Phrases like “inventing as we went along” come up often in conversations about Marshall. “Josh has been through so many self-made phases that no one could have predicted,” says Daniel Rodgers, a professor of history who supervised Marshall’s senior thesis at Princeton. Marshall arrived there in 1987 from southern California, where his father taught marine biology. (Marshall’s mother died in a car accident near their California home in 1981.)
In crafting his thesis, which concerned the nullification debate in Virginia in the early nineteenth century, Marshall “figured out how a historical argument works, and he figured out what sources he would need,” Rodgers says. “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.”
Next came graduate school in history at Brown, but Marshall decided within a few years that university life felt too cloistered and that he would rather write for magazines. (He finally did finish his dissertation in 2003, long after abandoning any thought of an academic career.) In the mid-1990s, he supported himself in part by designing Web sites for law firms; to promote that business, he published an online newsletter about Internet law, which featured interviews with scholars like Larry Lessig. In 1997 and 1998, he spun off articles on Internet free speech for the now-defunct online publication Feed and for The American Prospect, which was then based in Boston. Shortly thereafter, he was hired as an associate editor at the Prospect.
Marshall soon grew to regret that connection. He and the magazine’s top editors, Robert Kuttner and Paul Starr, found themselves in a long and tormented series of ideological quarrels—ones “that would make very little sense to anyone outside the world of The American Prospect,” Marshall says. “In my own way, I really liked Clinton and Gore, and [Kuttner] didn’t like either of them.” On questions ranging from trade policy to Monica Lewinsky, Marshall was a few notches more sympathetic to the White House than were his left-liberal bosses. He also fought unsuccessfully for the magazine to be more clever with its Web site. “A lot of things that we do here now involve aggregation and editorial sifting,” he says. “I remember that from very early in my time at the Prospect, I argued that the way to get a lot of traffic was to provide that service.”
In 1999, Bill Moyers and what was then known as The Florence and John Schumann Foundation made a $5.5 million donation that allowed the Prospect to expand; as part of that process, Marshall moved south and became the magazine’s Washington editor. But distance did not improve his relationship with his bosses. By mid-2000, he knew that he would soon leave.
Scott Stossel, a former colleague at the Prospect who is now the managing editor of the Atlantic, recalls Marshall as having a rich knowledge of political history and a gift for framing stories. When younger reporters were hatching new articles, Stossel says, they would turn to Marshall for advice on whom to interview and what to read. But Marshall didn’t necessarily seem like someone who would be successful in a corporate environment; he sometimes had trouble with deadlines, working long but irregular hours in clothing that was rumpled even by the creaseless sartorial standards of the left-of-center press.
In November 2000, five months before he finally quit the Prospect, Marshall started writing Talking Points Memo, in rough imitation of the early political blogs written by Mickey Kaus and Andrew Sullivan, whose loose-limbed style he admired. “I really liked what seemed to me to be the freedom of expression of this genre of writing,” Marshall says. “And, obviously, given the issues that I had with the Prospect, that appealed to me a lot.”
Marshall had already struck up a friendly acquaintance with the contrarian Kaus, and Kaus added Talking Points Memo to his blogroll. “It was probably that link that took me from, say, two readers to a hundred readers,” Marshall says. “After that point, it sort of grew organically.”
The early weeks of Marshall’s blog were, inevitably, devoted to the Florida election imbroglio. His voice was sometimes precious (he thankfully soon abandoned the habit of referring to himself as “Talking Points”), but there was no mistaking the blog for a stodgy liberal policy magazine. (“Did Chris Lehane really call Katherine Harris ‘Commissar Harris’? Chris, I’m on your side, man, trust me. But that kind of talk really doesn’t help matters.”) On the blog’s third day, sounding a theme that would be echoed in tens of thousands of left-wing blog entries to come, he denounced a “supercilious, plague-on-both-houses” Washington Post editorial about the election aftermath.