Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


September 21, 2008

Hitting Below the Beltway

Ana Marie Cox, the original Wonkette, reflects on a life of blogging superstardom and changing the political reporting game.

Michael Gluckstadt

Back in 2004, everyone in the media wanted a piece of Ana Marie Cox, founder and, at the time, editor of the Washington, DC political gossip blog, Wonkette. They weren't inquiring about her witty political analysis, her biting satire, or even her outing of The Washingtonienne. They just wanted to ask her about "blogs.”

Ana Marie Cox
"I love what I do and I love politics. Being able to come from that place and still call bullshit is something that Washington's political-media class can identify with."

Ana Marie Cox

The tone of the ensuing string of articles could be called alarmist. "A Political Blogger, Untamed, Rattles Cages in DC," fretted a Christian Science Monitor headline. "With her gossipy, raunchy, potty-mouthed blog, Ms. Cox, a 31-year-old self-described failed journalist, has grabbed the attention of staid Washington," warned the New York Times. Richard Lieby of the Washington Post famously called her a "foul-mouthed, inaccurate, opinionated little vixen." And on CNN, an ever-hip Howard Kurtz inquired , "In your hour-by-hour gossip mongering, you write about sex and people's sex lives. And you use sexual terms that I can't repeat on the air. What's up with that?"

In the years since, things have settled down somewhat for Cox. She left Wonkette in 2006, then went to work promoting her novel. Since then, she's been blogging for's Swampland, and has been named the Washington editor of Radar Magazine, the blog-toned glossy that calls itself "Pop Culture for Smart People." Cox doesn't seem to miss the days when she was the celebrity face of political blogging. "I'm just glad that moment has passed," she tells Gelf. "[I'm glad] that it's no longer a story that some people write for blogs."

In the interview below, which has been edited for clarity, Cox tells Gelf about the laziness of the news media, which candidate she'd rather drink with, and why writing for a blog is like a one-night stand. You can hear her speak, along with other political animals, at Gelf's free Non-Motivational Speaker series in New York's Lower East Side on September 25th.

Gelf Magazine: What do you think has been the biggest non-story of this election to receive lavish media attention?

Ana Marie Cox: God, there are so many. Basically, if you turn on cable news at a given moment you'll see one of them. Everything from Bill Ayers to the pig-with-lipstick thing to how many houses John McCain owns.
It's more apparent than ever how little we focus on the issues. It’s as if the media are actively shifting the debate to things they feel are easier to understand. And it actually is easier to cover that stuff. It takes no work to cover how many houses someone has. No matter how preposterous the charge or how little it has to do with how someone would govern, it's just easier to do. The candidates would love to talk about the issues, but there's some dimwitted design that forces them off that topic.

GM: Do you think that tendency stems from journalistic laziness, or is there something else behind it?

AMC: Most things that are wrong with journalism can be attributed to laziness —including my own. Not just about doing work, but an intellectual laziness. Once you fall into a narrative, it's work to challenge yourself out of it. Obama has had the good fortune and skill to have the dominant narrative throughout most of this campaign. I'm a supporter of his, but it is astounding to me how differently he has been treated than the other candidates. I'd like to think that it could be signaling a reawakening of fairness in covering our political candidates, but at the same time John McCain is being held to a ridiculously high standard.

GM: What do you mean by that? What have the media asked of McCain that they haven't asked of Obama?

AMC: They've been covering his campaign itself in a way they don't go near with Obama. It's as if the story is the campaign and not the candidate behind it.

GM: One of the most dominant narratives in this election has been the role of the empowered woman. Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, Michelle Obama—why did it take so long to get here?

AMC: I guess history will answer that. We've been ready for this for a while; the magic formula just didn't happen the right way. You could also ask why it has taken so long before we've had our first black nominee. We've struggled as a nation with racism and sexism. Hopefully this election isn't a unique occasion.

GM: It was said back in 2004 that you—not Barack Obama—were the star of the Democratic National Convention. How did you feel about being the celebrity face of political blogging?

AMC: At that convention, I gave at least an interview a day on the mere fact that I was a blogger at a convention. I'm glad that moment has passed—that it's no longer a story that some people write for blogs. I would've preferred for there to have been more stories written about the politicians and less written about me.

