Saturday, January 05, 2008

5th Blogiversary: Some thoughts

-- by Dave

So it was five years ago Thursday that I published my first post at Orcinus (a twofer on Matt Hale, who was just about to implode before our eyes, and Chris Simcox, who had just arrived on the scene). It's been a wild, entertaining and (for me at least) alternately inspiring and exhausting ride since.

I'm grateful, really, to a lot of people: the thousands of readers (we've had over 5 million visits) who've come along, and especially those who've taken the time to comment and e-mail; and the countless bloggers who've found the work Sara and I have undertaken here worthy of pointing out and discussing. I'd start naming them here, but it's a long, long list.

Suffice to say that some people have played truly key roles in making this blog what it is, both in the beginning and today: Atrios (who truly is the blogfather of Orcinus); Digby and the gang at Hullabaloo, who continue to read and link what we do, which is the highest compliment imaginable; Jane Hamsher at Firedoglake, who has been kind enough to provide me with a weekly slot at her superblog; and Rick Perlstein at The Big Con, who's done likewise, again among the highest compliments I can imagine.

Whenever I hit benchmarks like this, though, I try to stand back and assess things: see what we've done, try to figure out where we're going. It's all a big experiment, and I'm just kind of groping along, really -- going by feel, as it were.

Sometimes it's easy to forget why we do what we do. I remember when I started, and in a lot of ways this was just a project borne out of being a stay-at-home dad; I needed a writing outlet that I could make work around my short spurts of available time, and blogging fit perfectly. So much of those first couple years' worth of posts were written during my daughter's naps and in the evenings, even late into the night.

That's sort of the practical making-it-work-in-the-life-you-have aspect of blogging, but I had other reasons, of course. One of them, as I've explained previously, was my disgust and dismay with the direction of the craft of journalism as it became a mega-business. After enduring the Clinton impeachment debacle and its aftermath at, I was interested in finding a way to publish reporting that mainstream editors either wouldn't touch or were too busy chasing (and manufacturing) Al Gore's gaffes to be interested in, particularly in my areas of expertise -- the far right and its manifestations in mainstream America.

How I fell into that particular line of work to begin with is a story worth telling, because it may help readers understand why and how Orcinus operates.

I'd had numerous journalistic encounters with the racist right over the years I spent in newspapers (1977-96), but it was always a sporadic thing, usually coming in stints as a cops-and-courts reporter or general news reporter and editor. When I first started writing about militias in the 199os, it was actually from the perspective of an environmental reporter covering the right-wing backlash against conservation efforts.

I'd been exposed to the far-right scene often enough to understand that they constituted both a systemic and a long-term problem, but the idea of covering it as a consistent journalistic beat had never been broached at any of the papers where I worked, mainly because their resources were always too stretched to be able to make the assignment. For awhile, one of our reporters at the Missoulian was being consistently assigned to handle these stories, but he asked to be taken off the beat after awhile, mainly because he and his wife began having children.

When I began writing about militias regularly in the mid-'90s as a freelancer, I wound up spending a lot of time with the civil-rights activists in the Northwest who monitored them. Many of them are impressive people, deeply thoughtful and deeply dedicated. These included folks like Chip Berlet, Leonard Zeskind, Eric Ward and Devin Burghart. But the one who most influenced me was a former priest named Bill Wassmuth.

"Father Bill," as he was affectionately known, had experienced the violent side of the far right up close and personally: in 1986, a group of thugs from the Aryan Nations -- whose activities Wassmuth had organized a local coalition of church, business and civic leaders to combat -- pipe-bombed his home near Coeur d'Alene, and he narrowly escaped injury or death. He went on to found the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment, which much later on became the Northwest Coalition for Human Dignity. It was in his capacity as the head of those organizations that I got to know him.

