John Amato “CrooksandLiars.com” Blogger: Mr. Media Interview

It’s not just this generation. Politics has always been dirty, nasty, bare-knuckle affairs. In the American two-party system, one side always blames the other for whatever ails the country.

The new twist in the 21st Century is the emergence of political Web sites and political blogs in particular. Anyone with a point of view can get a free blog from blogger.com or wordpress.com and be online telling the world what they think about anything, anywhere in about ten minutes or less.

Some of these new voices are surprisingly thoughtful, literate, and inspiring. Some are just idiots with cyber-megaphones. Some are on the right, some are on the left, but there is no doubt that the best of them and some who are just louder than the others will wield unprecedented influence going into the 2008 Presidential primaries and election cycle.

One of the rising stars of the genre is John Amato, agent provocateur of the best-named blog of the bunch, CrooksandLiars.com.

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BOB ANDELMAN: John, thanks for joining us this week on Mr. Media.

JOHN AMATO, CROOKSandLIARS.com: My pleasure, Mr. Media.

ANDELMAN: John, you are a professional musician by trade. What prompts a man like yourself to go public with his politics?

AMATO: Well, you know, a couple of reasons. First of all, politics obviously influences everybody’s lives, and I think at some time in each of our lives, we have taken a look and seen who is running for President, even if we never bother with politics, and I was that type of person, which would sort of be on the periphery, you know, read what I can, and it was something that interested me. But being a professional musician, obviously, I practice for six hours a day and go on the road and travel and still keep abreast of things. But I got injured.

I was touring with Duran Duran, and a doctor crippled me. We won’t get into what he did, and I was unable to perform. I was home disabled, and that’s when I started to really follow the blogs because I was able to read, and I decided, you know, I want my voice to be heard, even if nobody reads it, because I felt that things in this country were in the wrong direction.

If for nothing else, I would be able to express myself, and that’s all I wanted to really do at that time.

ANDELMAN: Was there a particular incident, a political incident that set you off?

AMATO: Well, I would say initially there were two things. Obviously, the Iraq war was one that I felt was a dishonest war. I felt that it was something that we should have never done, so that got my blood boiling. And as a touring musician, this might be funny to some, but when people started to protest the Dixie Chicks — and when I heard that they were burning their records and kicking them off the radio — I was playing at the time. It caused me to pause and say, “Wait a second.” I mean, before, I grew up in the 1970s where protest and music were part of the culture. Music told The Man, you know, “Get out of here. We’re not taking it.” Music was the instrument. It sort of obviously changed society, and there was a big break in the 1960s and 1970s, so when I heard that people were attacking the Dixie Chicks just because they said something negative against President Bush, I really realized that there was something very wrong with the country.

ANDELMAN: Did you ever imagine a New York boy like you would be supporting a bunch of Southern chicks like them?

AMATO: I never did. I like Patsy Cline. I can’t tell you that I’ve been a big country fan, but some of the greats I enjoy, some of the old Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard, but it was just interesting. That story just stuck with me, obviously a musician playing, and I just could not understand. And I realized that there were people really organizing to do this, and this is America! We talk against power. It doesn’t matter if it’s a Democratic nominee in the White House, if it’s a Republican, we all question or at least say, “What is going on? Why are they doing this?” And to take us into a war by choice would seem that a lot of people might disagree on that, and for a country and a people just attack their music was to me insane.

ANDELMAN: Was this the first overt political act of your life?

AMATO: I would say yes as far as starting the blog. It’s funny. In the 2000 election, I was really following it. I saw some of the debates. I play sax and flute. I guess people think, you know, it looks pretty easy, but if you are a professional or you take it very seriously, your life is like anything, is wrapped into it. And I would play all day, all night, listen, compose, feel really wrapped up into that. I did follow the 2000 election, and that was another sign — when the Supreme Court voted George Bush into power. That was another instance that I said, something’s wrong with the country. State’s rights issue, I couldn’t understand what this really weird rule that the Republicans were putting forth, why they should stop the count. Even if you don’t dig into the weeds of the law like the lawyers do, I couldn’t understand why they just wouldn’t recount and get it over with. I mean, and that would have been that. But it was so political in my mind at that time that, again, it raises red flags. And you know, most average Americans, let’s face it, they are working hard. They have kids to feed, college books or high school books, pens, pencils, food, and how much time does a family making two salaries under $100,000 have to really be invested in what our politicians are doing? They have to pay their rent, so it was another eye-opener for me.

