'Daily Kos' Profile -- From Michael Moore to El Salvador, Berkeley Blog Creates Digital Community
Every Tuesday morning, the SF Weekly news blog The Snitch profiles one of the bay's many cool blogs in a segment we call -- BetterKnowanSFBlog. This week, no silly gadgets allowed.
By Tyler Callister
Markos Moulitsas Zúniga was born in the United States, but he spent five years of his childhood in El Salvador (1976-1980), right smack in the middle of a civil war. When communist guerrillas threatened Moulitsas’ family, they fled back to the U.S.
“From a very early age I learned that politics could be a matter of life and death,” he says. So it’s no surprise that Moulitsas did not grow up and start a blog about ...
Moulitsas, who runs the blog from his home in Berkeley, is serious about politics. But a blog dealing with serious news raises questions about factual accuracy. After all, blogs are usually created by one to five authors (often under pseudonyms), and any Joe Blow can do it. Even Brian Lam, editor of the second most popular blog on the internet Gizmodo, admits that blogs are better suited for unserious news coverage because they don’t have fact checkers. But Moulitsas disagrees. “Every single one of the commenters is a fact checker,” he says. “Within five minutes of making a post, if I’ve got anything that’s factually incorrect, somebody’s already pointed it out.”
Moulitsas is a small fish in the media ocean, but he says that gives him more incentive to be factually accurate than the average mainstream news reporter has. “I don’t have the luxury of the New York Times brand giving me credibility,” he says. “I have to build my credibility every single day, post by post, and if I lose that credibility I’ve got nothing left. I guard it with my life.”
So when Moulitsas started Daily Kos in 2002, he didn’t have the nepotistic connections to work at someplace like The New York Times, and he didn’t have the money to start his own print publication, so he decided to join a burgeoning media technology rather than try to join the mainstream press. “I thought I’d just create new media and sort of grow around them,” he says. “We can start putting the tools together to build a media machine for this century.”
Problem was, in 2002 the common response Moulitsas got from advertisers and political campaign managers was, “What the hell is a blog?” He describes his frustrating start as a Web consultant for political campaigns: “Really no campaign other than the Dean campaign thought that there was any reason to put any energy on the Web. We would be in a room with the media consultant, and the direct mail consultant, and the speech writer, and the campaign manager and we’d basically say, ‘Spend a little money on building this feature, it will pay for itself via contributions and engagement by voters,’ and we’d get vetoed over and over again.”
But Moulitsas credits the service Blog Ads for turning things around. “Blog Ads essentially created the industry for blog advertising from scratch, doing the long hard work in convincing ad agencies and advertisers that it was worth there while to put money into blogs,” he says.
Now, Daily Kos receives somewhere between 14 million and 20 million visits per month, and around 500,000 per day. High-profile figures like John Kerry, Jimmy Carter, and Michael Moore have posted to the site.
But Moulitsas insists that those people contributed willingly to the site, and that he did not recruit them for the sake of drawing publicity to Daily Kos. In fact, he says that even famous politicians have to sign up for a login name, and wait the required one week before they're allowed to post to the site — just like everybody else. “I like to think that it’s sort of an egalitarian environment,” he says.
The 36-year-old Moulitsas hatched his political ideology in a place far removed from the blogosphere. In 1989, fresh out of high school, he joined the Army. “For one, it was a way for me to go to college; I didn’t come from a wealthy family,” he explains. “But also … I wanted to be a politician and I was more of a military hawk at the time, so I thought it very hypocritical for me to be ever in the position to send our men and women into combat without me having been in that situation myself.”
But something unusual happened to Moulitsas while in the military. As he describes in an article for The American Prospect, he went in a Republican and came out a Democrat. “The Army taught me the very values that make us progressives — community, opportunity, and investment in people and the future,” he writes. “Returning to Bush Senior's America, I was increasingly disillusioned by the selfishness, lack of community, and sense of entitlement inherent in the Republican philosophy.”
In the article Moulitsas describes the military as “perhaps the ideal society,” pointing out that the Army provided him and his peers with free housing, medical care, education, and a chance to travel and participate in the world. “I got to party at the Berlin Wall after it fell and explored Prague in those heady postcommunism days,” he writes. “I wasn't just a tourist; I was a witness to history.”
This ideology seems to influence the way Moulitsas manages his blog. It’s perhaps an attempt to create that “ideal society” online. While he can’t provide free health care to his Daily Kos’ audience, he speaks passionately about trying to maintain a sense of community amongst those who read, post, and comment on the site. As one of the pioneers of the blogosphere, the precedent he is setting makes him not only a witness to history, but also an influential participant.