Ana Marie Cox will talk politics for food
When the liberal talk radio network Air America Media shut down operations in January, Ana Marie Cox found herself in the same position as millions of other Americans: out of a job. Thankfully, the 37-year-old political journalist, blogger, and author has a varied resume to fall back on, including stints at Time and the seminal late '90s website Suck.com. Cox’s greatest calling card remains her two-year tenure as the editor of saucy political blog Wonkette, which made her a celebrity of sorts and one of the more prominent figures in the still rapidly evolving history of online journalism. After leaving Wonkette in 2006, she released her first novel Dog Days and has appeared frequently as a guest on The Rachel Maddow Show. Ahead of her visit to Milwaukee Saturday to speak at an ACLU fundraiser—and shortly before GQ hired her to be its Washington correspondent last week—Cox spoke with The A.V. Club about the failure of Air America, the difficulties of dispassionate journalism, and whether she misses Wonkette.
The A.V. Club: Why didn’t Air America make it?
Ana Marie Cox: I try to keep myself really studiously ignorant of business models. And I guess that goes to show why I choose to work at Air America. But I believe that there is a value to the kind of programming that they produced. I think they struggled against stereotypes about what progressive talk radio sounds like. Not everyone on the left sounds like Ed Schultz. It’s weird, because Rachel Maddow is one of the big breakout stars, and people like her, and her radio show sounded like that. But yet they weren’t able to translate that into saying to people, “We have a lot of other programming that’s smart and funny. It isn’t just people yelling at you.”
AVC: What was the most crippling stereotype?
AMC: That we’re humorless fucking retards. I actually listen to Rush Limbaugh pretty regularly, because it’s a very good indicator of what a certain part of the country is thinking—or what they’re being told to think. Comparing Limbaugh to the few progressive talk radio hosts I’ve listened to, I didn’t learn anything listening to them. I think Limbaugh is wrong about a lot of stuff, but I was learning things from the point of view of being a spy, learning how they think about things. Not necessarily factual information, but a way of looking at the world. Listening to liberal talk radio, it was someone who seemed really smart but they were saying stuff I already knew and agreed with. What makes Rachel Maddow so great—and something I try to emulate—is she does actual reporting. I walk away from her show with more information than when I started.
AVC: Will liberal talk radio ever reach the prominence of conservative talk radio?
AMC: It already is if you widen the definition. I would argue that the most popular progressive news program in the country is The Daily Show. There’s no reason why someone with the same attitude couldn’t be successful on radio. That niche is something NPR does very, very well. Like, Terry Gross is an incredibly popular, influential, progressive interviewer. Her politics are really clear. So, if you had someone who is as good as or better than Terry Gross, there is an audience for that.
AVC: Did working for an organization with an expressed political point of view influence your journalism?
AMC: I am obviously pretty direct about my own opinions, so it wasn’t like I had to hide them. I didn’t hide them before. I had a hard time because I never ended up getting a congressional press pass, because they considered Air America to be too close to advocacy. But Fox News has one. The New York Post has one. I worked really hard to go against that. I had John McCain on my program. I had Lindsey Graham on my program. Every week we did a half-hour political roundtable, and I had someone who represented a conservative point of view on. And every single person I had on who was a conservative, I really liked and respected, and treated them that way. I mean, they got mocked, too. But I had respect for the conservatives that came on the panel, because it was pretty much two against one.
AVC: As a journalist, do your politics sometimes get in the way of your reporting?
AMC: While I go out with a set of ideas, I try not to let that set of ideas interfere with how I see the world. I went to a fair number of Sarah Palin rallies during the campaign, and my friends would say, “Man, the pitchfork-wavers are really out there today.” I thought that, too, but then I started to talk to people, and they weren’t all angry. That’s just lazy. The story that should’ve gotten written, that was really interesting to me, was how at every rally there were families with children with Down syndrome. They weren’t there to support Sarah Palin politically. They were really happy that there was someone in the national spotlight doing what they have to do every day. When you think about what it takes to take a child with Down syndrome to a political rally, I found that really moving.
AVC: Is the concept of the dispassionate journalist outmoded?
AMC: I’m sure they exist. In fact, I think I know a few. I don’t think that’s a natural way to be. If you choose to adopt that way of being a journalist, you have to work really hard at it. You have to be constantly vigilant. Because what’s natural is to have opinions.
AVC: Are we going to reach the point where the media just becomes an extension of political parties, and journalism is just one big propaganda-off?
