We spent Saturday at the Ice Grottos. After a week in Aspen, we're finally acclimated to breathing at 8,000+ feet, so this was a glorious day, the best so far --- we read for hours on the shore of a mountain stream as our daughter played with dolls in the sand. So it wasn't until after dinner that I logged on and saw the David Brooks column that makes Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, proprietor of DailyKos.com, look as smarmy as Karl Rove.
My wife, Karen Collins, is a devoted Kossack and a frequent poster on the site's message boards, so I read the column aloud to her. At first, it was laughable, the typical Brooks stew of facile assumptions, partisan shilling and lazy writing. Of course he would see Kos as a sinister mirror of an Administration that he has no interest in attacking --- a "Keyboard Kingpin" with "followers, who come across like squadrons of rabid lambs... [who} unleash their venom on those who stand in the way."
The piece --- ironically unavailable on the Web, except to New York Times subscribers --- alleges that Markos makes deals with politicians who have hired him or Jerome Armstrong, his friend and co-author of his new book, as consultants. Most of this "news" has long ago been acknowledged and/or disavowed by Markos. But one paragraph leapt out at us.
Back in 2000, according to the S.E.C., a shaky software company reportedly paid Armstrong to post upbeat messages about its stock on a financial web site. The case has been closed; Armstrong is apparently not at liberty to discuss it. This episode is just the sort of thing the Right would love to use to disparage progressive media, so Markos recently shot off an e-mail about it to the cream of the liberal blogosphere. As Brooks puts it, "The Kingpin declared he would 'go on the offensive' in a 'couple of months,' but in the meantime, a code of omertà was in order. 'It would make my life easier if we can confine the story,' he wrote. 'If any of us blog on this right now, we fuel the story. Let's starve it of oxygen.'"
As we poked around, we saw that, by midweek, the letter had made its way to The New Republic, which used it to club Markos and which was, clearly, the inspiration for the Brooks column. We put the accusations aside to wonder about the simple fact of the e-mail: What was Markos thinking? Even the rankest web amateur knows that there is no such thing as "off the record" --- the FORWARD button killed it. We rushed to the site for an explanation, and, in a prominent spot on the main screen, found this post from Markos:
Just a quick reminder as the media nip at our heels --- we didn't get here because of them. They can praise us, they can trash us, they can ignore us, and ultimately none of that will matter as long as we keep doing what we've been doing. Whether we succeed or not will depend on our own efforts. Not those of anyone else.
This "stay the course" message was far from a response, especially by DailyKos standards --- if this site is about anything, it's about truth and transparency. The Administration lies? Kos diarists find the facts. "Our" side screws up? Kos will hold anyone's feet to the fire.
My wife and I are huge partisans of the Kos idea: a community of fact-checkers and truth-seekers committed to the proposition that, despite the intransigence of the Democratic National Committee, we can identify progressive candidates and help them get elected. During the last Senatorial campaigns, Karen was so moved by Kos posts about liberal candidates in Oklahoma and Alaska that she wrote check after check. When I was writing my Swami Uptown blog five days a week, she was my researcher, frequently pulling great stuff from Kos. I link to Kos from both Swami and HeadButler.com, and in speeches and columns, I praise Kos as a rebuke to mainstream media --- a web site that prizes independent thought and showcases the best of its community's posts right alongside Markos's. And there is one post on DailyKos I always cite as one of the greatest pieces of Web writing I've ever read: Ashes to Ashes, by Meteor Blades.
But this --- well, it shakes one's faith, doncha think?
I've never registered for posting privileges on Kos. Karen has. So, last night, not long after the Brooks column was published on the Times site, she wrote a diary called Kos: The cover-up is worse than the crime. She wrote:
I am a regular DailyKos reader, comment poster and this is my second diary. I am disturbed by Brooks's allegations and I don't think that telling us to ignore them, they can't destroy us, is a satisfactory answer...
Kos, you know the history of political scandals as well as I do. It's the COVER-UP that destroys people, not necessarily the crime. If there is something to cop to, to disclose, do it now. Let's get this out in the open, make necessary changes, and move on. There is too much at stake to let this problem drag on for months.
I believe that the Republicans would like to destroy the credibility of the Liberal Blogosphere, and Brooks may or may not be doing his little part. But if any of this is true, I believe you have a responsibility to this community to come clean, NOW....I am a loyal reader and a committed progressive who wants our community to succeed in taking back the political power from the Party Bosses. But we can't do that if we are not CLEAN. If we are going to claim the high ground, we must always take it. I believe the community would very much welcome an explanation.
