honest portrayal of the story that I can. ...
Would you do the same [type of critical reporting that you've done on the Bush administration], let's say, with Clinton?
I don't think the same facts are true about Clinton. … I think Bill Clinton made all sorts of mistakes. ... I'll give you an example. A couple months before 9/11, I got a tip about a story that was later reported after 9/11, which was that the Clinton administration had -- at least allegedly had -- a chance to get bin Laden in Sudan in the mid-90s. Now, for whatever reason, I wasn't able to actually get the story before 9/11. Once 9/11 happened, the prominence and the juiciness of that story obviously skyrocketed. It eventually was reported in The Washington Post. I did follow-up reporting on it -- which is obviously, one could say, against my political leanings -- that Clinton made a big mistake there.
So I think my reporting speaks for itself in terms of my willingness to report things that are averse to those who I'm inclined to support politically. ...
You don't report, for instance, that the economy is doing really well. Your blog doesn't credit the Bush administration with the stock market going up, and the American economy is outperforming most of the rest of the world.
I dispute some of your facts, but we don't report everything. We are not like The New York Times. ... It's trying to give the complete picture. ... We have myself and three employees, so we pick and choose what we cover. We don't cover everything.
What we are trying to do is, in most cases, we are focusing in on the stories we think are important, and mostly the stories we think are important are the ones that aren't getting either enough attention or aren't getting the correct kind of attention. If we do a story that is critical of the Bush administration, do we fall back and say, "Well, we hit him there; we've got to fall back and do a story that says the unemployment rate isn't that high"? That's not how we operate; that's not how we see our mission. It's just not what we do. ...
You abandoned journalism.
No, I don't think I abandoned journalism.
You didn't just become a propagandist?
No, I don't think I did.
Why? You hated the Social Security program, right? You thought it was bad. ...
Yeah, yeah. But I don't think that makes me a propagandist. I think the difference is that I got more involved. ...
I started focusing in on certain members of Congress, particularly Democrats, who were not willing to come out with a specific position on this question, and I focused people's attention on those. So in an indirect way, it was a way of organizing opposition to what the president was doing.
Didn't you send your readers out to poll Congress when there was a voice vote?
That was with what we call the DeLay Rule, which was this rule the GOP House Caucus passed to basically allow Tom DeLay to stay as majority leader even if he got indicted.
Yeah, yeah. Because I think, again, that was a case where members of Congress had an advantage, because no one was making them say where they stood.
Because they could do a voice vote, and there was no record.
They could do a voice vote, and there was no record. And no one quite had the time to go out and ask these members of Congress individually, "Where did you vote?" They would come up with some excuse or something like that. What I thought was that having their constituents ask them, "You represent me; what did you do?," was a way of bringing the truth out, of finding out where people stood.
I think where they stood probably, in many cases, did embarrass them. But I wanted to find out where they stood.
And you took the word of your readers who reported back to you?
No. What we did was readers went; they called; they asked; they got letters and stuff like that. We got that information back, and based on that, we would go out and confirm it. Some cases, we actually got the letters that members of Congress sent. So no, we didn't just take their word for it. We had various ways of confirming what these members of Congress said.
So you were taking tips or advanced research from your audience and then fact checking it afterward.
Yes. ... This was kind of a hybrid, where if a journalist calls up a member of the House of Representatives and says, "Where did you vote on this DeLay thing?," they can just say, "We're not answering that question." If 100 constituents call that member of Congress and say, "I want to know where you stood on this question," they're far less likely to stonewall them, because they know that their constituents are interested. Once they start answering their constituents and say, "Yeah, we voted in favor of that," and we find that out, we can follow up and say, "Hey, you're telling your constituents you voted for this. Is that true?" ...
And you say that in the Social Security area, the mainstream press really doesn't care about it because they make too much money?
I think the fairly comfortable economic position of a lot of the lead reporters makes them relatively indifferent to the future of social security. Yeah, I think that's true.
Their class position influences how they cover things.
Yeah. Not in ways that they're dishonest. I think all sorts of facts about individual reporters go into the assumptions that they bring to the news. Yeah, I think that that's one of them.
In the case of Social Security, another thing that played into that is the conventional wisdom in Washington, and the conventional wisdom in Washington on Social Security leaned right. ...
... When people talk about objective journalism, you're saying that there really isn't any function to he said/she said journalism. You've got to take a stand is what you're saying.