ANDELMAN: As a fairly regular reader of crooksandliars.com, I think, I mean, my sense is that you are a Democrat, but I don’t want to put words in your mouth. Is that a safe assumption?

AMATO: Yeah. You know, it’s funny, the power of the media is such that growing up as a child, you would watch on TV, and you didn’t even know about politics. I’m big into sports, so it was like, who looks cooler, or what team, so as I got older, I was a registered Independent because I didn’t really want to be tied down to one person or one party at the time. So it was only in 2000 when I looked at who should run the country after Clinton, should it be Gore or Bush, and I realized that, well, we have a man that has already been in the White House for eight years, the country has been very prosperous, and I guess the guy who basically failed at every business and was bailed out by his family and was just a governor in Texas, I just couldn’t see myself supporting George Bush in the 2000 election, and I just decided to register as a Democrat and vote for Gore and then root for Gore.

ANDELMAN: Interesting. How old are you, John?

AMATO: I just turned 49. But I look younger.

ANDELMAN: We’ve spoken on the phone the last couple of days, and we’ve had some emails back and forth, my sense is that the Web site is all-consuming.

AMATO: Yes, it’s safe to say. I don’t know if I’m a workaholic, but I do believe that if you are going to do something, you do it the best you can, and then whatever happens after that happens. And it turned out when I first started blogging, I didn’t even know how to use the software, right, because it’s all new. I had like a different name. I just put up something on blogspot, and I just started playing around with what would something look like if I even hit publish, because, again, this is all very new. How many years has it been out? How many years have people been actually publishing and posting and blogging? So it started out, I’m going to start doing this, and I went a little slow. I still didn’t even know how to use the software that well, but when I finally came up with the idea of how to put video and multi-media on the Web site, I had a feeling that that would be important, and so then I came up with the name CrooksandLiars.com. I was surprised to see that the domain name was available, and I bought it, and that’s when I started to put in a little more time. I was still hurt, so I couldn’t actively do it as much. I’d do it 15 minutes and go and rest for three hours. That’s the beauty of blogging: you can do it whenever you want, because you are your own boss. Now, a couple of years later, when does the news ever stop? You wake up — it used to be, what am I going to blog about today? Now when I wake up, it’s like, can I get everything in?

ANDELMAN: How many posts do you put up per day?

AMATO: On the average, I probably put anywhere between 12… I think I’ve had as many as 24 posts in one day.

ANDELMAN: Oh, my God. What was the turning point? I know you said that video was a big deal. Was there one particular post that made you realize that this was really reaching a lot of people and having an impact?

AMATO: There were a couple of turning points, but I just realized right off the bat that this would be important. I didn’t know if anybody would come to my blog. I didn’t know what would happen, because anybody — and please, everybody listening, start a blog, it’s a lot of fun. But nobody goes into it thinking that you are going to be read, but I just thought that it was much more powerful, because I was reading a lot of blogs, and people were quoting politicians or talking-head, bobble-head guys. I started to watch the shows, and it was so much worse when you saw them speaking these things as opposed to just reading text, so I realized that this, being a culture that’s so… I just call it pop-culture oriented where we are so into TV, so into movies, so into iPods, you know, tuned to music that it would make a difference.


ANDELMAN: We’re coming off of, as we are recording this, we are coming off of a big week where video, in essence, sank Don Imus. I mean, a lot of people have said that when he made the comment about the girls’ basketball team at Rutgers, very few people actually heard or saw it on the air, but because of the video culture, it was posted, it was passed around, and when people actually saw it and heard it, that was the end for him.

AMATO: I definitely believe that video blogging did play a big role in Don Imus’ demise outside of his own behavior, and we can also see that with George Allen in Virginia with the “Macaca” moment. I’ve been posting snippets like the one about Don Imus for two and a half years. The Internet has transformed into one where what you say and what you do will be documented. Hopefully, something will come out of this. I don’t have faith in our media that much, and I think that after a couple of weeks, I wouldn’t doubt Imus getting back on radio somewhere. And I wouldn’t doubt he comes back with a fury and attacks Tim Russert and everyone he thought left him holding the bag.

