News War [site home page]
  • Home
  • Interviews
  • Site Map
  • Discussion
  • Part 1
  • Part 3
  • Part 4
  • Watch Online

markos moulitsas

Moulitsas founded his blog Daily Kos in May 2002. He describes it as "basically our little Democratic living room, and we're going to have our discussion about what we think is important to reform the Democratic Party and to fix the mess that the Republicans have made in this country." This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Aug. 31, 2006.

Why did you start blogging? What is a blog?

... A blog is simply a tool that allows people to publish online. It's just like a typewriter that allows people to publish on paper, word processor, etc. How that tool is used depends on the blogger. And a blogger is somebody who uses a blog. ... So somebody who blogs can be a journalist or can be a muckraker or can be a gossip columnist or an essayist or a novelist or any number of things. I happen to be a political writer. That's what I use my blog for, to write about politics. But it could be any number of things.

Now, why did I start the blog? I needed an outlet to discuss the issues that I cared about. This was early 2002; it was a very politically stifling environment, when it was tough to be an outspoken liberal. You were considered treasonous or unpatriotic if you criticized the president on any number of issues, including domestic policy. ... I served in the U.S. Army; I'm a military vet. To me it was offensive for somebody to tell me what I could or could not say, considering that I actually served and I made a vow in my military service to potentially give up my life in service to those freedoms that we all hold so dear. ...

You're not really on the left politically, from what I've read.

I am on the left. Now, the thing is that the country's moved so far to the right that the left doesn't look like [what] the left used to be. I'm actually a former Republican. When I entered the Army, I was a Republican. I was kind of an old-school Republican -- you know, the people who thought that government shouldn't get involved in people's life, a lot more libertarian. The Republican Party gradually became more and more meddlesome in people's lives. They're abridging our civil liberties; they're telling us when we can be born, when we can die. They want to control almost every facet of our lives. That's not what a traditional Republican used to be.

“People want to be part of the media. They don't want to sit there and listen anymore. They're too educated. They're taught to have initiative and be go-getters and not to sit back and be passive consumers.”

So I gradually migrated to the party that really is more in tune with my civil liberties, my right to live my life the way I see fit, without meddlesome government interference and meddlesome corporate interference. ...

The mainstream media either looks down on you or fears for their jobs because of you.

Yeah, it's funny -- "these kids," right? I keep talking about how the average age of a Daily Kos reader is 45. We're not that young. It doesn't help that I look like I'm 12, so that's kind of a problem, but the fact is I'm 35. ...

Now, the media establishment, it goes back and forth. Some people see us as an ally; some people see us as the enemy. I generally see the media as allies. I don't want to do the reporting. I was a reporter in a previous life, and it's not something that I hated, but it's not something that I would want to do again. I need the media to do its job and provide the raw data, the raw information that then we can use to decide what's the best course for our country as we analyze what is the best policy to solve issue XYZ. To solve a problem you need to have good information, and that's what we depend on the media to provide.

Our problem on the left with the media is when they don't do their job right; when they think that they're stenographers for the White House; when they just repeat mindless spin without actually providing context, without providing fact checking. ... Now, on the right, they want to destroy the media, because they're trying to build an alternate reality that matches their ideology. ... If the media reports the truth unspun, that's a problem for them, so they want to destroy the traditional media. They want more Fox News, and they want less real reporting. ...

[The Colbert Report's] Stephen Colbert is sort of a hero on our side of the aisle because not so much [for] his mockery and satire of Republicans, but of the media itself. I know the media does not like him. At the White House [Correspondents' Association] dinner this year, his standup at that dinner bombed terribly in the room, but it was an absolute hit outside of the press, outside of the media world. ...

So this resonates with people. The need and the desire for a press that acts like a check on government, that acts like it's working in the public interest, as opposed to just trying to ingratiate themselves with the people in power and get invited to the right cocktail parties. There's a hunger for this kind of reformation of the media outside of Washington, D.C., and outside of the New York media establishment. It's a big country, and I don't think New York and D.C. realizes it. ...