I would say this: There's a lot to be said for the canons of journalistic objectivity. However, I think that it has become derailed in recent years to the point where you have cases where Person A is saying something that, as near as we can figure out as human beings, today is really true. ... And journalists take what Person A is saying and say, "Well, we've got to get Person B's opinion, too, to have balance." There are many cases where the person running the story knows that Person A is telling the truth and Person B is lying, but to maintain objectivity, they are placed on equal footing, even though one's true and one is not true. I think that is not honest journalism. I don't think that is really informing people. ...
I mean, philosophically, what you're saying is that you believe there's an objective truth out there that should dominate editorial policy, and you don't have to just throw in all the other information that doesn't really challenge substantially that objective truth.
I believe in facts. I think that as imperfect human beings, we don't always know what the facts are. But the way we organize our whole society, our science, our technology, whatever, is based on trying things out, finding out certain things are true and certain things are not true. I think that those basic judgments should inform journalism much more than they do. ...
There are some people who think that the conservative bloggers, conservative critique and undermining of the press, combined now with the liberal bloggers and the undermining of the credibility of what you call as well the elite press, is basically wiping out professional journalism. It's putting it under great stress in this country.
It is putting it under a lot of stress, and I think some of that critique is damaging. On the whole, though, it's positive. Again, for the reason I said earlier, that what we've had before is ferocious critique all on one side, I think that ferocious critique on both sides is better than ferocious critique only on one side. ...
I think that the long-term effect [on the press] will be positive. ... My critique is trying to get people to practice better journalism. And I think the people who are trying to delegitimize journalism altogether want a world of information in this country where ... the people who have power control the information. I think that's why they want to undermine journalism.
But there's another thing that's happening. The economics of the news business is changing, as you know, dramatically, in part because of people like you. People are going to the Internet. ... It's cutting into the profitability, and it's also creating much more diffuse, if you will, outlets everywhere.
Yeah. It's undermining the sole authority that the big journalistic outlets have had.
The fear is that there's not going to be enough money out there to pay for, if you will, this objective kind of journalism, this professional journalism that you like to critique but you also depend on, because you depend on The New York Times or CBS News ... to set a standard.
Oh, absolutely, absolutely. ... I think the blogs depend on the mainstream media for much more than to set a standard. They rely on the mainstream media for a lot of the original spadework of reporting. There's no question about that. ...
So who's going to pay for it if you're adding to the problem by not only helping to, in a sense, undermine it, but also taking away [advertising] revenue?
I disagree with the premise. I think that the reason that investigative reporting is being underfunded, or just reporting in general is being underfunded, is not because blogs are taking some minute fraction of their ad revenue. It's because the ownership basis of a lot of the media's changing. ... The news divisions in the past weren't expected to really turn a profit. They would break even. They were loss leaders in the whole context of the news business. The big newspapers were owned by families. Now they're being much more run on a profit basis. ...
I think a lot of the companies, a lot of the institutions that we know about are going to cease to exist or change. But I have faith that the basic functioning of journalism -- people going out, collecting together facts, telling a story to their readers that is as true as they can ascertain -- I have faith that that is going to survive all this economic turbulence, even though I think the challenges and the dangers that you describe are real.
Your blog basically made it, if you will, over the [Sen.] Trent Lott story, as I understand it.
That was one of the first stories that got a lot of attention. It got the blog attention in its own right, yeah. So that was one of the first big stories, kind of a breakthrough story for us.
What happened? And why did it work out for you in particular?
That was a story ... that was actually first reported, though very briefly and on a very limited basis, by ABC News. ...
The story is that Trent Lott had made this statement at [Sen.] Strom Thurmond's birthday party: "Things would have been a lot better in America today if Thurmond had won the 1948 presidential election." What I guess not a lot of people remembered anymore was that Strom Thurmond's 1948 presidential campaign was based on a hard pro-segregation line. ... So when you unpacked what Trent Lott said, it was really egregious. It was terrible.
But no one did unpack it. Most of the news media just ignored it. And in the way that the news media works, a story really has a 24-hour audition -- it makes its case, whether it's going to catch fire, whether it's going to become a real story. And that story failed its 24-hour audition.
I think in a pre-blog world, that would have been the end of it. ... My blog and others picked up the story and basically started making the case for it; that it deserved another chance as a story; that it was a lot more important than the rest of the news media had thought. So we were making that case. ... Eventually it got back into the conventional press, and pretty quickly after that it became sort of a firestorm. And as everybody knows, Trent Lott had to step down as majority leader.
But that's a case where again, you need to think of the news media as an ecosystem. You have your newspapers; you have your 24-hour cable networks; you have your blogs. They each have a niche. They each play a role, and if everything is working correctly, they're each playing a role in giving viewers overall an accurate understanding of what is happening.