A firestorm erupted: 200+ posts as I write, 12 hours later. They are almost entirely negative. And so hostile that if the Right is looking for a textbook case of the "incivility" of the Left, here it is.
The criticism from posters falls into a few buckets:
1) TURN THE PAGE: Markos has responded, move on. His response? Several days earlier --- when we were, shoot us, not reading blogs as if we'd be quizzed on this --- Markos complained that the e-mail was not for publication, compared The New Republic to The National Review, and, in a sea of verbiage, offered up one line about the dustup: "There is nothing controversial about the email."
2) THE MESSENGER ASSASSIN: "Drop it -- better yet, DELETE IT, spend some time thinking about this, then post a humble and gracious apology."
3) THE TROLL CATCHER: "Something is very fishy. This all seems to be timed to coincide with the release of Brooks' piece. Perhaps to highlight it, so that those visiting the site for the first time will see it?"
4) THE OSTRICH: "Let's keep this in perspective --- in the real big outside world, blogs are still only a small part of it, so any damage will be limited."
5) THE TRUE BELIEVER: "If you had bothered to read Kos's diaries on the subject, you would have all the disclosure you need."
6) THE SMARTY: "I won't slap the label on her yet, but the troll-o-meter is blinking red."
7) THE MEDIA EXPERT: "A person apparently tried to take on the role of a reporter without considering that writing 'investigative' journalism requires complying with rules, such as the infamous 2 source rule to confirm facts before publishing a story."
8) THE HARD-OF-THINKING: "Is the problem that Markos corresponds with other bloggers/activists/journalists?" and "I guess liberals aren't supposed to do that strategery thing" and "Sending an e-mail is NOT A CRIME!"
9) THE ACCUSER: Karen said this was her second diary. In fact, she has written ten: three in in '04, seven in '05, none this year. All display pristine progressive views and deep humanitarian concerns. But once the proctologists among her readers last night discovered her innocent and unimportant error --- "Ten diaries in all that time, it felt like two!" she says --- there were repeated accusations of "lying."
Only one poster --- oddly named "Bobo," the nickname for Brooks on many progressive blogs --- got her point. He/she wrote: "Brooks lays out a narrative. Unless Kos lays out a narrative, Brooks' story stands" And, later, "I sympathize with Markos' desire not to become the story. But in this case he IS, and for the sake of his credibility, he needs to deal with it coherently, in one place, in one article...This is too important to screw up. The charge is serious. The credibility of this blog is at stake. IF MARKOS DOESN'T ANSWER BROOKS, BROOKS WINS! At least he wins this round...It's touching to see the loyalty here, though it comes at the expense of a diarist with a serious question having the shit kicked out of her. Doesn't change the fact that Markos needs to present a narrative."
My take? Monday morning, the Brooks column will be meat for the Fox crowd and its wannabees. By Wednesday, Markos will be a right-wing joke. Oh, right, he already was. Turn the page on that.
So it's my reaction, and my wife's, and yours, that's important. For better or worse, Markos is on trial. And this is tragic, for the site is one of the greatest on the web and Markos, on his worst day, is a zillion times the man and thinker that Brooks is on his best.
But in his e-mail, Markos got it exactly backward. If the "news" about Armstrong is indeed nothing, he would have done better to suggest that his friends in the progressive community write about it. Like this: "You're probably going to be hearing in the next few weeks that Jerome is a crook. He's had a problem with the S.E.C., and he dealt with it. He can't talk about it now, but when he can, you'll hear directly from him. Meanwhile, please take what the MSM will broadcast with a grain of salt --- they wouldn't be attacking us if their audience wasn't fleeing."
What do we learn from this? That, on a Saturday night, people sitting in front of their computers may not be at their best. That, after thousands of diaries and tens of thousands of posts, someone has finally found a factual bone to pick with the site. And, although Kossacks are too stroppy to be ruled by anyone, media is about personalities --- in this case, Markos.
And --- this is shocking, brace yourselves --- Markos is human. He made a mistake. Not a big mistake, like Judy Miller or Bob Woodward or that twit from TIME who got Karl Rove a "get out of jail" card. A small mistake. I suspect he did it to protect a friend, which is a decent motive and then some. But unless you're in the White House, there's zero tolerance for error now --- Mainstream Media, having been bitten and battered by sites like DailyKos, would like nothing better than to scream "gotcha" and trash Markos.
But there's an easy way out: Markos, do what my wife asked --- give us an explanation. And then promise you'll never send another e-mail that makes you look like Vito Corleone telling the Tattaglias and Barzinis what to do.