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Oct.8, 2008

Vol. 109, No. 2

Features

Raking muck in the new public square

Josh Marshall ’91’s blogging led to one of journalism’s biggest prizes – and the resignation of a U.S. attorney general

By Marc Fisher ’80
Published in the October8, 2008, issue


Marshall’s newsroom in New York City, photographed in February, is surprisingly quiet, save for the tapping of computer keys.
Andrea Mohin/The New York Times
Marshall’s newsroom in New York City, photographed in February, is surprisingly quiet, save for the tapping of computer keys.

“Can we turn the A/C back on now?” an intern pleads from the front of the TPM newsroom.

Josh Marshall is sweating profusely. He is also on camera. So he alternates between delivering a couple of sentences of his daily video commentary and toweling himself dry. It takes nearly 20 minutes for him to record his five-minute video, and throughout that time, so as to provide at least a modicum of production standards for viewers at home, the big, noisy air conditioner in the room’s front window must be turned off.

“Done,” Marshall finally announces, having blasted John McCain for flip-flopping on Afghanistan — and the mainstream press for failing to pick up on the story. “Go for it.” The machine groans back into action.

“This is an inherently unstructured kind of journalism,” says Marshall, who chose TPM’s headquarters because it’s near his apartment. “Structure” isn’t the first word that springs to mind when friends describe Marshall. They think of him as even more rumpled than your average iconoclastic reporter, short on charisma but boiling over with journalistic passion. Marshall admits he’s surprised to find himself in the rapid-fire world of instant journalism after he had set out on a more measured, academic path. He never intended to become the conductor of a round-the-clock symphony of information, egging on young writers to post five items each day, ideally peaking at midday to satisfy a nation of bored office workers looking for lunchtime diversion. A history major at Princeton, Marshall wrote his thesis on Virginia’s struggle over nullification — the ability of the states to reject federal law as unconstitutional — in the early 19th-century debate over states’ rights. Bitten with the history bug, he moved up the coast to Brown University, where he settled in to work on his doctorate. But academia turned out to be too slow, too confining. He stalled out on his dissertation — on relations between Indians and English settlers in 17th-century New England — though he came back to the topic years later and completed the work, earning his doctorate. One day his adviser, sensing Marshall’s struggle with the pace and scope of academic life, asked whether he was comfortable with a career in which he would write papers and books that might be read by 300 people.

“That just crystallized it for me,” Marshall recalls. “No, I needed more. I needed to be more in the world.”

Marshall “always pursued what he wanted with an unbelievable determination and fervor and was never held back by convention or expectations,” says his wife, Millet Israeli ’92, a lawyer who recently took a buyout at Dow Jones and now works part-time at TPM, taking care of legal matters and focusing on growing the business through advertising deals and partnerships. The two knew each other slightly at Princeton and reconnected more than a decade later, after Millet’s 10th reunion, when she “thought back on friends I had lost touch with and Josh’s name was the first to come to mind. I remembered him as incredibly unique, smart and intense.” Israeli says Marshall’s intensity and pace made it almost inevitable that he would reach for a broader playing field than academia.

Sure enough, while at Brown, Marshall began spending more and more time and energy on freelance magazine writing, focusing on the nascent debate over free speech on the Internet. That led to a job at The American Prospect , the liberal opinion magazine co-founded and co-edited by Princeton sociology professor Paul Starr. When the magazine moved from Cambridge to Washington, Marshall followed. There, in 2000, at the height of the chaos over the botched election count in Florida, he decided to try his hand at blogging, launching TPM a few months before he quit the Prospect .

While in graduate school, Marshall had started a business creating some of the first generation of Web sites for law firms, so he knew his way around code and Web design. That gave him a leg up on some other early bloggers, but it was Marshall’s embrace of “crowdsourcing” — the appeal to readers collectively to carry out reporting work that might take a single writer far longer to complete — that propelled him to the top ranks of liberal bloggers.

In 2002, when news broke about then-Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi making pro-segregation remarks at a dinner honoring Strom Thurmond, Marshall asked his readers to flesh out the story. They dug up examples of other such comments Lott had made in the past, and Talking Points Memo had itself a dandy little scoop. Before long, Lott was history, and TPM was getting bookmarked on a lot of computers.

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1 Response to Raking muck in the new public square

Jim Bennett Says:

2008-10-13 16:45:49

This is one of the most interesting and well written articles I've seen in PAW. It prompts me to spend more time with the magazine down the road.
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CURRENT ISSUE: Oct.8, 2008