This was a case -- and I think it was the first time for blogs -- that they really showed the very positive role they could play, which was when the conventional news media in D.C. and New York, for whatever reason, misses a story. I think in this case, it was a function not of political bias but of journalistic clubbiness. Everybody knew Trent Lott. Everybody had gotten used to Strom Thurmond. ...
You criticized David Broder of The Washington Post.
The way to see Strom Thurmond in Washington had become to see him as a lovable old guy with a weird accent who had maybe done some terrible stuff way, way in the past, but it had all been forgotten about. And those blinders that I think all the big journalists in Washington were wearing made them miss this story.
It was up to blogs, precisely because of their political engagement; also because a blog doesn't need a news peg to return to a story the second day. A newspaper has to have a news peg to come back to a story the second day. ... Blogs can keep making the case for a story. They have freedom that conventional news publications don't have. In this case, it allowed them to see a story that needed attention that the big cable networks and the big newspapers were blind to.
Did you do the same thing when Dan Rather presented these documents about George Bush's National Guard service?
Basically, yes. ... In the Dan Rather story, we were by no means the first ones to catch the fact all this stuff with the typesetting and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. But ... there was a chorus among liberal blogs defending the story, and if you look at what I wrote at the time, [I] was basically saying that I didn't think that this was something that should be defended necessarily and that I thought that these conservative blogs who were making this argument had a point. ... That, I think, is an example of the fundamental honesty with your readers. ...
A lot of reporters, particularly in Washington, were telling us that they're feeling a lot more heat from the left, particularly left bloggers, if you will. Is that a reaction to what was going on in the past?
... Yeah. Going back about a quarter of a century, you have a mainstream news media which, as many people say, is made up of people who are predominantly Democrats. However, they're working within these canons of objectivity, reporting both sides, etc. On the other side, you have the right-wing news media that is made up overwhelmingly of conservatives not following the same canons of objectivity. So you have people at The New York Times and The Washington Post that I think, for a generation, ... have been used to thinking, "All right, I'm reporting this news." And then the second thought they get in their head is: "Is reporting it this way going to get me accused of liberal media bias? How do I counter for that? What do I do to pre-empt those charges of liberal media bias?"
Basically, the right has, I think, been working the refs -- to use a basketball metaphor -- for a quarter of a century. And for people who have my political viewpoint, that leads to a dominant form of media reporting that skews to the right, even if it's written by people, produced by people, who may tend to vote as Democrats.
You're saying the conservatives have been, if you will, raising hell about the establishment media's coverage of, let's say, the White House, and it has had an effect, ... even if [editor] Len Downie tells us, at The Washington Post, it doesn't have any effect?
I'm certainly not saying he's lying. I've worked in conventional journalism, I have a lot of friends who work in conventional journalism, and I think it's not an overstatement that in many newsrooms, the train of thought goes, "What's the story?," a; then b, "How are we going to get accused of liberal media bias?" When that is your chain of thinking, you inevitably end up with, I think, a very skewed kind of coverage. ...
What I think has happened in the last three or four years, mainly because of blogs, is that there's finally noise on both sides. For reporters, I have no doubt that's not pleasant. And it's not because they're coddled or something. It's not fun at all getting your judgment second-guessed, whatever. And in some cases it's ugly; It's yelling, and it's unfair complaints and stuff like that. But I think the final result is better journalism than you've had in the past, because there is critique, active critique, from both sides. So even though it's not fun for journalists, ... the net result is a positive one. ...
You don't think the press had done a very good job covering the Bush administration.
No, no. And some of that is undoubtedly just because of my own political viewpoint, that I'm a critic of the Bush administration. But I think it goes beyond that. I think it stems from a few different reasons.
One reason, again, is the resurgence of conservative media in this country over the last couple decades -- Fox News, talk radio, all these kind of things that have pushed ... the dialogue in a rightward direction. 9/11 clearly had a huge part of that. The press felt very cowed after that. In some ways, I think that the Bush administration has played to the weaknesses of how journalists understand journalistic objectivity. ...
What's to stop partisan journalism, like Fox News, for instance -- I think you would call that partisan journalism, right? -- from the slippery slope of becoming propaganda? I think in a lot of cases, Fox News has already slipped down that slope. They've fallen and they can't get up. It is a slippery slope.
What stops engaged opinion journalism from descending into propaganda is the integrity and honesty of the reporters and editors who produce this stuff. What the media has to rely on in general is having a sufficient diversity of voices, so that you're not depending on the individual integrity or honesty of writers and reporters; that you have enough diversity of voices that if parts of the news media is slipping into propaganda -- the fundamental dishonesty with readers that propaganda is -- that you have other voices that are bringing them back to the facts. ...