Where do you get your news?

It's mostly newspapers, actually, and all of it online. I don't receive a paper product. ... There's a lot of original reporting, and I have a lot of sources now that will e-mail me tips. But mostly -- and this is the beauty of what I'm doing -- is that we're able to take the good work of journalists all over the country, not just in The New York Times and Washington Post that used to dominate the media discussion, but anywhere. So you can have tiny little papers in Wisconsin or Montana or Idaho, and if they're producing good information, we're going to highlight that.

That really changes things, because now every story is potentially a national story. That's why I think a lot of journalists actually like the blogs, because they like the thought that, well, I can get beyond my paper's small readership and truly have a national impact. That motivates them to promote their stuff to bloggers and to get the word out in a way that wasn't possible before. So yeah, a lot of journalists I think see us as competition and are hostile, but a lot of them actually see us as allies and as a way to actually increase the influence of what they write.

Colbert, [The Daily Show's Jon] Stewart -- these are important guys in your world?

Oh, absolutely. Yeah.

And it's the political satire that resonates, because people don't feel their opinion being validated in the mainstream media?

It's not even their opinions. I don't think they're even getting that information in the traditional media. If you look at local news, they've completely cut out all political reporting. You've always had "If it bleeds, it leads," but now it's "If it bleeds, it's everything." That's all you're going to have on the local news. ...

The network news are becoming less and less relevant to what's happening in the media world. Talk radio is completely dominated by right-wing voices, and the newspapers are being decimated. I mean, nobody reads newspapers anymore, so what's left? Television's left, cable news. Cable news is growing; it's pretty big. And the Internet. So on television, you look for ... somebody calling BS. With all the BS that's being peddled by politicians -- and a lot of it is being peddled by Democrats as well -- what we want is politicians being held honest and accountable.

It just so happens right now that it's the Republicans that are in charge, so they're the ones that are bearing the brunt of the Colbert and the Jon Stewart satire. I have no doubt that if the Democrats were suddenly in control of all three branches of government that they would be getting the same treatment from those people, and they would deserve it. ...

[What is the] GOP "noise machine"?

The noise machine is their ability to deliver their message to almost every segment of their base on any given moment. If they want to reach their soccer moms, they have a Bill O'Reilly and they have Fox News channel. They want to reach blue-collar workers at their job sites, they have Rush Limbaugh on AM radio. Religious voters you reach through 700 Club and Pat Robertson. And down the road, it's just complete domination of the media landscape and the ability to communicate to almost everybody.

Rush Limbaugh by himself reaches 20 million people every week; sixty million people voted for George Bush. So you have a third of the base is being communicated [to] by that one individual, and then you add everybody else together, and you have a pretty dominant machine able to deliver that message. ...

Progressives don't have that. Now, of course, conservatives will talk about the so-called liberal media, but the conservative machine is actually a partisan conservative media working in concert with the Republican Party to deliver their message. There is nothing like that. You don't have execs at CBS meeting with the Democratic National Committee talking about what they're going to promote that day. Doesn't exist. Does not exist.

It does, actually: blogs. And we're so tiny. You people who want to give us all sorts of credit and assign to us all sorts of power, we're tiny. I reach on a daily basis between half a million and a million people a day, and that sounds really impressive until you compare that to Rush Limbaugh and his 20 million a day. And that's just Rush. You throw in Sean Hannity [of Fox News], he's about at 6 million, and go down the list. They have a lot of people reaching a lot of people, and we have blogs. It's actually kind of pathetic.

So little by little, there's effort to build that infrastructure. You have Air America on -- liberal talk radio -- and independent liberal talk radio that's sprouting up [in] a lot of places, but they're nowhere near what the conservatives have. ...

Why have diarists contribute to your blog?

