The Historian as Activist: Josh Marshall, Founder of TalkingPointsMemo.com

tags: Josh Marshall

Erik Moshe is a freelance writer based in Northern Virginia and an HNN Features Intern.

Sure, Joshua Micah Marshall loves history. He spent years studying 17th century New England, but he loves running his political journalism website much, much more. Here’s why. Marshall posted on his blog in 2001, “When I turned aside the academic life for this writing racket I think I had visions of Edmund Wilson and Walter Lippmann.”

Marshall could have been teaching American history, publishing papers, striving for a tenured appointment at a prestigious educational institution. Instead, Marshall decided to change the direction of his career—he became a professional journalist, the founder of digital native news company TalkingPointsMemo.com, one of the most influential liberal political websites out there, where he’s been blogging since November, 2000.

Marshall was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1969 to parents who were well established in academic life. “My father was a graduate student at the time. He was getting a Ph.D.,” Marshall told C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb in a January, 2012 interview. His mother also worked as an administrative assistant at the same school, Washington University in St. Louis. Marshall got a scholarship to a private boarding school in Claremont, California, called The Webb School, which he described as “a very important place” because of the individual attention he was given and the scholarship opportunities he was granted to attend. “I was very interested in history and politics. Not sort of the politics that I now write about, but political history.”

While finishing up his PhD in early American History at Brown University, Marshall was a freelance writer for the liberal magazine the American Prospect and soon got hired as an associate editor, eventually becoming their Washington editor during that three-year period. A New York Times magazine article from 2004 by Matthew Klam provides insight into how Marshall’s post-doctoral game plan evolved to where he could support himself as a full-time writer with the editorial freedom to write what he desired. “Coming out of school, he had a love for history and a handle on American policy issues,” wrote Klam, “and he figured the rest would be simple, job-wise, if only somebody would let him write. Marshall spent three years after his Ph.D. program working as an editor at The American Prospect, the liberal policy journal, and I got the feeling – not so much from him, because he didn't want to talk about it, but from former colleagues – that by the time he quit, he had decided that it would be better to starve than to work for someone else. So for a while he starved.”

In July, 2001, around the time of the birth of the TPM website, an excerpt from Marshall’s blog serves as an example of the moxie a PhD student has to possess and the financial struggles they have to endure to accomplish their dream in an entirely different beast of a profession (a beast of famine, perhaps?):

You might look at this blizzard of words (running the gamut from polemic, to commentary, to investigative reporting) and say to yourself: This is the sign of a fabulously prolific up-and-coming young writer with acute insights on contemporary politics! Actually, the real lesson to be drawn is a touch different. And that would be? That supporting yourself as a freelance writer is *#$%&@ hell on wheels!!!

Brown University’s Alumni Magazine detailed how “Marshall switched from studying colonial history to helping write the history of the early twenty-first century.” This transition, Marshall informed the Los Angeles Times in an article profile, was one that “just seemed natural.” Marshall said he liked the informality of the writing; the freedom of it appealed to him. The Columbia Journalism Review interviewed his senior thesis supervisor at Princeton, professor of history Daniel Rodgers in 2007. Rodgers disclosed that Marshall “figured out how a historical argument works, and he figured out what sources he would need. That’s not at all inevitable. Not every college senior who is excited about history makes that leap into effectively working with sources. If you like, there’s the thread between his college work and what he’s doing now—the interest in investigative reporting.”

In 2002, Marshall’s presence in the sphere of political influence on the internet became more pronounced after Marshall attracted national attention to various political scandals that had found their way onto his investigative radar. First, he used his Talking Points Memo blog to cover former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott's controversial comments praising Strom Thurmond's 1948 presidential run as a segregationist, leading to the downfall of Lott’s political career. In 2007, TPM also investigated nine U.S. attorneys being fired by the Bush administration, which lead to an important George Polk Award for excellence in print and broadcast journalism.

This kind of pattern has been repeating itself since the site’s inception. If things appear to be sketchy or seem suspicious, TPM’s staff reporters and Mr. Marshall himself get to work investigating leads. They’re also joined by their supportive audience members who contribute en masse to getting to the bottom of stories-in-progress. “We were able to see patterns that others couldn’t because we were using our readers,” Marshall told C-SPAN. The About section of his blog identifies TPM as “widely recognized as the pioneer of iterative journalism, which draws on readers’ knowledge to break stories.”

