ARLINGTON, Va. — Welcome to the white-hot center of Washington's most salacious gossip. Never mind that it's a blue-trimmed house with a shaggy lawn plopped squarely in suburbia -- Wonkette lives here, armed with a PowerBook and a wicked tongue.
For the uninitiated, Wonkette.com is the fearless political gossip blog generating buzz inside the Beltway and beyond, and Ana Marie Cox is the wit behind it.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 05, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Wonkette.com -- An article in Wednesday's Calendar section about a political Web log, Wonkette.com, misspelled the last name of Henry Seltzer, the intern who works on the site, as Selzter.
Working from the snug periwinkle guest bedroom of the Arlington home that she shares with her husband, journalist Chris Lehmann, Cox is not exactly a reporter and not quite a stand-up comedian. Instead, the 31-year-old redhead is working the Jonathan Swift of the Information Age angle, a social satirist on instant messenger.
She posts a dozen times a day, deflating the egos peopling the nation's capital with an unexpurgated commentary ranging from the size of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John F. Kerry's, um, constituency to the latest "low-rent sex scandal" to assail Washington.
That would be the salacious online sex diary kept by former Senate staffer Jessica Cutler detailing her exploits -- sometimes for cash gifts -- with the unnamed powerful and semi-powerful on the Hill. Not only did Cox link to Cutler's R-rated site (which eventually contributed to Cutler's firing), but she met her to drink and dish, matching the self-described Washingtonienne's Southern Comfort glass for glass with white wine.
"People here are so dowdy and self-important," Cox said of the Beltway crowd. "It is the center of the free world, but still, why do you take yourself so seriously?"
Cox certainly doesn't. Which is why complaints that her site favors spice over journalistic propriety don't faze her.
"I don't feel like I have the same accountability and responsibility as a practicing journalist," said Cox, padding around the house in fuchsia bedroom slippers. "I write so much satire, to make it conform to AP style would be a nightmare."
Cox gathers her news from other reporters, reading the Washington Post and the New York Times in the mornings along with a news summary from her intern, Henry Selzter. Dodging her cats, Moby and Alexander, and bouncing dog Hank, she also scans the chatter on more serious political blogs.
What she does is "not reporting, and it's not necessarily coming up with new information; it's sort of putting a spin, a very funny spin, on what's out there," said Nick Confessore, an editor of the Washington Monthly and a friend of Cox. "The best way to look at it is not as journalism that edges too close to bad journalism but as parody that frequently edges close to stuff that actually happened."
For Cox, cranking out the comedy is anything but solitary. She runs most gags by her "joke jury" before posting -- six or seven trusted friends to whom she'll instant-message one-liners for feedback.
"If I'm having a bad day, my funnydar can be off," she explains.
Scurrilous but essential
But to many who follow the gossip-blog universe, Cox's bipartisan skewerings have so far been spot on.
"She's sarcastic, she's sharp, she's dismissive, she's funny, she's profane, and you know there's a certain entertainment value to that," said Lloyd Grove, gossip columnist at the New York Daily News, formerly of the Washington Post's Reliable Source column.
Wonkette.com, which launched this January, provided something that many felt was sorely lacking in town -- a bona fide scandal sheet. "I think she's a great gift to Washington because she traffics in the kind of scurrilous yet necessary rumormongering that the capital desperately needs, and she does it well," said Richard Leiby, who writes the more staid -- and more thoroughly fact-checked -- Reliable Source.
That's what inspired Internet entrepreneur Nick Denton to conjure up Wonkette in the first place. "D.C., inexplicably for a place so powerful, didn't have anything with any kind of edge," Denton said.
The British blog magnate, also responsible for the gadget-savvy site Gizmodo, the New York media and celebrity rag Gawker and porn site Fleshbot, saw an opening in Washington and pounced. His newest Web address, Defamer.com, which launched last month, gives Hollywood a scathing once-over.
Denton brings British (read: sensational) journalistic sensibilities to the blogs he backs.
"American daily news is provided largely by monopolies; many of them are either lazy monopolies or otherwise pompous monopolies," Denton said. "The objective seems often to be winning Pulitzer Prizes rather than the amusement of the audience." Denton's sites are created in the British newspaper tradition, which is enlivened by furious competition and a no-holds-barred approach to everything from royalty to national leaders.
"What weblogs do is to relay and amplify the conversation.... Anything that is a topic of conversation in power circles in New York or D.C. is the proper subject of our blog," Denton said.