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 itand e-mail me to tell me so,” Taranto says. “There’s somethingwonderfully 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.”
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.