Daily Kos is a community site. It's not a traditional blog with one person sitting on a soapbox talking down to people. We're all engaged in the conversation. Anybody can create a diary on Daily Kos, creating an account, and it allows them to comment on the site, to respond to what other people are writing. It allows them to write diaries, which are essentially a blog within the blog.

Now, there are guidelines. Obviously you have the usual sexist, racist type of things, but it's also a Democratic site. So if Republicans want to come in and create trouble, they're not going to last very long. It's basically our little Democratic living room, and we're going to have our discussion about what we think is important to reform the Democratic Party and to fix the mess that the Republicans have made in this country. ...

We have at least six or seven senators, 20, 30 congresspeople actually commenting on a regular basis on Daily Kos, providing content, because they've realized that they can bypass the media filter -- the filter that really does not let them get their message out to the American people -- and they can go straight to hard-core, active Democratic activists on sites like Daily Kos. And there are others like Daily Kos; it's not the only one.

When did you get a sense this was going to be more than something your closest friends would be reading?

When did I think that this was going to be pretty big? It started in early 2002. We did a lot of work -- the site grew fairly well in the run-up to the 2002 midterm elections, because at the end of the day, I'm very much an election-focused blogger. I don't focus so much on policy or foreign affairs; I focus mostly on elections. It's just my niche. ... So I grew by virtue of the fact that there [were] only two sites really at the time that were really obsessive[ly] covering the 2002 midterm elections.

Now, the big spike in traffic really came in 2003 with the run-up to the Iraq war. Because I'm a military vet, I could speak about military issues from a position of knowledge. I was very much in the logistics chain in the Army. I was in the artillery; I was in the combat arms. I know how that stuff works. It was harder for our ideological critics to paint me as a traitor and un-American, considering that they had not served their country. I had. ...

But really when I thought this is actually something big is when the Howard Dean campaign came a-knocking -- this is in late 2002, where Joe Trippi, who was about to take over the campaign, realized these blogs are potent. Here I am; I'm working for a governor from an obscure state. Nobody knows he exists. He's not getting any media attention. Nobody takes him seriously. Here's a media that actually will allow us to bypass that if we do this right. We were early backers. ... The Dean campaign started coming to us for advice. We knew, OK, this is actually going to be something a lot more significant, still never realizing it would grow to the point it has today.

You're more than a political writer. An activist?

Yeah, there's definitely an activist component. It's hard to pigeonhole what I do. Traditionally it was easier for people to find the niche because the media landscape and the political landscape really forced people into their niches, right? You were either an activist or you were a writer or you were a pundit, or XYZ.

We're all of the above. I do original reporting, so I can wear a reporter's hat; I can wear a journalist's hat. I do activist type work -- raise money, urge people to turn out for certain campaigns, encourage them to call their congressmen and senators on certain issues -- so I have that role. Obviously a pundit as well, since I'm pontificating on certain issues. An analyst, because I'm poring over voter registration numbers and poll numbers and trying to see what the impact will be on certain races. So I wear all those hats, and one of many beauties of what I'm doing -- of [the] citizen media, blogging world -- is nobody's going to tell me what I can or cannot do. I can do whatever I want, and if tomorrow I want to write a poem and be a poet, then tomorrow I'll write a poem and be a poet. Nobody can tell me I can or can't do that.

That's very liberating, and it's very exciting. It's one reason people have really taken to this medium, because they don't like to be told what they can or cannot do, and here's a medium that really accommodates that.

No editors, though. No safety net.

Yeah, I'm not working with any editors in the traditional sense. Now, I have a couple hundred thousand people -- about 600,000, 700,000 people -- that visit the site every day. They're my editors. ... I write a post, and I'll go in 15 minutes later, because everybody will point out my typos, so I can go back and fix my typos, because they're going to come in and they're going to say, "You misspelled this word"; "You got this number flip-flopped"; "Oh, this congressman's a Republican, not a Democrat; you've got that mistake." And of course I'm writing several thousand words a day, and it's all top of my head. I'm not editing. I'm not rewriting stuff. I just spit it out, ... and I move on to the next thing. So those are my editors.