GM: Why do you think Wonkette attracted that kind of attention and not one of the other many sites devoted to snarky, liberal-tinged political coverage?

AMC: Because I talked about ass-fucking, maybe? I don't know.

GM: Dirty words and sarcasm: the last refuges of the blogger.

AMC: The serious answer is that Washingtonians are smart people, and many of them are aware of the ludicrousness of the business we're in. The goal of Wonkette was to expose that ridiculousness, but I did it in a loving way. I love what I do and I love politics. I think we've got a pretty good system here. Being able to come from that place and still mock things and call bullshit is something that Washington's political-media class can identify with.

GM: Why did you decide to leave Wonkette?

AMC: Because they paid $12 a post.

GM: Who is a more demanding boss, Nick Denton or Maer Roshan?

AMC: Neither one of them is all that demanding. I'd have to say Nick is more, since he did demand a certain number of posts per day and I only have to write one article per issue for Radar. I've been lucky to have hands-off bosses, since I do my best when I forget that I'm working for somebody else.

GM: Gawker, for better or for worse, has become the standard-bearer for what a lot of people think of as blogs. Do you think that's a good thing?

AMC: Whenever I get asked to explain blogging to people in some official capacity, like on a panel, I have to remind them that explaining blogging is like explaining the printed word. Blogging is just the medium; you could do anything you want with it. You can be Josh Marshall or you can be Go Fug Yourself. Or you can be Gawker. All of those are blogs. We get trapped into defining them in a way that narrows them all down into something that's just snarky, constantly updated, and traffic-whorey. That's not particularly helpful. Gawker is just one kind of blog—an important one, but by no means representative of them all.

GM: Radar can sometimes read like a Gawker-style blog in print. How is writing there different than writing exclusively online?

AMC: It's longer. That might be it. One's voice is one's voice, and I have a hard time writing in anybody else's but my own. I don't think that my writing for Radar has been especially different. When you write a longer piece you don't have to bring the joke to every sentence; you can actually do some storytelling. There's no need to hit people over the head with the funny, which is exactly what I did at Wonkette. Writing for a blog is like a one-night stand when you take the person directly to bed without showing them the fridge or working on the balls. A magazine piece is more about building a relationship. You could still be the same person and do both.

GM: You interviewed John McCain for an upcoming issue of Radar. What was he like?

AMC: I am a big fan of John McCain. In the whole "who would you rather have a beer with?" contest, he wins hands-down for me. I've actually spent a lot of time with him, and it's like talking to someone I know. He had lunch with my dad once, just because I told him my dad was a huge fan. That, at least, is the John McCain I know.

GM: But you still don't want to see him in the White House?

AMC: I cannot currently imagine circumstances under which I would vote for someone other than Barack Obama. I like McCain as a guy, but I have different opinions on him as a politician.

GM: Have you met the Obamas?

AMC: I've met Barack a few times. One time was actually pretty funny. When you meet someone in Washington, you're always supposed to say "good to see you" and not "good to meet you," in case you've already met them before. The second time I met Obama, it was at a cocktail party and he said "good to meet you." I couldn't help myself and told him "Actually, we've met before," which is just a bitchy, horribly rude thing to say to a sitting senator who has probably met 10,000 people. Then he looks at me and says, "Oh, right. At the internet thing." I actually met him backstage at the DNC, but someone must have told him that I was a blogger. "The internet thing": that could be anything. That is one skilled politician right there.

GM: Your first book, Dog Days, is a novel. Why did you decide to go in that direction as opposed to nonfiction?

AMC: This is going to sound like a cliché, but I'll say it anyway. In some ways, it allowed me to get closer to the truth. There are so many things that I've observed or had conversations about that I can't really report. Either because they're not backed up or because it just wouldn’t be appropriate for me to report on them. They might not have to do with what people care about in the news, but they are interesting to me on the level of human drama. The best way for me to explore that was in the form of a novel.

GM: What's been your proudest moment as a blogger?

AMC: At the 2004 convention, Jon Stewart recognized me and introduced himself. That was a highlight.

GM: What are some of your interests outside of political writing?

AMC: My husband and my pets. I'm also a huge fan of bad reality television. It makes the campaign seem not as bad. At least John McCain doesn't walk around in a bikini.

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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