Most of the Murkowski posts were written by Laura McGann, a young TPM Muckraker reporter who was hired in May, having previously covered bankruptcy courts for the Dow Jones wire service. (McGann says that she had never heard of Talking Points before reading an article about Marshall in the Los Angeles Times in March.) McGann’s initial salvo contained its share of online bells and whistles—photos of the property that were e-mailed by a reader, a link to the Senate ethics manual—but her coverage was also notably sober. McGann quoted denials of wrongdoing from both Murkowski’s spokesperson and from Penney, and she even ended the post, in classic wire-service fashion, with a nonpartisan sound bite from the much-quoted Norman Ornstein. It was not the crude hit-and-run that skeptics of political blogs sometimes say they fear.
Three days later, the Anchorage Daily News picked up the story, with a front-page article that credited “the national political Web log tpmmuckraker.com” in its second paragraph. The Daily News nailed down Murkowski’s purchase price ($179,400), which McGann had been unable to do. (Real-estate transaction prices are not public records in Alaska.) In the same edition, the Daily News published an editorial denouncing the sale (“a disappointing turn of events for a senator who had until this point served Alaska well”).
From this point forward, the coverage on TPM was mostly a matter of linking to and commenting on coverage from the Daily News and other outlets. McGann continued to do a bit of original reporting—for example, she called a county assessor’s office to vet Penney’s claim that he hadn’t seen the property’s most recent assessment, and she unearthed an audio clip of Penney testifying at a state hearing—but most of her effort went into aggregation. Her posts were centered around links to the Daily News’s coverage, and her tone became more conversational. She offered pieces of context, including a catalogue of other members of Congress who’ve recently landed in trouble over real-estate deals.
Still more casual was Marshall’s own commentary at the Talking Points Memo blog. He sarcastically reviewed Murkowski and Penney’s explanations for the sale: “Imagine that, a politically-wired Alaska moneyman wants the state’s junior senator to live next door to him. Who can question that?” He also sketched—in his most conversational, just-between-friends voice—“a series of very weird little details about Murkowski’s disclosure reports” that McGann had encountered during her reporting. “From an editor’s perspective, it was a bit hard to know how to treat this,” he wrote. “You don’t want to go too far out on a thin reed dealing with what could be mere errors in filling out the form.” (Ten days after McGann’s initial report, Murkowski announced that she would sell the land back to Penney.)
This odd admixture of reporter, columnist, tipster, and ombudsman—often wrapped into the same post—is central to TPM’s identity. Marshall values original reporting, but chasing scoops is not his only priority. Even if he and his colleagues decided to abandon original reporting entirely, TPM would probably still retain almost all of its audience. Marshall believes his role is to bring his readers the best journalistic efforts on a particular topic, even when those efforts have appeared in other publications.
There is occasional muttering that TPM fails to fully credit the newspapers whose reporting it aggregates. But Dean Calbreath, a reporter at The San Diego Union-Tribune, says that Marshall has “always been meticulous about crediting” his newspaper’s work. Calbreath and his colleagues have worked for two years on the interlocking scandals involving the now-jailed U.S. Representative Randy “Duke” Cunningham and his defense-contractor friends. TPM has often commented on the Union-Tribune’s coverage of those stories, and Calbreath says that TPM’s posts, even when they don’t appear to break news, still push the story forward. The site “provides reporters with sources that might not be at the top of our radar screen,” he says. “Being based in San Diego, I’m not a big reader of The Hill, for instance. But by reading TPM, I can have easy access to [The Hill’s] pertinent articles. The commentary at TPM, meanwhile, poses important questions that we might not have thought of on our own.”
Rood, of ABC News, says that he sometimes found TPM’s aggregation itch personally frustrating when he was on staff. TPM’s readership peaks in the late morning and midday—exactly when he felt a reporter should be on the phone with sources. But because of the readership pattern, it is during those hours that TPM reporters feel compelled to write new posts. “That’s not a complaint,” Rood says. “It’s just something that we had to work through. We were inventing this as we went along.”