BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. The most reported news out of Washington in the past week was the funeral of Ronald Reagan. The little news, the really little and insignificant and snarky and unreliable and delicious and often hilarious news was on Wonkette.com, a gossipy weblog that has become the talk -- the small talk, anyway -- of D.C. Wear a bad suit, write a foolish memo, lunch with the wrong lobbyist, and you may find yourself ruthlessly cut down to size, and if you are a Hill staffer, documenting your giddy life of semi-prostitution, Wonkette can make you and break you at the same time. ANA Marie Cox is Wonkette, and she joins me now. ANA Marie, welcome to On the Media.
ANA MARIE COX: Good to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: We've called what you do gossip, but it's really more than that, because there's a very large element of satire here. You make fun of people for a living, no?
ANA MARIE COX: Yes. Finally. You know, it's something that got me in trouble pretty much all my life up until the month that I started doing Wonkette, and now I'm paid to lob spitballs from the back of the class.
BOB GARFIELD: You seem to have a low threshold of contempt. [LAUGHTER] Are you really so unimpressed with your fellow residents of the world inside the Beltway, or are you just playing a role?
ANA MARIE COX: I've said that I have a - very much a hate-love relationship with D.C. You know, the people here are boring, and the weather is bad, and architecture is terrible, but you know what -- like, D.C. is like the Alex P. Keaton of cities. Up front and on the surface it's, like, incredibly boring and dry. But at home, like they have a comic book collection and, you know, horror movie masks and there's all this, like, weird crazy stuff happening sort of in the corners. [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
BOB GARFIELD: Just to clarify -- is this the Michael J. Fox character on that ABC--
ANA MARIE COX: On Family Ties.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, okay. I just wanted to make sure.
ANA MARIE COX: It's hard to explain, even. Like the city does have this twisted side to it. Like the way that people have really glommed on to Wonkette, and it really has taken off in a way that no one expected, it's that people almost wanted someone to hate them. You know.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, which brings me to Jessica Cutler. [LAUGHTER] Now, I think what put Wonkette on the map was its link to Jessica Cutler's weblog. Would you just please tell me about this episode and how you discovered her, and then what happened next.
ANA MARIE COX: Someone just sent me a link to her blog, which was called The Washingtonienne. It only had been a going concern for about a month maybe, maybe three weeks. And it was a very brightly written diary of her sex life -- her very graphic and somewhat risky sex life.
BOB GARFIELD: And occasionally remunerative--
ANA MARIE COX: Yes, occasionally -- after all this happened, she was always very careful to say, like it's not like people paid her for sex, but they were having sex and they were giving her money. Maybe it was just a coincidence. [LAUGHTER] But-- And so I actually linked to it, and, and-- I had assumed that anyone that would keep a public blog like this would do something to disguise their identity. She really didn't. [LAUGHS] She had shortened the names of her lovers to initials, but beyond that, it was really, really, really easy for people to figure out who she was. I posted the URL of her website some time before lunch. She came back from lunch, and she was fired.
BOB GARFIELD: She was a staffer for Senator Michael DeWine of Ohio--
ANA MARIE COX: Yes.
BOB GARFIELD: -- and he took a dim view of someone behaving that way and then writing about it. Did Wonkette destroy this young woman, or are you just giving her her first 15 minutes of fame or -- just want kind of responsibility do you feel for this?
ANA MARIE COX: I definitely feel some responsibility. I got her fired. You know. I mean it's a very basic equation there. However, she didn't seem too upset about it. She said that she didn't like her job anyway. She's going to have a, you know, spread in Playboy to show her kids, so-- not all of us have that.
BOB GARFIELD: God bless her. Now but what about the issue of the gossip columnist's responsibility in general -- you are mean for a living.
ANA MARIE COX: Mm-hm.
BOB GARFIELD: How mean can you be over what is fundamentally, generally, trivial matters and still sleep soundly at night?
ANA MARIE COX: Well, I, I've said to people that I don't mind ruining someone's day. I just don't want to ruin their life. So that's a good measure. You know, there are some very obvious things. Like I don't want to out anybody. I'm not interested in, in writing about affairs. Or marriages breaking up. Mainly because those things aren't very funny. That's the sort of a thing about Washington, is because these people aren't incredibly famous, there isn't the same kind of ability to gossip about them with complete impunity that we feel about super-famous people. And I'm kind of making this up as I go along, honestly. I think that blogging, as a form of journalism, or as a form of writing doesn't have a lot of rules yet, and it's clear that it doesn't need to try and, and hang, you know, the AP Libel Guide on a blog would be a mistake -- to try and, like, apply your standard journalistic kind of ethical code seems too constrictive for what blogs are. There has to be something that you figure out maybe just on a day to day basis.
BOB GARFIELD: So if something's delicious but probably not true -- do you run it?
ANA MARIE COX: That depends. Something came up, actually, this past week along those lines. I had been getting anonymous emails for weeks about Bill Bennett's dominatrix mistress. It would be nice if that were true, you know? It would be funny if that were true, but something about it -- it would be almost more plausible if he had been taken up by aliens. So, I didn't run any of these stories. However, there are bloggers who apparently thought it was interesting enough to run it, and I did take advantage of the fact that other people weren't as worried about lawsuits, and I linked to their coverage of this. But I did make it very clear when I linked to it that I thought this was a ridiculous story. And maybe that's kind of a sneaky way to get out of responsibility for running the story.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm like -- yeah. And when it gets passed on and attributed to Wonkette-- maybe without some of the qualifications that you attached to it, won't you actually bear some of the responsibility for perpetuating, you know, what is in all probability a specious rumor?
ANA MARIE COX: Well, if someone takes something--
BOB GARFIELD: Allow me to answer --: Yeah.
ANA MARIE COX: [LAUGHS] OK. Well, if somebody takes something out of context out of what I've written, I can't control that. The other option would be just to never link to or write about anything that I wasn't a hundred percent, you know, positive was true, and I, I don't think that that would be interesting or useful or necessary.