At first, most of them were leery about any journalist in their midst, and after awhile, I figured out why. Wassmuth, as well as the others, often noted that there were very few journalists who devoted their work to covering the far right, which was a frequent source of grief for them. Most reporters who contacted them were practicing classic "parachute" journalism -- dropping in to breathlessly cover some disaster or major crime or sensational case, then moving on without spending the time required to dig deeper or connect the dots between the actors and organizations involved.

In the process, they often misunderstood motives, got facts wrong, and created false paradigms for their readers. The worst of these typically would report a quote from the Aryan Nations leaders, then report a counter-quote from Wassmuth, and then move along as if that "balanced" the story. As Wassmuth would point out, that's "balancing" the words of racists, proven liars, and known criminals against community leaders, law enforcement officials, and church leaders, suggesting that one said was merely "ultra-conservative" and the latter the equivalent "ultra-liberals" -- when in fact they represented very much the mainstream of local culture.

Somewhere along the way, hanging out with Bill Wassmuth, I decided to be a different kind of journalist when it came to dealing with the far right: to cover them consistently and thoroughly and thoughtfully. It was not, and is not, my favorite subject (see some of my posts on killer whales for that), nor even one I particularly enjoy doing. Certainly, there's some personal and even familial risk involved.

But it's important work that needs doing. The alternative is that a lot of bad information about the far right gets circulated without being corrected, and a lot of misperceptions about how it works naturally arise. Moreover, the gravest danger -- in which the far right's agenda is mainstreamed and empowered -- is more often than not completely overlooked.

Bill died in August 2002, and his death affected me deeply; I still miss his sage advice and keen insight. I was feeling increasingly frustrated in my efforts to find editors who would run the reportage I was assembling after I left in late 2000, particularly discussing the far right's permeation into the Republican Party during and after that year's election. Atrios gave me the idea to start publishing it at a blog, and so Orcinus was launched.

I know I was feeling close to burning out about a year and a half into it, and so I sort of set myself down and decided to focus on what the blog was doing that was actually providing readers with something of value. Again, I thought about Wassmuth's advice and his example, and concluded that reporting on the far right and its effects on mainstream culture was what needed to be this blog's mission. I've tossed in some environmental reporting along the way -- it's what, frankly, I'd probably rather be writing about -- but we all know why readers come here.

This has had some unfortunate side-effects; I think a lot of people, in trying to figure out what makes me tick, assume that I report on the far right because I'm obsessed with them or see them as the most important issue on the planet. More than a few commenters -- some of them even otherwise sympathetic -- have suggested I'm too one-dimensional and too obsessive.

The truth is that, of course, I fully understand that the far right's influence on the mainstream remains limited by a number of factors, the greatest of which is the basic decency of such a large segment of the populace. There are at times much more important issues than these people. But it's important that someone keep a spotlight shining on them and their activities -- important because it's a fundamental part of making the public aware and informed, which is the most important part of effectively combating them and their poisonous effects in our culture and our lives -- and I'm well-equipped to do the job.

I've thought about tossing in some of my other interests here as post material: besides environmental issues, I also like to write about sports and music (having also been a sportswriter and music critic at some of my various newspapering stops) as well as bicycling, of which I'm an ardent personal advocate. And maybe, in the coming weeks and months, I will indeed start doing some more of that. I suppose it might let people see that there's a difference between a beat and an obsession.

But I still think about Bill Wassmuth and why he did what he did. And as long as there are racists and far-right ideologues spreading hate on the airwaves, permeating the public discourse with vicious bile about the Other, I still have this important work to do, as he did. Maybe someday all I'll have to write about will be killer whales, the Seahawks, and the Burke-Gilman Trail. I'd like that. But until then, count on Orcinus to keep doing what it has done for five years running, and for the foreseeable future.

On that note ... I'm going to kick off my annual fund-raiser Sunday. I'll have a brief note about that tomorrow. But anyone who wants to help chip in to the work that we're doing here should feel free to click on the ol' PayPal button at the upper left.

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