20 Years of TPM
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We Asked Alums: What’s Your Favorite Story You Wrote For TPM?

I was once a TPM alum.

I spent the summer of 2014 working as an editorial intern at TPM just after I graduated from college. It was a simpler time — Obama was still president,  Ammon Bundy was … Ammon Bundying, and one of our favorite characters to drag at the time was Chuck Johnson.

Josh Marshall did his best to keep me around after the internship ended, but TPM didn’t have a full-time opening and I had already accepted a job at a local newspaper back home in Illinois. I left for about three years before a move back to New York for grad school had me knocking on TPM’s door once again. And here I am.

I’ve noticed some commonalities between myself and all of the alumni I know and have met over the years: they hold an earnest fondness for the time they spent working in the New York or D.C. office, they have plenty of great holiday party tales and they genuinely enjoyed the work they got to do while part of the TPM team. I reached out to several former TPMers for this mini anniversary project to ask the simple question: What’s your favorite story you wrote (or were part of) while at TPM? Here’s some of what they said:

Ahiza García

Reporter at NBC News covering the intersection of media, tech, sports and business

This story was so bizarre but it allowed me to comb through police reports, speak with eyewitnesses and piece together a narrative.

Paul Werdel

Editor and product director for The New York Times from 2012-2018, now independent

It’s hard to pick a favorite story from an era that gave us the birth of Donald Trump’s birtherism, the short but spectacularly-lived Senate campaign of Christine O’Donnell, and the implosion of Todd “legitimate rape” Akin’s congressional career. But as a piece of TPM and of adolescent-social-media-of-the-early-2010s lore, the tale of how TPM came to have a Tumblr page (remember Tumblr?) is one that I always remember fondly.

Ryan Reilly (now of HuffPost) had been working the Anonymous beat for a while for TPM Muckraker by the time the fall of 2011 rolled around. As part of that reporting he submitted a FOIA request for the mugshots of more than a dozen of the alleged “hacktivist” group members arrested by federal agents earlier that summer. He got them, and we of course published them in the public interest. What happened next is part “we kind of saw it coming” and part the very best of the TPM “fuck it, let’s figure it out” ethos.

Shortly after publishing the pics — and shortly after kind of maybe inviting it on Twitter — the whole site was taken down by a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack, a favorite Anonymous tactic in that time of less-than-robust Internet architecture. As we scrambled to figure out what was going on, and to work through all of it with authorities late into the night, we also needed to keep publishing the news.

So we made a Tumblr account, published and sent our social traffic there, and then kept on doing that until we could get things back online. There were no long discussions about it. No hemming or “is this a good idea?” hawing or flying it up the flagpole. We just did it, and we did it quickly, because that’s what needed to be done.  That was and still is TPM to me.

Here’s post number one, from nine years ago.

Zachary Roth

Fellow at the Brennan Center

(Plus, search the guy’s name, and you’ll see a bunch of follow-ups we did, including the professional fallout.)

Just a great, classic TPM story, using original reporting to expose the right-wing craziness/racism. And that kind of stuff directed at Obama obviously turned out to be a real forerunner of Trumpism, so I feel like we were on to something early.

Justin Elliot

Reporter at ProPublica

Hard to pick one story … there were a lot of quick hits. And I think some were lost to the sands of time during a server change or something. Here are a few fun ones:

Michael Lester

Producer for NowThis News

I worked on so many memorable things at TPM (including the Campaign in 100 Seconds) that it is hard to pick one as my favorite. I think, overall, just beating out Michele Bachmann saying Anderson, and the Day in 100 Seconds after Obama’s reelection, or Joe Biden’s schmoozing at the Senate swearing-in in 2013. This was a busy day and we had seen a few small clips and a couple of other videos posted by other sites of Joe Biden’s antics that were gaining traction. There were a lot of other people on the team pointing out odd things he was saying and doing and I ended up reviewing the whole event and compiling all the moments into one roundup. It ended up being a wonderfully successful cringefest that someone even pitched to me two years later, unaware that I had worked on the original! This was just one of many fun, collaborative projects that I worked on at TPM that made my time so memorable.

Alice Ollstein

Reporter at Politico covering health care

The level of attention on the repeal fight that year was so high that even small moments could produce an entire news cycle. One day I was chasing down Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts and asked a fairly bland question about his position on Obamacare’s essential health benefits — basically, the requirement that insurance cover things like hospital visits, prescription drugs and mental health. He made a tone-deaf joke in response, which I immediately posted on Twitter.

My editor (David Kurtz) quickly messaged me and told me to brace for it to go viral. I didn’t believe him. I had heard lawmakers say much worse things before! But he was right. It blew up. Members of Congress reposted my tweet and condemned Roberts’ comment, every major outlet covered the flap, and Roberts was forced to apologize.

Now, he was basically saying in a cruder way what many other Republicans had argued: that people shouldn’t be forced to pay for health services they’re not going to personally use. But, 1. You don’t know what health care services you’re going to use! Life is unpredictable! Not to be morbid, but any of us could get hit by a car or develop cancer tomorrow. And 2. The point of an insurance mandate like the ACA’s is to share health risks and costs across a society rather than force the very sick and people with disabilities to bear that burden on their own. Not to mention, Sen. Roberts, men can get breast cancer too.

The backlash to Roberts’ quip to me really drove home how personal health care is — while a lot of things Congress does can seem wonky and theoretical, people really understood the stakes of the Obamacare repeal fight for their own health care and were deeply invested in the outcome. I felt, and still do, a tremendous amount of responsibility to give those people the information they need to choose their political leaders and navigate our byzantine health care system.

Caitlin MacNeal

Communications manager at the Project On Government Oversight

I was feeling nostalgic for the pre-Trump era and thought of this bizarre story I worked on back in 2014 (I feel old). I wrote a profile on this retired history teacher who was leading this conservative movement against College Board curriculum changes that eliminated the concept of “American exceptionalism” and placed more emphasis on the dark times in our country’s history, like slavery. It was the exact kind of fun, random story that TPM would let us work on pre-Trump. I had a blast interviewing this history teacher, who was actually not too unhappy with the profile. Simpler times.

Gayatri Surendranathan

Senior brand strategist at GMMB in Washington, DC.

I didn’t write this story (or any TPM stories!) but it *was* the first story I ever found and commissioned for TPM — a profile of forgotten Jim Crow-era civil rights leader Mary Church Terrell. It was the first of a handful of historical figure profiles we published and I remember how gratifying it was to see that our loyal readers, who refresh TPM dozens of times a day for politics updates, were also interested in a slightly less political, long-form profile. As Terrell gains more name recognition, I’d like to think TPM played a hand in introducing people to her important work!

Danielle Keeton-Olsen

Freelance reporter and consulting editor for VOD in Phnom Penh covering environment and business

I was the PollTracker intern during the 2016 election, and I really enjoyed advising Josh Marshall on the latest poll numbers from swing states, especially when I could provide some rudimentary R graphics from our tally for his blog posts as we trudged toward Election Day. (I did NOT enjoy election night though, it just went from tense to grim!)

Kyle Leighton

I liked this one (co-written with now-Senior Editor David Taintor):

Dylan Scott

Reporter for Vox covering health care and politics

It’s a tough call between these two:

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