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Wag of the capital blog set

Times Staff Writer

Welcome to the white-hot center of Washington’s most salacious gossip. Never mind that it’s a blue-trimmed house with a shaggy lawn plopped squarely in suburbia -- Wonkette lives here, armed with a PowerBook and a wicked tongue.

For the uninitiated, Wonkette.com is the fearless political gossip blog generating buzz inside the Beltway and beyond, and Ana Marie Cox is the wit behind it.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Jun. 05, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 05, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Wonkette.com -- An article in Wednesday’s Calendar section about a political Web log, Wonkette.com, misspelled the last name of Henry Seltzer, the intern who works on the site, as Selzter.

Working from the snug periwinkle guest bedroom of the Arlington home that she shares with her husband, journalist Chris Lehmann, Cox is not exactly a reporter and not quite a stand-up comedian. Instead, the 31-year-old redhead is working the Jonathan Swift of the Information Age angle, a social satirist on instant messenger.

She posts a dozen times a day, deflating the egos peopling the nation’s capital with an unexpurgated commentary ranging from the size of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John F. Kerry’s, um, constituency to the latest “low-rent sex scandal” to assail Washington.

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That would be the salacious online sex diary kept by former Senate staffer Jessica Cutler detailing her exploits -- sometimes for cash gifts -- with the unnamed powerful and semi-powerful on the Hill. Not only did Cox link to Cutler’s R-rated site (which eventually contributed to Cutler’s firing), but she met her to drink and dish, matching the self-described Washingtonienne’s Southern Comfort glass for glass with white wine.

“People here are so dowdy and self-important,” Cox said of the Beltway crowd. “It is the center of the free world, but still, why do you take yourself so seriously?”

Cox certainly doesn’t. Which is why complaints that her site favors spice over journalistic propriety don’t faze her.

“I don’t feel like I have the same accountability and responsibility as a practicing journalist,” said Cox, padding around the house in fuchsia bedroom slippers. “I write so much satire, to make it conform to AP style would be a nightmare.”

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Cox gathers her news from other reporters, reading the Washington Post and the New York Times in the mornings along with a news summary from her intern, Henry Selzter. Dodging her cats, Moby and Alexander, and bouncing dog Hank, she also scans the chatter on more serious political blogs.

What she does is “not reporting, and it’s not necessarily coming up with new information; it’s sort of putting a spin, a very funny spin, on what’s out there,” said Nick Confessore, an editor of the Washington Monthly and a friend of Cox. “The best way to look at it is not as journalism that edges too close to bad journalism but as parody that frequently edges close to stuff that actually happened.”

For Cox, cranking out the comedy is anything but solitary. She runs most gags by her “joke jury” before posting -- six or seven trusted friends to whom she’ll instant-message one-liners for feedback.

“If I’m having a bad day, my funnydar can be off,” she explains.

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Scurrilous but essential

But to many who follow the gossip-blog universe, Cox’s bipartisan skewerings have so far been spot on.

“She’s sarcastic, she’s sharp, she’s dismissive, she’s funny, she’s profane, and you know there’s a certain entertainment value to that,” said Lloyd Grove, gossip columnist at the New York Daily News, formerly of the Washington Post’s Reliable Source column.

Wonkette.com, which launched this January, provided something that many felt was sorely lacking in town -- a bona fide scandal sheet. “I think she’s a great gift to Washington because she traffics in the kind of scurrilous yet necessary rumormongering that the capital desperately needs, and she does it well,” said Richard Leiby, who writes the more staid -- and more thoroughly fact-checked -- Reliable Source.

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That’s what inspired Internet entrepreneur Nick Denton to conjure up Wonkette in the first place. “D.C., inexplicably for a place so powerful, didn’t have anything with any kind of edge,” Denton said.

The British blog magnate, also responsible for the gadget-savvy site Gizmodo, the New York media and celebrity rag Gawker and porn site Fleshbot, saw an opening in Washington and pounced. His newest Web address, Defamer.com, which launched last month, gives Hollywood a scathing once-over.

Denton brings British (read: sensational) journalistic sensibilities to the blogs he backs.

“American daily news is provided largely by monopolies; many of them are either lazy monopolies or otherwise pompous monopolies,” Denton said. “The objective seems often to be winning Pulitzer Prizes rather than the amusement of the audience.” Denton’s sites are created in the British newspaper tradition, which is enlivened by furious competition and a no-holds-barred approach to everything from royalty to national leaders.

