Bloggers' double-super-secret smoky room

Kos declares war against the New Republic, after a secret society of liberal bloggers is revealed.

Published June 22, 2006 9:18PM (EDT)

Oh, how we love the blog fights!

The New Republic has created a firestorm by reprinting online a semiprivate e-mail from blogger bigwig Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, aka Kos, the virtual-celebrity proprietor of DailyKos. The e-mail, which was sent to a private list-serve called "Townhouse," includes Moulitsas' plea for his fellow bloggers to ignore a recent report on the alleged penny-stock-pumping past of Jerome Armstrong, a political consultant who is also Moulitsas' close friend and mentor.

"What was Kos's message to this group that secretly plots strategy in the digital equivalent of a smoke-filled backroom?" asks TNR's Jason Zengerle, writing in the Plank. "Stay mum!"

How delicious. Zengerle appeared to have found evidence of top-secret, backroom arm-twisting that proved the liberal blogosphere was one giant conspiracy controlled by a few, power-hungry dictators. Markos, for his part, played right into Zengerle's trap by penning a bile-filled response to Zengerle's post.

"The New Republic betrayed, once again, that it seeks to destroy the new people-powered movement for the sake of its Lieberman-worshipping neocon owners," Moulitsas wrote on DailyKos, sounding every bit like a power-crazed dictator. "It stands with the National Review and wingnutoshpere in their opposition to grassroots Democrats." Then Moulitsas excoriated his followers to drop their subscriptions to TNR and block the magazine's heretical ideas from their minds. He even posted the phone number of TNR's Washington office, presumably so "kossacks" can harass the receptionist, or something.

Since then, the discussion has exploded online. Firedoglake, the American Prospect, James Taranto and Hotline's Blogometer have all weighed in with alacrity. At some point it all became a spitting contest, so I will not try to summarize all the arguments here.

But I do want to take a moment to provide some background I have gathered on Townhouse, the private e-mail list that Zengerle cracked to get his scoop. It is a fascinating enterprise, to be sure, but it is not quite the super-secret virtual den that Zengerle imagines. It is, in fact, one of the worst-kept secrets in Washington.

My own super-secret sources tell me that Townhouse began after the disastrous 2004 election, when young Democratic activists began meeting on Sundays for beers at Townhouse Tavern, a subterranean watering hole in Washington's Dupont Circle neighborhood. The periodic meetings brought together all manner of optimistic go-getters, who wanted to find a way for Democrats not to lose elections. There were magazine journalists (myself not included), think tankers, political consultants, Democratic operatives and bloggers.

Here was the next generation of would-be D.C. power brokers, kids in their 20s and 30s who planned to mold the political future. At some point, Matt Stoller, the preppy enforcer of liberal blogging, helped organize the group into a formal e-mail list. (An earlier version of the group was even called "Knights of the Round Stoller.") Over time, the e-mail list and the Sunday afternoon boozefests grew. Matt Bai, a reporter for the New York Times, was granted permission to attend on an "off-the-record" basis. People worried that there were Republican spies in their midst. Through it all, Stoller controlled the membership. If you stayed in his graces, and met the group's qualifications, you got yourself a ticket to both the electronic and the alcoholic conversations. At all times, the whole enterprise was declared off the record, to be spoken of in hushed tones only with others who knew the proverbial secret handshake.

The Sunday meetings at Townhouse Tavern no longer happen with any regularity, but the list has grown ever larger, expanding to include many of the larger national bloggers. So the question presents itself: Does this amount to a conspiracy? A virtual new-boys and girls club, with smoke rings made of digital bits?

It is definitely what passes for an elite club in liberal Democratic circles but is not quite a conspiracy. The members are of many minds on some issues, and do not all march to Moulitsas' tar-and-feather orders. The conversation often had more to do with sharing ideas and information than plotting strategy. And it was also far from airtight. Leaks happened, and word travels fast in Washington.

That said, the public introduction of Townhouse now presents the big-name bloggers and online activists with a transparency dilemma. On the one hand, bloggers like to talk of themselves as a democratic, grass-roots movement. (Moulitsas often conflates himself with the entire "people-powered movement" in his blog posts.) On the other hand, the blogosphere boasts an emerging leadership elite, which is increasingly profiting on its insider status in both the Democratic Party and among one another. The growing pains have just begun.

In the short term, I expect things will change. The Townhouse wall of silence has been officially broken. The Internet is in a tizzy. My money is on Stoller and company creating a new list in the near future. I am sure there are several Washington watering holes that would be willing to lend their name to the enterprise. Wonderland? Bedrock? Toledo? We shall see.

Correction: In the post above, I inaccurately described Firedoglake's response to the DailyKos-TNR fight as alacritous. I apologize for the mistake.

By Michael Scherer

Michael Scherer is Salon's Washington correspondent. Read his other articles here.

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