TPM Muckraker: The Blogosphere Gets a Boss—And About Time

TPM muckraker is a nonprofit, email-tip-based wonder, likely to become among the best the blogosphere has to offer. It’s also an old-fashioned organization with a boss—a sign that even in cyberspace, anarchy only takes one so far.

I’m keeping my head down this week writing a conference paper (this here counts as a study break) and therefore missed the long-anticipated rollout of TPM Muckraker, the blue-chip, fact-based clearinghouse for news on GOP scandals, spun off from Joshua Micah Marshall’s “Talking Points Memo.” It’s a terrific resource, and I recommend it. (Disclosure: I have not a conflict of interest but a conflict of affections: having given the site a small donation, I’m obligated by Franklin’s Law to like it.)

This new site is noteworthy for its structure as well as its contents. It’s a hybrid. (Details from Marshall, and links to past reflections by him, here.) First, it’s part nonprofit, as the above indicates. Predicted ad revenues weren’t enough to support it, so it’s “altruistically” funded, i.e. propaganda—not a criticism, and it shows every sign of being very high quality propaganda. Second, it’s largely based on reader tips, and in this way highly suited to the web format and in particular to readers with email. (The regular Talking Points Memo’s full court press against Republicans and Democrats who waffled on Social Security privatization would have been possible, though unlikely, in a daily print format, or even as a phone tree—but hardly possible before email.)

But most of all, this is a standard journalistic enterprise. Blogs are basically free-lance operations, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Bloggers trade on the reputation of their commentary as Christopher Hitchens and Seymour Hirsch trade on the reputation of their bylines. But how does a solo blogger transfer a reputation for reliability (or the blog equivalent, willingness to run instant corrections), news nose, good judgment, and other journalistic virtues from him- or herself to a larger operation? Only one way: the blogger hires reporters and acts as their editor—and publisher, to be technical about it.

Marshall started blogging, it seems, because he preferred autonomy on a shoestring and endless hours to working at a magazine with a boss. That’s a fine preference, but it has its limits: now his operation is a magazine and he’s the boss—probably an informal and cool one, but still a boss. Microeconomists have a theory that explains why there are companies in the world and not just free-lancers; the ability to signal quality cheaply is a big part of it. Marshall has just shown that blogs are not immune from that theory.

Welcome to the iron cage, Josh. Like it or not, you’re the jailer. Use your keys wisely.

Author: Andrew Sabl

I'm a political theorist and Visiting Professor (through 2017) in the Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale. My interests include the history of political thought, toleration, democratic theory, political ethics, problems of coordination and convention, the realist movement in political theory, and the thought of David Hume. My first book, Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics (Princeton, 2002) covered many of these topics, with a special focus on the varieties of democratic politics and the disparate qualities of mind and character appropriate to those who practice each of them. My second book Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England was published in 2012; I am currently finishing a book on toleration, with the working title The Virtues of Hypocrisy, under contract with Harvard University Press. A Los Angeles native, I got my B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. Before coming to Yale I taught at Vanderbilt and at UCLA, where I was an Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor; and held visiting positions at Williams, Harvard, and Princeton. I am married to Miriam Laugesen, who teaches health policy and the politics of health care at the Mailman School of public health at Columbia, and we have a twelve-year-old son.