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“What weblogs do is to relay and amplify the conversation.... Anything that is a topic of conversation in power circles in New York or D.C. is the proper subject of our blog,” Denton said.

The rules of blogging, still on the wild frontier of publishing, remain hazy at best. Postings on Wonkette.com aren’t vetted the same way newspaper gossip items are, and Cox’s information comes either secondhand or from variably reliable tipsters. As Leiby described it, Wonkette.com provides “the news that hasn’t quite been sufficiently fumigated or transubstantiated for your consumption in the major media.”

In this world, where speed and buzz are more important than, say, sourcing or verification, what makes news takes on a different shape.

“There’s not above the fold or below the fold,” said Choire Sicha, the editor of Gawker.com, referring to how stories are prioritized on a newspaper page. “Everything’s kind of at the same shrill volume.”

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The specter of libel suits

Cox recently attempted to both clarify and lampoon the gap between self-serious major media outlets and Wonkette with a tongue-in-cheek icon that read “Real Reporting.” The label accompanied tales of Al Franken sightings and red carpet wanderings at the Washington Correspondent’s Dinner this May, an event that Cox actually left the house to cover.

“I had more fun there than I did at my real high school prom,” Cox said. “I really love how immature everyone is -- it’s just like high school. People were geeks in high school, so it really matters to them about sitting at the right table.” Washington, Cox added, exudes a “sort of endearing insecurity.”

But for all the giddy, scatological fun Wonkette offers, such uncharted cyber territory can be a scary place, where the threat of litigation looms.

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“At some point someone’s either going to win or lose a big libel suit, and it ... will sort of chill the whole area,” said Mickey Kaus, the author of a high-profile political blog on Slate.com.

“Even gossip ought to be as true as it can be,” said Paul Glastris, editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.

Wonkette and the rest of the Denton blogs constitute a fledgling business enterprise whose ultimate profitability is uncertain. All the blogs run paid advertising, but Denton would not disclose how much money his blogs make, nor how much he pays bloggers like Cox. Her site, which had 1.1 million page views in April, received double that in May as the Washingtonienne scandal heated up. Cox spends the bulk of her time mocking the powerful online but also squeezes in freelance writing projects on the side.

Denton prides himself on plucking underappreciated talent like Cox out of relative obscurity. He found the Lincoln, Neb., native and former journalist through her incisive personal blog, the Antic Muse, and liked what he read.

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“It wasn’t the standard partisan [fare] that one usually finds on political websites; that was refreshing,” Denton said. Pre-blog, Cox worked for Mother Jones, the American Prospect and the Chronicle of Higher Education, among other publications. So far, she hasn’t looked back. Wonkette.com is “liberating,” Cox said. “You’re freed from taking notes, reporting.” She does sometimes miss the long-form writing impossible on a fast-moving blog.

“Sure, I’d like to write things that are more than four sentences long,” Cox said. “That’s the price you pay for being lazy.” But she’s unafraid of the potential damage the outrageousness of Wonkette.com might do to her editorial aspirations.

“I’ve always kind of taken the point of view that ... you can’t not do something because you’re worried about what some future arbiter of taste might think,” she said. “Anyone who is uncomfortable with what I’m doing now, I probably wouldn’t really want to work for.”

Although she tries to hit both the left and the right with equal relish, Cox isn’t striving for political neutrality on her blog -- she’s an unabashed liberal. (“Tax and spend, that’s my motto.”) Her leftward leanings are “just part of who I am. I don’t think I could be funny or interesting if I tried to cover that up.”

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As for President Bush’s and Kerry’s political slugfest, Cox is so far unimpressed. “It really is a race for second; no one’s doing a great campaign.” And a passionless race is comedic poison. But it’s a long way to November, and all hope is not lost: “As long as people do stupid things, there are laughs,” she said. “And I’m sure they’ll do stupid things.”

In the meantime, Cox is contending with her nascent celebrity, having appeared on CNN, Fox News and other cable news channels. Mirroring her feelings on Washington itself, she loves and loathes her current notoriety. (It doesn’t hurt that a financial bonus comes with any jump in traffic to the site.)

“In Washington it’s so easy to get famous,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Washington needs someone to hate it in order to feel like it’s doing something right.”


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