WOW, 20 years. TWENTY! A very, very Happy 20th (TWENTIETH!) anniversary to Josh Marshall and Talking Points Memo. A tremendous accomplishment. I’m not an Internet historian by any means, but I just did some quick research and I’m pretty sure that www.talkingpointsmemo.com is literally the only website from the year 2000 that still exists.
Wait, hang on a second… no way… eBaumsWorld still exists????
[goes down 4 hour eBaumsWorld rabbit hole]
Hi. Hello. Where am I? Ah yes, TPM. Where to even begin talking about TPM? It’s impossible to put my feelings into words. And when I hit writer’s block, I like to use a little trick that I call: talk about myself. So then…
My name is Ben Craw and I started at TPM as an intern in early 2006. I had graduated college about a year earlier and was spending my days working a completely insane job on the trading floor of the New York Mercantile Exchange, which I had so little interest in or aptitude for (as much as I genuinely cherished getting comically screamed at by my cokehead broker boss) that I decided I should apply for an internship on the side, maybe even one that would utilize my up-to-that-point-complete-waste-of-money journalism degree.
Here I gotta give a quick shoutout to my brother-in-law Erik Quarfordt. He’s a few years older and way wiser than me and when I graduated college and realized I didn’t actually know anything about the world after four years of drinking and playing video games I asked him for recommendations for things to read to feel smart and informed. He’s the one who told me to check out a website called talkingpointsmemo.com. This was sometime during the infamous social security privatization “bamboozlepalooza” of 2005. I got hooked on Josh’s writing as soon as I started reading it. And then some months later it was Erik again who sent me an email about an internship posting that Josh had put up on the site. Good lookin’ out, Nasty E!
Now, I had forgotten about this until digging through some old emails (clearly repressed the memory) but the first time I was supposed to meet Josh for an interview at the Starbucks on 24th and 6th Ave, he completely blew me off. I waited for a goddamned hour and a half and the guy just no-showed. Unbelievable. He claimed in a subsequent email that it was the “first day in a new office” and that he “didn’t have his regular calendar with him,” but I knew it was bullshit. No sweat though, I’m not the type who carries grudges. (I would have my sweet revenge on Josh several years later.)
Long story short, thanks most likely to my unrelenting (and frankly embarrassing, looking back at the email chain) pestering, Josh eventually agreed to take me on as an (cough *unpaid*) intern in February of 2006. I started out as a researcher under the redoubtable Paul Kiel, the original and for my money greatest muckraker in TPM history. Observing Paul was the first time I truly understood what a real journalist is. It was honestly a thrill and a marvel to watch him work, and I quickly realized holy shit there is no way I could ever do that. This realization was only confirmed and strengthened by watching other terrifying talents like Justin Rood, Laura McGann, and Spencer Ackerman.
Aside from being an incredibly prolific reporter and a deft (and funny!) writer, Paul was also very supportive and generous, and I still remember the first time he let me write my very own entry (with a byline and everything) laying out TPM Muckraker’s exhaustive catalogue of characters in the sprawling Jack Abramoff scandal. (What’s up Bob Ney!) Ah, those were the salad days.
As the year progressed I moved from a Muckraker researcher to a TPM Election Central blogger covering the 2006 midterms. And now here’s a question for the real TPM heads: who remembers Election Central’s “Midterm Roundup” column that ran from the summer of 2006 up until the November elections? [no one raises hand] Really? No one? [complete silence] Well, I wrote that and believe me, it was fucking great. Is there any record of it on the internet? Well, no. But I’m telling you, it was like, gold. Every word. And if you still don’t believe me, there is actual proof of its existence because (and I’ll never forget this) in October 2006 David Kurtz (who at the time I believe was still operating as the shadowy and mysterious TPM Reader DK) gave me the highly coveted shoutout from the MAIN blog:
For TPM readers who enjoy an occasional dose of snark, TPM’s Election Central offers “Midterm Roundup,” a daily early morning jolt of political caffeine. It’s as frothy as steamed milk, as referential as Dennis Miller, and speaks of itself in the third person as often as a pro athlete.
(Listen, say what you want about Dennis Miller, the man’s reference game is on fleek like the eyebrows of Elin Ulfsdotter Snakenborg, Marchioness of Northampton.)
It was around the time that I was writing the “Midterm Roundup” — for free, outside of my day job, every night, usually between the hours of midnight and 6 a.m. so that it would cover fresh news when it published in the morning — that I realized I might’ve found something I enjoyed doing. And it felt like a genuine miracle that Josh and the rest of his small but brilliant staff (Kate Cambor! Greg Sargent!) actually published/tolerated my work (which, to be fair, I was doing for free).
I guess I wasn’t much of a blogger though, because in early 2007 when Josh offered me a real-deal, full-time, paying(!) job, it wasn’t as a writer, but as a video producer … which is something I had … [quickly scans ben-craw-resume-2007.doc] … exactly zero experience doing! But it was 2007, and as we all remember from that specific era … it was time to pivot to video.