The late American historian Ralph E. Luker founded the group blog Cliopatria on History News Network and ran it for over eight years before closing it down back in 2012. In a 2005 article, “Were There Blog Enough and Time,” Mr. Luker wrote, “when I first became a blogging historian, history bloggers were vaguely aware of each other. A few of us, like historian/journalists Eric Alterman and Josh Marshall had a substantial audience. As our numbers grew and we slowly found each other, the virtual seminar of mutual teaching and learning built a sense of community.”

Blogging was new but history wasn’t, and Marshall was going to find a way to merge the two and make a living from it. “A compelling blog performance requires thinking about tone and style, beginning with the design you choose for your page, the name you adopt, the illustrations you use, and the topics you write about,” wrote Claire Bond Potter, a professor of history at The New School, in an article for The American Historian, “Becoming Tenured Radical: A Historian in the Blogosphere.” Potter was the long-time curator of the Tenured Radical blog before retiring it after 1,116 blog posts. At this point in time, Josh Marshall’s Editor’s Blog on TPM must be over triple that amount, and it continues to grow by the day, as does his following on social media, which stands at over 200k.

When I asked Claire Potter in an email if she could give her thoughts about Marshall’s transition from dreams of being a professor to a dynamite career in political journalism, she replied:

Being a well-informed journalist, or independent scholar writing for a general audience, is another way to teach and promote the importance of historical thinking, one that is not confined to a particular place, time of life, or ability to pay. I think it's great. If I had gone to graduate school ten years later, I might have been tempted to do the same thing. ​I actually think the capacity to have influence through blogging is historically contingent. When TPM debuted during the Gore-Bush recount, it was a moment where bloggers were becoming a new and unique alternative to the MSM, and they went on to change journalism and change political history through dogged, in-depth reporting that news organizations could no longer afford to do. I was in the second wave of blogging, and maybe the first wave of academic blogging, when cheap platforms made it possible for anyone to try it if they could create a compelling platform and write in a voice that attracted attention.

Now blogging and other kinds of online writing have merged somewhat: there are distinctions, but bloggers neither have a unique role as independent journalists, nor is blogging necessarily understood separate from one's other writing or as distinct from the academic endeavor. In fact, to be read widely as a blogger usually means trying to wangle your way onto an established platform -- my main audience is now at Public Seminar, where I am executive editor, although I still sometimes write blog posts on my own website. Occasionally I write for other blogs (I just joined one at the Washington Post), but I would never try to do it on my own now -- it's too competitive a world, in part because of people as successful as Josh.

In a 2014 editorial blog post on TPM Marshall candidly explained why he left the academic life, becoming in the process a “lapsed historian.” His complaint amounted to this: “I was supposed to be a history professor. And a good bit of my decision to leave grew out of my growing sense of the deeply conventional, channeled nature of the profession, one in which I found paradoxically little outlet for creativity or novelty.”

On Twitter he recently posted, “Huh, there's a thing called #twitterstorians,” letting on that he was previously unaware of the popular history-lover’s hashtag, but there’s more to this lighthearted query if you chart his transition from PhD to liberal activist. Marshall attributes a significant portion of his decision to leave academia to his “growing sense of the deeply conventional, channeled nature of the profession, one in which I found paradoxically little outlet for creativity or novelty.” He also felt that his area of specialty – English settlers in New England in the mid-17th century – wasn’t relevant or useful for answering questions from the public. If he was going to do political commentary on current events in the future, this type of expertise wasn’t going to hold up. Things were going well for the young Marshall, but he was soon struck by something he described as an “anti-epiphany”:

It’s difficult for me to convey the degree of personal crisis this triggered about my future since I had been planning on this path for going on a decade. I simply hadn’t considered anything else. The trigger, I think, was paradoxically that I was doing quite well. As long as you’re trying to climb some new rung or fighting to prove yourself, it’s pretty easy not to step back and question the whole premise of what you’re doing. Of course, I’d only survived my first year or two of grad school and had the lucky break to get an article published. But I felt like I was doing about as well as I could at that point, enough to let me think about how what I was doing would unfold into the future. And when I looked I just felt, as I said, ‘this isn’t enough.’

Marshall realized that he “wanted to write about the great issues of the day, about politics and the culture at large.” I also asked Claire Potter if she thought more historians should start blogging in general. “I think the simple answer is yes,” she said. “I am a firm believer that at this moment we need history more than ever. But I also think historians should do it because it makes them better, and less fearful, writers.”

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