SXSW 2005 Panel: Wonkette / Ana Marie Cox Interview

Monday, March 14, 2005

[This is a (mostly complete) transcript of Evan Smith from Texas Monthly interviewing Ana Marie Cox — Wonkette. Official details about the panel here.]

[Beforehand: She’s tiny and looks pretty nervous. Otherwise, like in the photos.]

Evan Smith: I’m from Texas Monthly and I have the honor of interviewing Ana. Or is it Wonkette?

Ana Marie Cox: Ah-na. First thing.

Evan: She’s 32. Married to an editor at New York magazine. [I may have misheard this.] Part of the Gawker Media family. [Etc.]

Ana: Did a semester at UT. My dad was a professor here, as well.

Evan: Who picked Wonkette? The name?

Ana: Actually, I don’t remember the specific conversation. But I think it was my idea — but I immediately dismissed it — too gender-specific.

Evan: Begin with two stories in the paper today. One: Liberal bloggers have been on the phone with the NYTimes asking that things they post get covered in the mainstream media (MSM).

Ana: It’s trying to close the symbiotic loop between MSM and bloggers. Without the NYTimes, bloggers would have nothing to complain about and no facts, except what you can google. So it’s closing the loop. And it’s beautiful when it happens. The circle of life.

Evan: Circle jerk?

Ana: But not quite as pleasurable, somehow. More painful.

Evan: Do bloggers give a damn if the NYTimes reports what’s on their websites?

Ana: I think there are some bloggers out there trying to “keep it real,” punk rock. And then some people want to be a part of the machine, using it as a resume point. Every scoop bloggers want to claim makes them more like the MSM. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Another wave will come along behind them.

Evan: Do you feel like the machine right now or the rails? “She’s in Lucky magazine. So she’s inside the tent.”

Ana: I’ve never claimed to be anywhere tent-specific. I haven’t claimed any partcular outsider status. It’d be ludicrous for me to claim the true punk rock pedigree. I never want to have that “sell out” conversation. Rather do it often and early.

Evan: The second article: Journalism of assertion is trumping journalism of validation. Assertive opinion is more important than facts.

Ana: Didn’t read the article, but I’ll comment on it. When they say trump, they mean what?

Evan: More people are getting their news from those journalists.

Ana: It’s easier to say stuff than to spend money getting facts. And it’s a cheap way to achieve narrative drama. Cheap to have two people scream at each other and it creates drama. Creating drama through news and storytelling is harder, more expensive.

Evan: You were talking about lowering the bar. No cost to entry.

Ana: Not much to say except “welcome.” Citizen journalism is not a bad thing. It means that people need to become more critical in their consumption of the media. Only a minor perceptage of web users read blogs. And people shouldn’t be getting their news from blogs. It’s a supplement. Ice cream.

Evan: Against my economic self-interest, why should people read the MSM?

Ana: What do you mean by credible? Blogs can influence MSM in a goood way. There’s a rigidly-enforced sourcing with links. This is missed in the MSM. But can you believe what they’re saying? You can only get that over time. NYTimes. They tend over time to get more things right than wrong.

Evan: But that seems to be lost on a subset that attacked the media for todays sin, forgetting the past 100 years. The Ratherbiased people, for example, are as guilty of the sin as the sinners. What do you make of that?

Ana: Excellent point, sir. Rathergate is an example fo the best and the worst in the blogosphere. Everyone has a bit of information to offer and it coalesces into something major. Not such a good thing in that we lost the discussion of Bush in the National Guard. And the same thing happened in the Eason Jordan case. People were caught up in what he said and we lost perspective. More journalists have been killed in Iraq, and now that topic is toxic. Another way the blogosphere… The human tendency to want to beat your chest, have a clear and bloody victory. That’s what happened with the Rather document. They wanted a scalp — that of the President.

Evan: On balance, are bloggers more accurate?

