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So What Do You Do, Ana Marie Cox?
The cheeky gal behind a cheeky site: The editor of Wonkette.com casts her gawking eye on the ridiculousness that is Washington, D.C.- March 30, 2004
So what if Wonkette.com actually launched a little more than two months ago? Saturday night, a throng of Washingtonians (and those who love them) converged at a belated launch party a few blocks from Dupont Circle to celebrate the politics-and-gossip blog that's trying to do for the nation's capital what Gawker.com has done for New York City.
The party was hosted by CNN's Peter Bergen and The Washington Monthly's Nick Confessore. It drew noted journos like Newsweek's Michael Isikoff, Monthly editor-in-chief and former Clinton speechwriter Paul Glastris, and, all the way from Santa Monica, Slate's Mickey Kaus. Even the whole Gawker Media family turned out: Founding moneybags Nick Denton was in town for the night, as was Gawker.com editor Choire Sicha, resplendent amid the sea of blue blazers in his brown-on-tan suit and rakishly mussed necktie.
But the star of the night was Wonkette herself, Ana Marie Cox, the 31-year-old bundle of sarcastic insight who, as she puts it, had been "fired or asked to leave from almost every legitimate publication in Washington" before Denton plucked her from the blogging wilderness to run the site. An alumna of—where to begin?—Mother Jones, Suck, Inside, and The American Prospect, to name a few, Cox now works from a cozy office in the Arlington home she shares with her husband, Chris Lehmann, an editor at The Washington Post Book World, and a rambunctious dog and two cats. From there, her sarcasm, intelligence, and talent for deconstructing the ridiculous is well deployed to mock—with equal relish—Democrats, Republicans, and, of course, Tina Brown. Or, as Cox describes herself on the site, "Wonkette provides an appropriately arch and irrepressibly giddy guide to the American political landscape and the Washington metro area social scene (such as it is)."
Cox recently took a few moments away from the arch giddiness to relax in her office with mediabistro.com and talk about her career in journalism, her wicked sense of humor, and her presidential dream team for 2004.
Birthdate: September 23, 1972
Hometown: Lincoln, Nebraska
First section of the Sunday Times: "I reflexively reach for Sunday Styles, and then I remember that Rick Marin no longer writes for them. So I put my head down on the table and sob convulsively."
You're posting news roundups starting pretty early in the morning each day, which must make for a miserable schedule. How does it come together?
I get up around 7 a.m. and put on my robe and my slippers, then I come in here and start working. I also freelance, so I've never been this busy. I realize the secret to working at home, and liking it, is to be busy. When I was a freelancer dependent on editors getting back to me, I remember just being miserable. You end up checking your email all the time, and then you just don't want to work. The nice thing about what I'm doing now is that it doesn't have any of the kind of baggage of writers block. There's no way to get "blogger's block." I cannot afford it; I have to write a lot. A lot. I'm required to post 12 entries a day, more or less.
Do you read all those papers each morning? How do you gather all your information?
My intern is a much earlier riser than me. He does the straight news roundup in the morning and it's the first thing I post, and that gives me a really good idea of what happened that day. I read, or at least scan, all the stories he sends, so it's like having my own clipping service. I would die without him. I have no idea how he does it. He's 18 and does The Press Gaggle, too, and he's brilliant. A woman who does Swamp City and works at the National Review also helps me out with the gossip roundup.
So how did Wonkette come about?
It was all Nick Denton. I had a website, and when he was looking for good politics blogs, he probably asked around and stumbled onto my personal blog, TheAnticMuse.com. There's not lot of competition when it comes to finding humor about politics on the Internet—it doesn't have to be that funny. So I think Denton asked around, and he liked the style and voice I have, and I got an email from him asking if I'd like to get paid to blog. I said yeah. Actually, a lot of this took place over instant messaging. He probably would've given me the job over instant messaging, but I demanded to talk over the phone. I don't think I could accept a job without actually talking. In late November, I went to New York and signed a contract, and in December we had a name figured out: Wonkette.
Then I started actually doing Wonkette in December, but it was not live. It was behind a password, so the only people reading it were my husband, my boss, and maybe a half dozen people. That was sort of so I was able to develop a style and a feel for what things would be good to write about. And, also, it took forever to finalize our illustration. We went around and around. Ultimately, the picture looks like an 18-year-old library scientist who is probably the type of woman that our clientele thinks is hot. I get a disturbing amount of "are you as cute as that picture?" emails. I always to say, "I'll pretend to be if that makes it funnier." If it's funnier, it's good.