Video has become huge, and it is highly influential. It motivates people. It gets people active. It gets people to say, “You know what, I’m going to write my congressman. I’m going to send an email. I’m going to go door to door.”

And there could also be speeches that are inspiring, like Jim Webb gave a rebuttal to President Bush’s State of the Union, and it was inspiring to many people, and people become more active by seeing something like Jim Webb’s rebuttal to President Bush. So it’s definitely had a huge ripple effect throughout our society, and it’s kind of neat, it’s kind of interesting, it’s fun, and I like to say, it’s for fun, and it’s for free.

ANDELMAN: Now John, let me ask you this: in Imus’ case, he came back, and he had a meeting where he came back a few days later. Unfortunately, it was a few days later, and it wasn’t very heartfelt, but he apologized. Now, on the Web, if you apologize, does anyone hear it? I mean, have you had to backtrack on any items, any postings, anything you’ve regretted or that you had to go back and make a major correction on?

AMATO: I haven’t had anything that I would say would be a major correction. I have had a few mistakes. See, what people don’t understand about the blogisphere, it’s self-correcting, because our readers, they don’t want to see mistakes. They want me to be accurate. They don’t tolerate… You know, they are so frustrated with the way that narratives are built and the way the media focuses on Nancy Pelosi’s sweater or Hillary Clinton’s dress, and so they want me to be as accurate as possible. If I put up something that’s incorrect, within minutes, people will tell me, “This is wrong.” “Your headline is misleading.” I pride myself on being honest. You can disagree with my opinions, but you can’t say that I cut a piece of video or put something up that puts somebody in a light that wasn’t truthful. So I must have now over 10,000 posts, and I would tell you that I’ve only had to make five or ten corrections since I’ve been blogging.

ANDELMAN: Now, one of the complaints that journalists have….

AMATO: Oh, surprise, surprise.

ANDELMAN: Yeah, against bloggers is that they don’t have the ethical training, they don’t have the training in fact delivery, in presentation, so that’s why I was kind of curious to ask you about that. How would you defend bloggers against that charge from journalists?

AMATO: Well, I mean, first, just go to my body of work. I’ll take my body of work against anyone from the AP, from Yahoo!, from the Washington Post. Let’s just start with the Washington Post, okay? Let’s start with the ombudsman, Deborah Howell. I don’t know if you remember Jack Abramoff.

ANDELMAN: Of course.

AMATO: He was the man who was convicted and thrown in jail, and he paid money to a lot of people, and guess who got a lot of that money? Republicans. Okay? And Deborah Howell, through the Washington Post, wrote an article and said that Jack Abramoff gave money equally to Republicans and to Democrats, which was a flat-out lie, and it was lazy journalism, and she posted that. I believe it was over the weekend. Now, she’s supposed to be the one checking the paper for mistakes. If she would have just come out the next day and said, I had a factual error; that was not the case, actually, he gave 99% of the money to Republicans, then everyone would have said, no problem. But she refused to put up a correction for four days, and it caused an outrage, because that kind of reporting is what people object to. Clearly, Jack Abramoff was a Republican operative and funneled thousands of dollars to people. It was a story that the Republicans wanted to tie to Democrats with so that it would take some of the heat off, because if you remember, in the election in’06, people were sick and tired of corruption in government. That was a big one. So you have Deborah Howell, the ombudsman — terrible reporting. I could never get away with reporting that. Let me say this: I think journalists are so valuable to this country.

We need good journalists, and not all journalists make mistakes like the Deborah Howells of the world. There are some great journalists, just like a Dana Priest, who came out and exposed the Walter Reed controversy. I mean, it’s not that they’re all bad or all good, but why can’t I report as well as they can? They have yet to prove that assertion. Why are people reading my blog? I mean, it’s bigger than a lot of newspapers.

© 2007 by Bob Andelman. All rights reserved.

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Copyright 2007 Will Eisner: A Spirited Life by Bob Andelman