Ana: It wouldn’t be a panel if someone didn’t ask, haven’t you been wrong? But I just quote the MSM, so I don’t get things wrong. Few blogs claim to do original reporting, so what could they get wrong?

Evan: The Washingtonienne deal. She asserted she’s been having a relationship with a chief of staff of someone high-up. You posted photos of a bunch of chiefs of staff.

Ana: Her blog was out there. She claimed. We couldn’t verify it. So I googled chiefs of staff and found lots of pictures and thought, “Who would have to pay for sex?” Unfortunately there was a large pool. That was almost a year ago. Anal sex captures the imagination of Washington like nothing else… But that seems to have stuck with me. So I’m glad I didn’t do the Playboy thing. Thought they would’ve paid. Lucky didn’t.

Evan: How do you do your job? You commute from NY and Washington.

Ana: I do have to now commute. Gives me lots of time to write. Tough on your marriage. It gives me a great perspective on Washington not to have to be there all the time. Reminds me of just how small of a town it is. As far as mechanics, I have a 12” Powerbook that I take with me everywhere. Alarm goes off at 7am. I roll over and get on my laptop and start looking at the papers. Don’t have to get dressed, use deodorant, and all of those things. It’s in my contract to post twelve times a day. Because that’s how Gawker makes money. Stop updating your blog and readership goes down. Not a difficult graph to draw.

Evan: Are there liability issues? Gawker posted the Fred Durst video and Durst threatened to sue.

Ana: I probably don’t do enough of the kind of stuff that would get me in trouble. In my annual review he said, I don’t personally like this Jon Stewart stuff (the non-gossip stuff), but it seems to be popular. In Wash there is no equiv of Fred Durst. Denny Hastert? I do have a general policy of not outing people. It must be hard enough to be a gay Republican… Why make it public?

Evan: You kind of almost outed Washingtonienne.

Ana: I would not do that again. I got her fired, but she did get a $300,000 book deal. I didn’t even get a blender, which she got from one of her paramours. I guess I thought the photomontage was a fairly harmless thing — not singling anyone out and something everyone had access to.

Evan: But you did bring it to a much larger readership. Ever get any crap from people? Thanks for ruining my life?

Ana: No. I don’t think the people have actually been uncovered. She’s been true to her standards, odd or low though they may be.

Evan: Are bloggers journalists?

Ana: The definition of journalist is independent of what media you’re working in. What is opinion journalism? I guess I know, but if we include Maureen Dowd as a journalist, then why not bloggers? So you’re a journalist. Then you have a blog or not. Josh Marshall has a blog, but he’s also a normal journalist. Jeff Gannon. CNN immediately started calling him a blogger, maybe because he got stuff wrong? I don’t know. He has a blog now, though. Journalists. They check facts? Leave the house? I don’t know the minimum requirement.

Evan: Does being a journalist make you a better blogger?

Ana: In my mind, I’m good at many things. In practice… Another thing. Bloggers would do well to experience delayed gratification. Running up against walls for whatever reason — creating an entertaining narrative, finding facts, etc — that experience is a valuable one. Without that experience, I wouldn’t be as hard on myself now. There’s a myth that good blogging come from rawness. But most people aren’t that interesting on a first draft and you need to work it over a bit. The ones that are good are the people who care about what they’re writing. Having been a print journalist, you’re already thinking about the craft — but you don’t have to have been. Some of my favorites are not professional. So I think it helps, but the bigger thing is to have the mentality of a writer.

Evan: We were talking today about Jeff Jarvis.

Ana: It’s a lot of words and not much of a filter. Which can be good and bad. I prefered filtered thought. Then you have someone like Glenn Reynolds who doesn’t actually write much — he just offers links.

Evan: Let me ask you about the book. It’s not a book about you and Jessica Culter.

Ana: Yes, but it’s about politics. It’s novel called “Dog Days” about DC between the conventions and the election. I’ve never been caught up in that time period before. The Pres leaves. Things slow down. For a town like high school, it’s suddenly like summer camp. The intereaction between media and campaign becomes much more visible. I was inspired by “The Gay Place” about Austin politics. It’s the best political book ever written, I think. A lot of drinking and screwing in my novel. And it will be out in September.