But again, that's also the danger, because I'll just spit out whatever, and I may say something that is not politically correct or something that's not very diplomatic, and people get angry. That comes with the territory. It's a very raw medium. Nobody's tempering what I'm saying. Nobody's tempering my emotions. And if I'm cranky or I haven't gotten enough sleep, or something just angers me irrationally -- we all get angered irrationally -- I'll write something that later on I'm thinking, yeah, maybe I should have waited 10 minutes to post that. ...

There's nothing like it, I think, in the traditional world of politics or media, where such raw emotion is the norm of the medium, as it is in blogging. But then again, that's what makes it so exciting. It's not canned; it's not prepackaged; it's not just your focus group-tested talking points. This is actually what people really believe, and that's what makes it so much more interesting, so much more fun to read than traditional punditry or traditional media stuff or analysis or politicians on a stump.

You got flak for writing about "mercenaries" killed in Iraq. Regrets?

No. ... Basically, four mercenaries were killed in Fallujah. That same day, five Marines were also killed, and all the news were about the four mercenaries instead of our fine men and women in uniform who were there not because they wanted to be there or because they were making a lot of money, but because they were serving their nation and following orders. Somehow the Marines weren't given any attention. And I will always side with my brothers and sisters in uniform. ... I don't apologize for that.

Now, could I have said it more politically correct? Of course, of course. But again, it's a raw medium. It wasn't even a post. It wasn't a story that I wrote. It was a comment responding to somebody else. So it was completely blown out of proportion by the right wing, of course. But you know what? That's the point I realized that people actually care what I have to say, that I'm suddenly on everybody's radar screen, and yeah, maybe I need to be a little more careful about how I say it. But they're afraid of me. And that was a pretty shocking moment to realize that, because until then, I was just some random blogger, some guy with a blog. Also, it taught me who my friends were. ...

Brawling is the style of the blogosphere, right?

Yeah. It's fun. It makes politics fun. What the media did when they went to this unbiased mode is that they sucked all the life out of this. Now, you go to England, that's a very partisan media, and it's still fact-based. But you have The Guardian on the left, and you have The Mirror and so on, and so you have people feeling that their views are being represented in the media and the way that the news is shaped, and that's a good thing. You see that in Greece. What's really interesting is that those countries don't have a very well-developed political blogosphere, because there really is no need. ...

But beyond the partisanship, really, we make politics fun. We have a great time. I know our critics say that we're hate-filled, that we're angry. ... We're not. I mean, there's plenty to be angry about -- I guess I'll amend that. But we're making politics fun, and when politics becomes fun, more people will become engaged. ...

Do you think there's something about blogging that appeals to liberals?

Well, part of it is the fact that it costs zero. We don't have the megabillions that the right wing has to buy cable stations and buy entire networks or radio and spend the kind of money that you traditionally do to build a media infrastructure in television, radio and newspapers. ...

So there is no barrier to entry, and culturally it's a medium that fits really well with liberals, because one of our weaknesses has always been our inability to fall behind people. Now, conservatives are very, very good at this. You have the dittoheads with Rush Limbaugh, who agree with everything he says; they're just waiting for marching orders. That's very powerful politically, because they're always on the same page. Their caucus is always on the same page. Ours are always ready to run in different directions, so that lack of unity has actually hampered our efforts to present a coherent message to the American people about what we stand for. ...

Blogs are uniting the left of the party with the center of the party to the right of the party, and I don't think any other institution in the Democratic Party can even remotely boast of that kind of power.

You like a certain level of confrontation?

Yeah, I thrive on it, absolutely.

You're also an entrepreneur?

I have a network of sports blogs -- team-specific sports blogs -- called SBNation, SportsBlogs Nation. We're building sites for every single professional North American team and also [individual] sports: cycling, boxing. We have all of baseball built out. We're working on NCAA colleges and football and basketball.