I’m still not exactly sure what made Josh think I was the right person to hire for this new video venture idea he had, but his timing couldn’t have been better because by then I had been fired from my job at the Mercantile Exchange (boss literally yelled “You’re fired, get the fuck out of my sight” after I made some small clerical error) and, if memory serves, I was in the process of applying for a job at a catering company. I was so desperate that — and this isn’t a joke — when Josh informed me of the salary he was offering, I said something to the effect of “Amazing! I would do it for even less than that!” (Narrator voice: It was not amazing.) They, uh, didn’t teach salary negotiation in the journalism program I attended.
Transitioning from writing to video production was awkward at first. (How to hold camera? How to get recorded video footage from camera to computer? What to do with video footage once on computer?) But Josh was at least smart enough to hire a part-time freelancer who did know video production to teach me the ropes, and I fudged my way through producing, directing (I guess?), and editing the original episodes of TPM’s daily “vlog,” TPMtv.
Those early TPMtv episodes were great, since they mostly just consisted of Josh speaking eloquently and insightfully to the camera for a few minutes, but they were not exactly bravura displays of production or editing prowess. Some of you old heads may recall those episodes that had Josh in front of a green screen. No no, no digital background superimposed on that green screen in post, just … Josh standing and talking in front of a plain green screen. “Attention viewers, we are a professional video production department. Look, we have a green screen.” (For the record, I did eventually learn how to edit in a green screen background, which we pretty much never utilized.)
If you want to get a good sense of just what kind of ship I was running as TPMtv’s producer and director, here is a highlight reel of some of our finest work:
But what we lacked in Hollywood sheen we made up for in goddamn badass hardcore punk rock DIY determination, goddamnit. We weren’t gonna let those asshole corporate scumbags have their way, whoever they were and whatever their way might’ve been. And in time we gradually expanded what we were capable of. I remember a big turning point was when we added multiple flatscreen TVs to the walls of TPM’s tiny, one-room Flower District office so that we could monitor (and eventually pull clips from) the various cable news stations. I just unearthed an old email from 2007 in which Josh implored my colleague Andrew Golis and I to “make sure we know what we’re doing before we try to mount these flatscreens” lest we “damage the wall” or “injure or kill someone.” (To my knowledge, no TPM employee ever perished under a flatscreen TV that had fallen from a wall, at least not during my tenure.)
One big plus, at least, of being a very small outfit was that we were nimble enough to take the show on the road — first to events like YearlyKos/Netroots Nation and then to cover the 2008 presidential race. I often reflect back in equal amounts fondness and horror at the two weeks I spent with David Kurtz, first in Denver and then in St. Paul, for the Democratic and Republican National Conventions. The fondness comes from the quality time spent with David (one of the most affable and agreeable people I could ever imagine spending two weeks on the road with) … the horror from basically everything else: the logistics, the stress, being the sole person responsible for producing/editing TPM’s 2008 convention coverage without, y’know, breaking or losing any of the very expensive equipment I still didn’t totally know how to operate. I remember a lot of running, a decent amount of trespassing, and one night at the RNC where if memory serves we were only given one seat in the arena to share between the two of us (I don’t remember who sat on whose lap).
I’m pretty sure the downright nightmarish video quality here is due to the fact that we were attempting to pull off some sort of proto live-streaming setup, which most assuredly did not work out as planned, but here we are standing above and behind the stage (for some reason?) as Michelle Obama completes her speech on night one of the DNC:
Now for a quick anecdote — remember earlier when I mentioned that I got revenge on Josh for blowing off my initial internship interview? Well that revenge would come during the 2008 Democratic National Convention. First off, here is the number one thing to know when attending a national presidential nominating convention: do not lose your media credential. That is, do NOT lose it. Lost or stolen media credentials, it is drilled into you ad infinitum, will *NOT* be replaced. Media credentials are like sacred mystical gemstones — they are to be clutched to your chest at all times and guarded with your fucking life. Now, if you happen to be one of only two people that a small online media company has invested a significant portion of its operating budget into sending to such a convention — and especially if you’re the only person that can shoot and edit the videos that are the entire reason for your presence at said convention — well then, that media credential somehow becomes even more valuable. You lose it, and not just your own existence at the convention but your company’s entire operation … is toast!
Well, in the middle of day two or three of the 2008 DNC, amidst a packed schedule of events and interviews we were supposed to shoot, I had to take a doodoo.
So I went into a public restroom, clutching my media credential as I had been rigorously trained to do. And when I came out of the restroom … I was no longer clutching my media credential. Now look, is it possible that I took my media credential out of my pocket at some point to peruse the fine print on the back of it as the only pre-iPhone reading material on hand to help induce my bowels? To be honest, I really don’t recall! But the bottom line is that when I reunited with DK post-restroom, my media credential was gone. We probably blew a solid two hours frantically retracing our steps from the entire morning. But I knew full well in my heart (meaning my bowels) what I had done. At that point David and I had exactly two options: 1. pack our bags and fly home, or 2. ask our boss, the guy who had sent us there at no inconsiderable expense — Josh Marshall — to cash in a favor of truly incalculable proportions in order to secure for us an item that theretofore was not believed to exist: a replacement media credential.
