Taranto sees himself as less of a movement conservative than as someone who writes about the things that interest him. A quick tour of the Best of the Web’s pronouncements on hot-button issues paints a picture of a man who is right of center, but not extremely so. Abortion: “We favor some restrictions on abortion but not an outright ban.” Same-sex marriage: “We oppose both court-mandated same-sex marriage and the overbroad Federal Marriage Amendment.”
Taranto sounds much the same note of seeming right-wing moderation in conversation. “Republican spending has been as bad as the Democrats’ in their day, but the fact that Congress can’t restrain itself is no excuse to raise taxes.” But when the talk turns to foreign policy, he becomes a bit more strident himself. “The American military should be used to further and protect our interests abroad. If we have allies, great. If we don’t, our interests should take precedence over making allies happy.” Most important: “I was and remain in favor of the liberation of Iraq.”
Still, opinion on Taranto’s writing tends to be split pretty much along the same lines as voters for Bush or Kerry. Taranto acknowledges that he’s not even sure how many left-leaning people read his column on a regular basis, but he does know there are some: He regularly gets e-mails excoriating him for being unfair. He welcomes the input: “I have a certain affection for the people who read my stuff and can’t stand it and e-mail me to tell me so. There’s something wonderfully perverse about that.”
Taranto’s opinionated life has rather bland suburban origins. He grew up in what he describes as a “not terribly political household” in the Los Angeles suburb of Thousand Oaks. His father was an engineer during the space-age aeronautics boom in Southern California. Like many children of that era, Taranto was an early adopter of computer technology. He launched a computer bulletin board devoted to gossip, politics, and religion at the age of 17; he sees Best of the Web as an extension of his life as a teenage nerd.
In college, Taranto developed a distinct identity as a conservative provocateur at a time when campus life was overwhelmingly skewed to the left. While studying undergraduate journalism at California State University at Northridge in 1987, he wrote an opinion piece in the university paper, the Daily Sundial, criticizing UCLA for suspending an editor for running a cartoon that mocked affirmative action. He was in turn suspended by CSUN for violating a rule barring publication of “controversial” material without permission.
Convinced that the real reason he was disciplined was because of his conservative views, Taranto persuaded the American Civil Liberties Union to file a First Amendment lawsuit on his behalf that accused the university of violating the freedom of the press. The suit was ultimately settled, but the ACLU and Taranto won a key concession from the Sundial: an agreement to reframe its policy to clarify that the paper was indeed a forum for student expression.
By that time, however, Taranto had left the school and taken a position in public relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington. After a little under two years in Washington, he moved to New York, where he cycled through three jobs before landing at the Journal: first as the managing editor of Street News, a newspaper for (and published by) the homeless; then as a culture editor of the now-defunct New York City Tribune, and lastly as a senior editor at the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. In 1996, the Wall Street Journal came calling.
Yet as he’s risen steadily in his profession, Taranto has remained, by his friends’ account, much the same geek he was back in his L.A. adolescence. “I imagine he must be very lonely, as are many talented writers I’ve come across,” says Laurel Touby of Mediabistro. “Regular people have trouble relating to him. I recall hosting parties, and women would later ask me, ‘Who is that guy?’ because he was so intense. He’s a force, a bigger-than-life brain at a party. People are used to idle chitchat, and he would be in there with serious issues. Girls can’t wait to get out of there.”
That Taranto is a felicitous writer and thinker, there can be no doubt. His gift for elegant logical constructions and an ability to see patterns and similarities where they might not be obvious are what actually make him a frequently enjoyable read, whatever your political persuasion. In a June 2002 posting on a chat board about fanaticism, for example, he drew a neat line between environmental and religious fundamentalists. “The result, in each case, is a monstrous, antihuman ideology that espouses hatred of the real world and indifference to human life in favor of some heaven—a pristine state of nature in the case of environmental fundamentalists, and literal heaven in the case of religious ones.” In this and other instances, Taranto shares a trait with his contemporaries in fiction writing, like David Foster Wallace: It’s unclear whether the reason for the sentence was its inherent point or the fun that the author clearly had in writing it.
He is equally adept at muddying the waters of empirically inspired ideological formulations and arriving at an opposite conclusion. In a June column, he noted a John Kerry speech in which the candidate claimed that there were more black Americans in prison than in college. Taranto retorted that while among black men, the number of inmates outnumbered those in college, college-age black males are “2.5 times as likely to be in college as in prison.” Written with Taranto’s trademark “gotcha” tone, the column invited casual readers to conclude that Kerry had neglected to focus on the relevant comparison. Taranto took no position on whether “2.5 times as likely” is a ratio we can be proud of.
In January 2003, Taranto questioned the conclusions of an article in the Atlantic Monthly by Thomas Byrne Edsall, in which Edsall concluded that as American attitudes toward sex become more liberal, Democrats will enjoy increasing success at the polls. Responding with an argument that he ultimately termed the “Roe effect,” Taranto suggested that at least in the case of abortion, a more tolerant attitude could instead doom liberals to demographic irrelevance. He came to his conclusion by a seemingly simple deduction: First, liberal and Democratic women are more likely to have abortions. Second, children’s political views tend to reflect those of their parents. Thus, in the long term, the left is depleting itself. “In other words, the policies advocated by the pro-choice side could have an unintended result—moving us in a more conservative direction,” says Taranto. “But it would work the other way around as well.”
Ultimately, Taranto thinks Best of the Web will be a success if it manages both to inform and to amuse. “Just because it’s important doesn’t mean it can’t be fun,” he says. He downplays his status as the Journal’s most prominent Web presence, but does admit that the responsibility associated with such a position affects exactly how far he is willing to go when engaging in verbal smackdown. “I probably show somewhat more restraint on certain things than I would if I were a blogger,” he says.
Still, there is little doubt that the powers that be at the Journal are enjoying the success of their experiment in joining the no-holds-barred, hit-below-the-belt ethos of the blogosphere. “Very few corporate institutions can tolerate a voice that’s quite so acerbic, blunt, and partisan,” says Henry Copeland, the founder of Blogads, which places advertisements on blog sites across the Web. “But amazingly, the Journal had the guts to cut him loose.”
Which raises the question: What, exactly, is Best of the Web, if it would be unlikely to run in the paper itself but still carries the imprimatur of one of the most influential newspapers on the planet? “It’s a column in blog format,” says Taranto. Glenn Reynolds, author of arguably the most popular political blog, Instapundit, says it’s very much a blog in tone, even though it’s updated only once a day: “It has a personal voice in spite of its institutional nature, and it’s also one of the ones I read every day.”
Whatever you call it, Taranto is indeed in the thick of a growing online political conversation, and knows how this new online world works. “His column is both highly cited and he also links to a lot of other blogs,” says Ben Fritz of Spinsanity.com. “And he’s very respected by bloggers, because he gets some things going, like the Kerry-looking-French thing.” Fritz also points out that Taranto has invited numerous bloggers—including Fritz himself—to write for OpinionJournal.com.
Taranto will be at this week’s Republican convention, along with a few thousand other old-media reporters and the newly accredited group of bloggers who have just joined the fray. But Taranto, as even he admits, is neither fish nor fowl. Instead, he sits in the middle of a Venn diagram of his own times, the product of yet unresolved contradictions: the polarization of media consumption, the rise of Web-based news and the blogs, and mainstream media’s improvisational response to its sudden plight.
How does he plan to cover the run-up to November? “I think we’re going to continue what we’ve been doing for four years—delivering news and commentary on what’s going on,” he says. “This isn’t even our first election cycle.” It’s unlikely it will be his last.