Evan: Now, questions.

Question: Jon Stewart asked the Crossfire people stop hurting America. Does you site help or hurt America/democracy?

Ana: [Jokes.] I’m something of a cyber-libertarian. So more information is better and the people can do the censoring, not the government. More about ass-fucking. More ass-fucking in the White House not less. And more White House correspondents naked. The cute ones.

Evan: Are you a Democrat or a Republican?

Ana: I’m a commie pinko symp. Voted for Kerry. Voted for Nader in 2000. [Boos.] In DC, so it didn’t count! I have real views on real issues and policies, but I try not to let that get in way of the humor.

Question: Dan Gilmour defined journalist as people who find out stuff and tell other people. Does that apply to most of the blogosphere?

Ana: Depends of whether you consider your own opinion a discovery. That’s a very broad definition. So seeing Condi Rice trying on shoes at Nordstroms makes me a journalist. The bar should be a little higher, with fact checking. But it seems like a valied definition. The definition is always in flux. Something I’ve admired about American jounralism is that it’s non-credentialed. So to impose a credentialing would take us backwards.

Evan: Literal “credential.”

Ana: The White House briefing room. It’s already theater, so why not use fake credentials? The press would bust him [McClellan?] privately, but not in the briefing room. What happens in the “press pen” beforehand is where more of the action occurs. The idea of the citizen-journalist is here and if you can pass a background check, why shouldn’t you be able to ask Scott McClellan a question.

Question: Did the Wonkette style happen organically?

Ana: Yeah. I’ve been around writing for ten years. I had a sense of humor. Didn’t have to discovery it. But there was a kind of decision to make it a character. It’s me after a few margaritas. Wonkette’s meaner. She’s more obsessed with ass-fucking than I am — ask my husband.

Question: There’s beena groundswell of not being feminist. Weird anti-feminist ladies supporting Bush, for example. Have any of them bitched at you, argued with you? I would label you as a progressive.

Ana: Yes, commie pinko symp… It’s interesting. I haven’t had much discussion of Wonkette in the context of feminism. If anything, the aggressive girliness of Wonkette have made some conservative woman fans. There’s a sort of Queenmaker in Washington who’s a fan, and she’s about as girly and conservative as they get.

Question: How much of what you’ve done at has come over to Wonkette?

Ana: I mostly editted. But mostly the inability to take anything seriously and not caring what other people think. It’s really hard to care whether people get upset with me and that, in Washington, is a gift, actually.

Question: Speak to the practical economic reality of getting paid to be a blogger. Does that affect how you blog?

Ana: I get a paycheck every month. Other people have found their way to be successful. One of the reasons I wanted ot do a blog is that I didn’t want to have to think about my readership. What can I say? Find someone who’ll pay you no matter what you say? That’s not a practical answer. Gawker handled my advertising. I’m mystified by numbers. I do my cellphone by letter.

Evan: Some bloggers have been picked up by the MSM.

Question: Were you not invited to the Republican convention?

Ana: I was there, but not with MTV. They didn’t invite me. I had a really good time at the Democratic convention. That might have been a problem. I did a five-minute think that was on at some weird time. I did a five minute thing and have done maybe ten interviews about working for MTV.

Question: After a couple of margaritas would you still make the responsible distinction between blogging and journalism?

Ana: I don’t know. I think so. I drive well drunk, in case you’re curious.

Question: What advice would you give to a young blogger?

Ana: Wow. I can’t advise following in my shoes. I think the idea of remaining true to your ideals and beliefs — and talk about ass-fucking a lot.

Evan: I’ll cut off at the comment about ass-fucking. Please give your thanks to Ana.

[Note: I might alter this transcript in the coming days to remove typos and clarify the content. I post it now just to make it available as soon as possible.]

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