You wrote a funny photo caption about John Kerry and John Edwards being so close to each other that there should be a constitutional ban against them. Do you have a favorite funny line from Wonkette?
That one was a funny sentence, and I thought of it all myself. I specialize in stating the obvious. I'm afraid I will jinx myself if I say my funniest line. I have what a call my "funnydar." This job has screwed with my funnydar. I used to have a pretty good feeling of confidence when I was being funny, but now I don't know. Now it all has to be funny, and I just can't tell as well as I used to. My funnydar used to be more finely calibrated. And don't ask me who I want to be Kerry's running mate.
Well, now I can't resist. Who do you want to be Kerry's running mate—at least from a blogging viewpoint?
Oh, for blog purposes, Hillary would be great. Hillary would be fantastic for humor purposes only. Leaving politics out of it, it would be great. Kerry/Clinton 2004. It's great.
Do you get lots of tips from your readers? Who are your best sources—do tips come from people working on Capitol Hill or fellow journalists? Do you receive any hate mail?
I get lots and lots of tips. Very few people send me tips by email because if people are working on the Hill, they're certainly not using their .gov accounts. I get tips from journalists and staffers and people who see interesting things in the world. I've been lucky and gotten very few emails from insane people. I must be doing something wrong because I don't get a lot of angry emails. But the angry emails always come from the most surprising things. I'll think something is going to piss someone off, but it doesn't. Yet I got letters when I made an offhand remark about Princeton. I got like half a dozen emails from people who said, "Are you just jealous of Princeton?" I make fun of Harvard, and no one from Harvard writes. Whenever I'm concerned about a joke, I ask my friends. They seem to be enjoying it.
So who do you run things by?
My husband, friends; that's about it. People with a sense of humor and an IM account, because I can't wait for email. I don't take the site too seriously. In that sense, it could work against me because I make jokes that people could get offended by, but I still do it.
Are your jokes ever censored? The world of political humor is rather conservative. Is there anything or anyone off limits to you?
Denton lets me write anything. The only thing he objects to is the number of sex jokes. Or, rather, not the jokes so much, as the terminology. He would like me to make fewer jokes about sex and more stories about people having sex with each other. I'm not going to say what they pay me exactly, but they don't pay me enough to pound the pavement for that. I don't always print everything I know. I don't want to be a test case.
Is there anyone you wouldn't make fun of?
I can't think of anyone. There are things I wouldn't make fun of, though. I hate the obvious kind of humor, like making fun of Janet Reno because she looks like a man. Making fun of Janet Reno because she seems kind of clueless, now that's funny. I have a personal goal that I try to prohibit dumb President Bush jokes, though it's just so hard. In general, I try not to do jokes that other people are doing that are really, really obvious. But then again, I also do really obvious jokes.
Do you have to be careful not to lean one way or the other politically with your humor?
I think what I have to be careful of is that I don't let an opportunity to make fun of anyone go by. It's less about making sure I have three Bush jokes for three Kerry jokes. But if anyone does something amusing, they're going in. It just turned out that when the site first launched the Democrats were doing things that were especially silly, so I developed this intense conservative following and then when things changed the conservatives were not as happy. I started getting emails from people who had started reading me when I was making fun of the Democrats more and they wrote, "You used to be funny and now you're not."
So is this something you imagined you'd be doing, being a politics/humor/blogger person?
I still do some traditional journalism. I write book reviews, so I do get to indulge in that desire. But, no, I continue to be skeptical of the blog-olution. I feel very, very lucky and grateful to be part of this now. I finally have a position where all the things that got me fired and got me in trouble in previous jobs are valued. I'm a bad employee. My humor definitely got me in trouble in interpersonal interactions with coworkers. I was once told in a meeting to be careful about rolling my eyes. I think that newsrooms in Washington can be more conservative, not in the political sense, but in decorum. But there's more to me than just having a bad attitude.
Do you see yourself as Wonkette for a while?
I'll definitely stay through the election, and then I'll see. It's really, really fun, but I think it would be nice to write things that are longer than 12 characters long. I'm able do that, by the way. I worked at The American Prospect, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Mother Jones. I wrote whole articles with many sentences and no sex jokes. But I was ready to give up journalism right before Denton called me. I didn't know what I was going to do, but I was very disillusioned. I was thinking I would go back to school and I would do something that wasn't journalism. My relationship to journalism is like that of an abused spouse—and it may still be, but I'm one in recovery now. I still do basically consider myself a journalist. I try to hold myself to some standard of journalism.
Melissa P. McNamara is a freelance writer living in New York.
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