AMC: If you’re a good, honest reporter, you have a point of view but that’s not going to change the facts. I think Major Garrett and Carl Cameron of Fox News do this pretty well; their reporting doesn’t line up with Fox News’ primetime theology necessarily. If you were to only follow Major Garrett, you might not get a complete view of the White House—because it would be silly to follow one person—but you’d get an accurate, honest view.
AVC: You’re between jobs right now—how optimistic are you about making a living in this industry? The media is bigger than ever, and yet it seems like there are fewer paying media jobs than ever.
AMC: I know, it’s all these goddamn Facebookers and YouTubers, making all that free media. I’ll put it this way: I am right now limiting my job search to journalism jobs, and I think that means I’m optimistic. I have several friends that have given up on journalism, and have gone into PR, consulting, or lobbying. And that is tempting, I can’t lie. Those jobs are going to be around for a while.
AVC: Why are you optimistic?
AMC: I could also be dumb. For me, it hasn’t been that long; it’s only been a couple of weeks. So, I feel like I haven’t explored all the options available to me, journalism-wise. And my husband and I are lucky. We’ve had good luck in the past with employment.
AVC: Is print dead?
AMC: There’s no such thing that’s just print anymore, or just writing. Everyone has to be a one-man band. You could be working at The Washington Post but you have to be ready to do a blog, if they ask you to. If you’re working at Politico, you have to be ready to do a video podcast. It’s not like I could make a distinction, and decide that I only want to work in print. That job doesn’t exist anymore.
AVC: Does that make working in the media more exciting, because there’s so much change happening?
AMC: I think it makes it more exhausting. You want to be able to drink during the workday if you’re a journalist.
AVC: How did you end up being a reporter?
AMC: I always liked writing. Until I got out of high school I thought I wanted to be a fiction writer. But I liked the idea of being a journalist. When I got to college I started writing for my college newspaper; I also got a very quick lesson in how hard it is to be a good fiction writer, so I sort of gave up on fiction. [Laughs.] I did mostly entertainment and pop culture reporting. Then I got a fellowship in American history at UC-Berkeley, and it ended up being mind-numbingly dull. I think I was still writing for Spin, and I had a boyfriend in New York, and he said, “Come on out, get a job, and start freelancing.” I continued to write about pop culture and indie rock, and my writing attracted the attention of a guy starting a web zine in San Francisco. And it was twice as much as I was making at the time, which still wasn’t very much. So that was the beginning of being paid to write. I think my history background is the reason why I think of myself as a reporter, because I’ve always felt you had to do research before you could go out and write something.
AVC: What brought you to Wonkette?
AMC: I was actually editing restaurant reviews for a restaurant in central Florida, and that was very sucky. I was also filling out applications for graduate school because it sucked so bad. Because it sucked so bad and I hated my life so much, I started a blog. Nick Denton saw it, and I guess he liked it, and he offered me the Wonkette job. And what’s happened since then is public record.
AVC: Are you nostalgic for your Wonkette days?
AMC: I was paid $12 a post.
AVC: That’s a no?
AMC: No. I know my life has been really rich and my professional career has been really interesting since then. I’ve done a lot of cool stuff.
AVC: You appeared on the cover of The New York Times Magazine in 2004, and the feeling at the time was that political blogs were posing a challenge to the power of the mainstream media. How true is this six years later?
AMC: Journalism has adopted some of the best and most of the worst aspects of blogging. There’s an addiction to speed over accuracy, and confusing wit with sarcasm. And the kind of mindless chasing of whatever the current popular thing is. Nick Denton tells his bloggers that whatever is trending on Blogger or Twitter, write a post on it, because they’re already popular. Places like Politico do that with politics. They’re writing what’s already true and already believed. The good stuff is that there’s more openness to voice. That’s what places say they want, but usually what they really want is a younger and more attractive version of what they already have.
AVC: How do you feel about Barack Obama one year after he took office?
AMC: I’m still glad it’s him and not McCain. [Laughs.] But I’m definitely disappointed. There are a lot of things on the liberal agenda that it seems like we could have gotten done by now that we haven’t gotten done, like repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” and some kind of health care reform. His backing of the decision not to release the Guantanamo Bay abuse pictures is disappointing. I have to remember that as a progressive person, being disappointed is kind of a privilege. Because there’s that hope that something could be different. In all the ways that I could describe George Bush, he wasn’t a disappointment. We knew what we were getting into. Maybe it was a surprise as to how bad he was, but I don’t think you could use the word disappointment.