Friday, January 30, 2004

The Cream Rises to the Top

The name Joshua Micah Marshall may have quite some way to go before being ranked up there with, say, David Halberstam or even Malcolm Gladwell in terms of recognizable bylines. But give him time: he's only 34. And with his Ph.D. in history now recently added to his credentials, he can focus his full attention on writing. And he's been increasingly dazzling of late.

Josh needs no introduction to the online world nor to the smaller (though growing) subculture of serious bloggers. His Talkingpointsmemo is a legend on several levels. It has brilliant content, of course. And it has an attractive, uncluttered look, beginning with the cool photo of the bespectacled author, managing to look both smart and bookish but also sleep-deprived. More recently it has made some much-watched innovations in the area of becoming self-supporting. Marshall struggled aloud on his blog last year over the ethical complications of accepting ads on his site (the major complication being that, unlike traditional publications, there could be no separation of sales and editorial, since he's both), before finally deciding to go ahead and do so, carefully. By the very act of full disclosure, of course, he rendered it a non-issue. Meanwhile, like the increasingly right-wing bully boy blogger Andrew Sullivan (who arch-enemy Eric Alterman rightly likened a few days ago to the nastiness of mob lawyer Roy Cohn), he was beginning to build a pretty good stream of general support from readers.

But that was all mere prelude to the most interesting experiment of all. Last October, in a feat of advanced planning that set him apart from the average writer let alone blogger, he told his readers that he was considering heading up to New Hampshire to cover that crucial presidential primary in January, and might they support his reporting trip? I liked how he explained the problem he was wrestling with: being a binary writer (writing for both traditional print pubs and for himself on the web) he could have convinced a magazine to fund his trip. Only problem then: he'd owe that pub his best material, and his blog readers would get sloppy seconds, as it's known in the trade. His readers quickly solved his conundrum. Within a day, he was showered with nearly $5,000 in online contributions, prompting him to turn off the spigot and even (honest, earnest guy that he is) try to refund some of the money, which was far more than he knew he needed. And this experiment in microsupport, while of course proving the loyalty of his readers, also raises a fascinating model for many writers.

But with a dazzling, even magisterial piece on the Iraqi war in this week's New Yorker, he proves once again why his readers would feel moved to support his journalism, regardless of the medium in which it's delivered. The subhead says it all: "did the Bush Administration create a new American empire--or weaken the old one?' By masterfully sketching the sweep of American history as it relates to war and the imperial tendancy, he deftly explains why most of America's wars of the last half century were mere "policing actions, small wars of management--of, in a sense, imperial management, like the 'little wars' that were a backdrop of life in Victorian England." Bush's Iraqi adventure, on the other hand, "weakened America's covert empire because, at a critical level, (his administration) didn't understand how it worked." He argues that because of its bumbling nature, the Bush doctrine ends up paradoxically becoming an unwitting form of world government. I'd call it required reading, so get thee to this story, and read...

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