Well, we chose option two. And when I received my replacement media credential, I was struck by two main thoughts: “Holy shit, I guess my boss has some serious fucking juice” and, “My God, I can never ask that man for another thing as long as I live.” So, thanks Josh! And also, sorry Josh!
It was around the 2008 presidential election that I also started producing a daily video series called “The Day in 100 Seconds.” By then we had been doing a lot of recording and posting of news clips off the multiple flatscreen TVs that were now very safely and securely affixed to our office wall. One day Josh said, “Why don’t we try doing like a recap of the day’s news using only TV footage? Keep it simple, just the 10 or so most newsworthy clips.” They started out simple enough like he asked, but I got kind of carried away the more I did them and before long our Day in 100 Seconds videos were turning out like this:
It felt a little bit like “Mystery Science Theater 3000” — I was trapped on the prisoner spacecraft Satellite of Love, forced to watch nothing but cable news all day, and this was my sole means of entertaining myself to keep from descending into full madness.
In what was probably some kind of accounting error, TPMtv was nominated in the “Best News or Politics Web Series” category at the First Annual “Streamy” Awards in 2009 (if you’re not familiar with the Streamys — can’t imagine you’re alone — they’re like the Webbys but only for web video). Josh was generous enough to fly me out to Los Angeles to attend the award show, a potential blunder on his part because unbeknownst to him, had TPMtv won the award, I had memorized and was fully planning to deliver verbatim Dirk Diggler’s adult film awards acceptance speech from Boogie Nights. (Trust me, it totally would’ve worked — Dirk never explicitly mentions pornography and it’s actually a very stirring and inspiring speech. I had even practiced the karate kick and the bows he does at the end.)
In an absolute travesty and miscarriage, TPMtv was robbed of the award, losing out to a series called “Alive in Baghdad,” which I’ve never dignified with a viewing myself but which certainly doesn’t sound as serious or as journalistically vital as a bunch of clips of cable news idiots yelling dumb shit at each other. (I’ve never been nominated for a Streamy since, proving the entire enterprise is a sham, most likely a multi-level marketing scheme. If you want a real award show check out the Golden Dukes.)
At some point, Josh and I decided that the Day in 100 Seconds was consuming a little too much of my time and energy (it’s possible he took issue with my habit of screaming and throwing the nearest office supply at any colleague that attempted to get my attention between the hours of 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.).
And through a bit of kismet that is to this day very hilarious to me, my final edit of The Day in 100 Seconds happened to fall on August 28, 2009, the same day as the public paying of respects for the late Senator Ted Kennedy. Of course, our viewers didn’t know at the time what I knew as I edited this one (definitely not through tears). Here it is, a fitting farewell to a great American institution (meaning The Day in 100 Seconds, not Kennedy):
I remained at TPM for a few months after that before deciding in January of 2010 that it was time to move on. I don’t remember exactly why the end came when it did, but the time felt right. And Josh probably felt like he needed someone who actually knew how to properly work a video camera, which I certainly did not begrudge him.
Looking back on my career some 15 years into it, if there’s one thing that I always think of that kind of molded me (and/or mutated me) into the video editor I am today, it’s making those Day in 100 Seconds videos. It was an absurd, Sisyphean daily task, but for some reason I took a weirdly calming zen pleasure in attempting to craft something out of pure excrement. And that’s the approach to making videos that I’ve taken ever since, and that I think shines through in most of what I would consider my best work.
So I’m forever grateful to Josh and TPM, first for giving me a great website to read in order to feel smart and informed, then for giving me an internship, then for giving me a job, and then for giving me the freedom to learn and experiment and have so much fun that it became a career.
I don’t know anyone else’s story as well as I know my own, but I get the sense that there are a lot like mine among the long list of TPM alums, which is one of the many things that makes TPM so special and unique. I’ve written like three times the word count that was suggested to me for this essay (very sorry), and there are so many more stories and awesome people I haven’t even mentioned. And of course, there are many more essays that can and have and will be written about TPM’s rare combination of not just journalistic but commercial/business innovation that has empowered it to endure, impossibly, in this current media environment … which I will leave for other people to write while I go check back in on eBaumsWorld.
I’m really proud and grateful to say that I played some small role in TPM’s first 20 years, and I wish Josh and the whole company a thriving and prosperous 20 years to come. And then also more good years after that.
Oh, one last thing I should thank Josh for: I was in between apartment leases for about two weeks in the summer of 2007 and Josh let me, um, live at the TPM office. Y’know, just until I could move into my new apartment. I mean, whatever, the place had a shower. And a pretty comfortable couch to sleep on. So. Not sure if that’s the kind of thing I should be admitting on the internet but anyway, yeah. Thank you Josh!