One thing that I learned early on is that the medium really caters to partisans. There's three areas of life I think that are really, really partisan-driven, and politics is the obvious one; sports as well. ...

But there's something else there -- and I think it speaks to ... sports, it speaks to politics -- is that people want to be part of the media. They don't want to sit there and listen anymore. They're too educated. They're taught to have initiative and be go-getters and not to sit back and be passive consumers, and the traditional media is still predicated on the passive consumer model. You sit there and watch.

In sports you see it in talk radio, where people desperately try to get on -- call the host to say something, and the host makes fun of them and hangs up on them, and that's it, right? Suddenly we have a medium where people are actually rewarded for wanting to have a say in their team, their favorite players, team strategy, whatever it might be. They want to talk about their team. Then we have these outlets where now they can go actually do that, and that's proven to be a very, very powerful draw, more so than I ever expected when I even started doing these sports blogs.

It's democratizing the media?

Absolutely. It's definitely democratizing the media. Barrier to entry is even lower, because for me, I had to create the site -- find a template, get a designer -- so there was some sweat equity. Now with sites like Daily Kos and these sports blogs, you can go to an existing site and just start participating. It doesn't take anything but time, and they're terribly addicting. I tell people who don't go to blogs that [if] they value their family lives and want to keep their jobs, they might want to stay away from the blogs, because they can be so addictive.

But that's it. People don't want to be trivialized; they don't want to be treated as merely numbers in our ratings chart. They want to actually participate in the discussion. They want to be part of the conversation, and now we have a medium that allows them to be part of that conversation.

[Are you] making a living out of this?

Absolutely. I think it's no different than most professions. A lot of people will do it on an amateur basis, and a select few will actually be able to make money off it. ...

Now, my goal is that this medium grew so much that more and more people can make money doing it, because I think that's exciting. It's breaking down the barrier to media, and the more people who can afford to do it full time, the more regular people are going to be able to be engaged in conversation. One of the best things about the blogs is that experts in various fields can have a voice. So you have economists talking about economic policy; you have historians talking about the Middle East and what it all means; you have people who are pollsters who would post about polling and what it all means.

It's not just the traditional media, [where] you have a jack-of-all-trades, where you have these reporters who just write about anything, whatever the story may be, and becoming situational experts on that topic. We have real experts, and I think it's very informative to have these people writing. I want more of them to do so. ...

What kind of money do you make from Daily Kos?

Pretty good. It's hard to say, to be honest, because I reinvest a lot of this. Once I see I've met my expenses for the month, what's left over ends up either going back into the site or into various advocacy projects or campaigns or whatever. I'd make a lot more money if I was a little more greedy about hoarding the money, but it does really well. And what I do now costs a lot of money to do. My expenses are rising dramatically with the popularity of the site. That comes with the territory. But I do live very well.

What does an ad cost? How do you sell them? Policies?

It's all a gut feel. I think I've rejected two ads in the four years that I've been taking ads, so it doesn't happen very often. If something annoys me and I think it's really dishonest I might reject it, but it doesn't happen very often. People understand that when you're advertising on Daily Kos, you're advertising to Democratic activists, and you're going to get a certain type of advertiser that wants to reach those people. You're not going to get Republican candidates wasting their money advertising to people who really want nothing to do with them.

The ads are a couple thousand dollars a week, per ad. It's actually, industry-wide, it's very low, because political advertisers just don't have the kind of money that you'd get for some technology companies that will spend a lot more money on some of these ads. If I was a technology writer or if I was an entertainment writer, I think I would make a lot more money than I do now. But nevertheless, I can do what I need to do with the site.

The beauty of it, to me, is it makes me completely independent. I'm not beholden to anybody. I don't have a boss; I don't have an editor; nobody can yank my FCC [Federal Communications Commission] license. I don't have government committees looking over my shoulder. So I can really do whatever I want without the pressures of anybody threatening my job. ...

Conservative bloggers see Dan Rather as a pelt on their belts.

