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

Andrew Sabl, a political theorist, is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics and Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England, both from Princeton University Press. His research interests include political ethics, liberal and democratic theory, toleration, the work of David Hume, and the realist school of contemporary political thought. He is currently finishing a book for Harvard University Press titled The Uses of Hypocrisy: An Essay on Toleration. He divides his time between Toronto and Brooklyn.