Help! I’m being held prisoner by a bunch of liberal maniacs!” So goes a fairly typical outburst in James Taranto’s column for the Wall Street Journal’s Best of the Web Today. Taranto was poking fun at a recent Boston Globe editorial he found much too soft on leftist Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. The basic sentiment runs throughout Taranto’s unabashedly right-slanting survey of the day’s political news, from the progress of the culture wars to the swift-boat campaign-ad controversy.
Taranto is a new sort of opinion-maker for the information age. And he gets an ever-wider hearing in a new marketplace tailor-made for polemic conflict. According to a June study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 36 percent of Americans now prefer a take on the news that reflects their own politics. Among conservatives, that viewpoint is even more pronounced, at 43 percent (compared with a third of moderates and liberals).
Meanwhile, the influence of the Internet in the political news cycle continues to grow. According to the same Pew Center study, over the past four years, the proportion of people who log on for political news has increased sharply—from 39 percent to 54 percent.
Mix these factors together—an election year, a desire for opinionated commentary, and a growing shift of news consumption online—and you get bloggers at the conventions, and Matt Drudge once again taking his place at the center of the universe. You get personalized online bits of polemic info-pap that are often less about the truth of the matter than they are about the right spin on the story. And you get a dumbstruck mass media wondering when the ship set sail without them.
Taranto, 38, is standing on the deck of that ship and thumbing his nose at his erstwhile colleagues in the traditional media. He not only knows how to play by the new rules of the game, he’s an expert at it, particularly in the use of humor to soften the edges of controversial ideological debate.
“I have affection for the people who read my stuff and can’t stand it and e-mail me to tell me so,” Taranto says. “There’s something wonderfully perverse about that.”
Former Wall Street Journal editorial-page editor Robert Bartley conceived Best of the Web in July 2000 as a reading list of online work that Journal readers should be looking at. Bartley enlisted a number of in-house contributors/collators and named Taranto, then the editor of the paper’s opinion-oriented Web page, OpinionJournal.com, to edit the news digest—which the ever-fusty Journal was not about to call a blog. In pulling together the Best of the Web, Taranto trolled for themes and topics already familiar to readers of the Journal’s editorial page—conservative politics, foreign policy, economics, and a general dislike for most things liberal.
Since this was still at least two years ahead of the great growth spurt in blogs, some of Taranto’s friends weren’t sure what to make of his new opportunity. “I thought it was kind of a wasteland back then,” says Laurel Touby, founder of Mediabistro.com, an online and offline community of media professionals. “I was thinking, Poor James, they’ve relegated him to the online Journal. But look at him now.”
Indeed. Taranto, who had previously been deputy editorial-features editor of the paper, took to the looser, longer form of the Web column, and before long was its primary contributor. “It was simple—if I saw something on the Web that was interesting, annoying, or absurd, I would point it out and add a little commentary,” he says. His first big hit: the infamous “monkeyfishing” hoax that Slate.com fell for in June 2001; Taranto’s efforts won him credit from the rival New York Times for debunking the hoax. His favorite target of late: what he considers John Kerry’s ceaseless invocations of his service in Vietnam, leading Taranto to equally ceaseless descriptions of Kerry as the “haughty, French-looking Democrat, who by the way served in Vietnam.” Many wags claim that Taranto more or less single-handedly transmuted the Kerry-looking-French meme from an inside Republican joke into a staple of late-night comedy routines.
Read by some 120,000 people every day, Best of the Web now competes with the most popular political blogs. But its influence is greater still. The primary distinction between Taranto and the blogosphere at large is that he is also armed with the pretensions of power and influence that come along with the Journal’s brand, evidenced most clearly by his preference for the royal “we” instead of the first person. A self-described “hawkish free-market conservative,” Taranto shows a natural affinity for the blog form, and his writing showcases a combination of wit, engaging prose, and muscular (if sometimes twisted) logic. He’s been described as the Journal’s Rush Limbaugh (only smarter and nastier) and a “vicious satirist,” and often in words unfit to print. “Taranto sounds like a bar-stool bore, with a bad habit of repeating the same lame insults and xenophobic cracks again and again,” says Joe Conason, columnist for the New York Observer and Salon.com. (Limbaugh, for his part, has referred to Taranto as “one hell of a writer.”) But he’s never been called inconsequential. “He gives the Journal a credible presence in cyberspace, something they would otherwise lack,” says J. D. Lasica, a contributing editor at the Online Journalism Review.
Conservatives love Taranto’s humor, which is usually at the expense of liberal politicians or liberal thought. Even liberals, if they can get past his partisan views, can find him funny on occasion. One of his trademark rhetorical devices is repetition. Kerry’s Vietnam service aside, he’s taken to repeatedly calling the Democratic ticket “Kedwards,” reducing the current Democratic message to “strongerathomerespectedintheworld,” and constantly referring to “former Enron adviser Paul Krugman.”
More strident liberal critics accuse Taranto of using humor to sugarcoat an otherwise malodorous agenda. “I find his site very scurrilous and frequently racist in its depiction of Arabs,” says Eric Alterman, a writer for The Nation and the author of a blog on MSNBC.com. “But I also find it funny. It’s like Rush Limbaugh in that it’s clever but detrimental—another form of pollution.” Taranto is unmoved by such criticism: “That’s just silly.” What of the suggestion that he’s not as funny as he thinks he is? “I don’t understand how people can’t find me funny, but I do understand that some people don’t.”
That said, while he delivers his message with a wink and a nod, Taranto’s main objective does not seem to be to amuse. Regular hobbyhorses include an unusual level of hostility toward most Muslims (“Are we alone in finding the idea of Ayatollah Ali Khameini in a Saddam-like spider hole tremendously appealing?” “Riyadh’s position seems to be either you’re with us, or you’re with the Jews”), attacks on the liberal media, a decrying of terrorism against Israel (constant reminder: “Arafat won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1994”), the dismissal of liberals’ alleged weakness for moral relativism, and an obsession with U.N. corruption. The recent controversy surrounding New Jersey governor James McGreevey’s resignation pending disclosure of a homosexual affair sparked Best of the Web to sputtering new heights of indignation. “What’s going on here?” Taranto wrote. “McGreevey is, after all, a Democrat, and Democrats think it’s no one else’s business when a politician cheats on his wife. Remember Bill Clinton? The difference, of course, is that Clinton’s affair was with a woman, not a man. So it would appear that the Dems are both pro-adultery and antigay—intolerant as well as immoral.”