Yeah, they're still living the glory day of three years ago. Conservative blogs are pretty irrelevant. At the end of the day they're pretty irrelevant. The reason is because they're merely an extension of the right-wing noise machine. ...

There's not a lot of activism generated online. They don't raise a lot of money for candidates; they don't generate a lot of activism for candidates. They have their moments here and there, but at the end of the day, most of the top [conservative] bloggers are actually personalities in other media: radio hosts or television personalities or authors. Not a lot of what you see on the left, which is a lot of just citizen activists that suddenly find their voice and find an audience and suddenly can effect change by their online efforts. You don't see that a lot on the right. ...

The Dan Rather stuff is a perfect example where they actually created that noise machine, that echo chamber sort of thing. You almost never have that on the left because we just don't agree with each other. We're not going to sit there and fall in line and just do whatever everybody else tells us to do. They can. And they can have their moments. But really, Dan Rather's their big, glorious, crowning achievement, and that was, what, three years ago, two years ago? They haven't had anything since, and I don't think they will. I mean, they're quite irrelevant.

[The YearlyKos] Convention. What was that like?

We're all geeks. I mean, no doubt about it. Anybody that sits on a computer [and] wants to read about politics isn't necessarily the average American. We don't care about Salma Hayek or Jennifer Aniston or any of the kind of things that seem to motivate a lot of people into going online and finding stuff to read. So we're reading about poll numbers and demographics and races in places like Montana and Idaho and Wyoming. That's not necessarily normal.

But there's a lot of us. That's what's amazing: There is a lot of us, and in the past, we'd be isolated. But now the blogs allow us all to come together, and what YearlyKos did is it really allowed people who knew each other just online, by their online handles, to actually meet each other face to face. ... People really want to meet people like them, that are interested in the same things, whether it's [World of] Warcraft or whether it's sewing and knitting or politics or Chicago Cubs fans or whatever. They want to meet each other, and they want to talk about the things they care about. ...

Blogging -- lasting or fad?

I don't know. Good question. People like to ask me where blogging is going to be in five years, and I don't even know where it's going to be in six months. The medium is changing so rapidly and so dramatically, and it's evolving in lots of ways. Video is quickly becoming a mainstay of blogs thanks to a site called YouTube that allows bloggers to easily and for free put video on their sites. Technology is changing so dramatically that maybe in five years the written word is not as common, and it's mostly video. ...

Does that worry you?

No, not at all.

Would you do video on your site?

I'll add other people's video when it's relevant to what I write about, but ultimately I think the written word has benefits that aren't available to other mediums. One of the things that blogging allows is the interconnecting of what various people are saying. So if I write about something, and one of my blogging colleagues has something better than what I wrote or [that] speaks to what I wrote, I can link to that person, right? You create this network of links, so if somebody comes in and wants to learn about issue X, you find a link, and you follow the links. You become an expert before long, after you follow links to one site to the next site to the next site, and you become informed. That's not possible on video, and that's a huge limitation. Now, video is more powerful emotionally; obviously it's a much more emotionally impact[ful] medium. I think we're going to see a lot of both.

So I don't think blogging is going to go anywhere. ... But right now blogging is trendy, and I don't think it's going to be the trendy thing for much longer. It's going to mature as a medium, and before long people are going to think of it as they think of radio or television: just another medium in a vast media landscape. And something else will be the hot new communications tool.

That to me is exciting. I think we as a society continue to evolve as long as these new technologies allow regular people to participate in the media and in politics and in sports and in anything else where they traditionally have been shut down and been treated as passive consumers. If these mediums allow these regular people to engage and participate and be part of that conversation, it's a fantastic thing, not just for those people, but for our society in general.

home + introduction + watch online + interviews + parts 1 + 2 + part 3 + part 4 + join the discussion + producer chat
site map + press reaction + dvd/vhs & transcript + credits + privacy policy + journalistic guidelines
FRONTLINE series home + wgbh + pbs

posted feb. 27, 2007

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
photo illustration copyright © entropy media
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation