There are many, both within Netroots and without, who would object to several of my descriptions and reductionisms, but essentially the movement’s more buttoned-down Klein/Yglesias/Drum wing began to gravitate to The Village—or at least toward its coterie of smallish-circulation magazines of political opinion. Yglesias was nicknamed “Big Media Matt” for getting signed to The American Prospect in 2003. Drum’s blog became the homepage of The Washington Monthly for four years beginning in 2004 (it’s now hosted by Mother Jones). And Klein took his initial plunge as an unpaid intern at The Washington Monthly in the summer of ’04.
(This is as good as place as any to note my numerous conflicts of interest: I edit a monthly, Reason, that competes with the aforementioned magazines; I was one of the first to praise Yglesias’s blog, and also recommended him to the Prospect; I was part of the “warblog” crowd that incensed the Netroots; I’ve tangled with many of these guys publicly, including Klein; and I once enjoyed a cocktail at Drum’s apartment. You can be a relatively minor cog in the wheel of Washington journalism, and be riddled with so many conflicts that the whole Village critique feels inadequate.)
In November 2004, months before Klein headed to DC for his first real journalism gig at The American Prospect, a Q&A with the website LAist.com showed he was starting to realize that his instinct for partisan activism was best served through practicing journalism. “I used to have political aspirations,” he told LAist. “But over time, I found that I enjoy writing far more. More to the point, I think that the creation of a media environment that can sustain and propel progressivism is more important than any single elected official. I’d trade a liberal O’Reilly (or Limbaugh!) for five, 10 congressmen. The media is as effective and important an agent for change as the legislative bodies, and I think it’s where I’m happiest and most effective.”
A wonk is born
There is on MSNBC this newish thing called “The Ezra Klein Challenge.” When Klein guest-hosts The Rachel Maddow Show, producers slap a two-minute timer on the screen and he races the clock to “explain complicated stuff, especially in the economy”—things like Spanish bond yields and why big US banks need to be broken up. Like much of what Klein does, it successfully navigates the terrain between glib and well-informed, whimsical and dead serious, know-it-all and let’s-learn-it-together. Unless you already have strong reason to doubt or dislike him—and few MSNBC viewers do—you leave the experience feeling smarter.
Reading Klein’s similarly expository Washington Post Wonkbook blog, it’s hard to imagine such tart political one-liners as, “He’s like a stupid person’s idea of what a thoughtful person sounds like,” which is how Klein described former House Majority Leader Dick Armey in the Prospect in June 2007. Klein laughs at the memory. “I sometimes feel like I was a better writer years ago than I am now, or certainly a funnier one,” he says. “I probably wouldn’t even write the Dick Armey line now. I try not to be a mean writer. I really do like explaining policy. It’s not a joke; it’s not a stance.”