An interview with Marcos Moulitsas Zúniga, author of Taking on the System: Rules for Radical Change in a Digital Era, which will be published by Celebra.
PW: Why did you start DailyKos.com?
MMZ: I started Daily Kos in 2002, which was a very dark time for progressives. There was a trail-off of the Afghanistan situation, a run-up to the Iraq invasion, and progressives were completely fed up and marginalized from the media landscape. I started the site not because I thought it was going to become big and intellectual but because I wanted to vent about this politically stifling environment that we were suddenly living in. From the very beginning I focused very tightly on the community—that this was an empowering medium. It wasn’t about, 'Look at me, I’m the next Rush Limbaugh; listen to what I say and agree with me.' It was more about the fact that we all feel shut out of the system, that we all feel that we have no voice, but dammit now we’re going to start discussing the things that we care about and nobody’s going to tell us to shut up or go away, because they no longer have the power to do that.
PW: How would you describe its mission?
MMZ: It’s a partisan, progressive Web site. The way I look at it is that conservatives have a million different outlets where they can discuss their issues—there’s Fox News and Rush Limbaugh—the entire AM radio dial is pretty much conservative talk radio, they had a ton of Web sites at the time, Free Republic, for example. And there was really nothing on the left; the so-called lib-eral voices—the Times, the Washington Post—were telling us how important it was to invade Iraq because Hussein posed this threat, and we knew it was all b.s. But they had bought into the fear mentality that the media had basically cheerleadered for the government. And anybody who was opposed to that was seditious or unpatriotic. I served my nation before; I wore combat boots, and the last thing I was going to do was let anybody tell me what I could or could not do. I had pledged to uphold the Constitution—not the sitting government of the United States, but the Constitution. And so that motivated me to speak out when people weren’t allowed to speak out. And the fact that Daily Kos took off I think is testament to a marked need for those strong, progressive voices. People wanted that, and the media world wasn’t providing it.
PW: Why did you dedicate your new book to Saul Alinsky, the famous labor and community organizer?
MMZ: I consider myself an activist—this whole debate of whether bloggers are journalists I think is sort of outdated, an obsolete frame in which to view these roles: it’s media. I can play the journalist role if I want—I used to be a reporter—but actually the world that suits me best is that of an activist. And very recently I picked up Alinsky’s book [Rules for Radicals}, which was an amazing window into a whole different era of activism that was very alien to me. So as much as I was entertained and fascinated by it, I also realized that the concept—providing rules on how to be a good activist—was fantastic and necessary, but there was nothing like it for today’s world. The world is 180 degrees different than in Alinsky’s day, and while some of his rules still ap-ply, because they’re fairly universal, their particulars no longer had relevance in this digital era. He inspired me to write this book and I see myself as sort of an heir to the tradition of the Saul Alinsky, rabble-rousing activist. I think that without that book this book would not exist, because I wouldn’t have had the idea to modernize the concept.
PW: How are the rules for activists different in today’s online era than in Alinsky’s day?
MMZ: I think the dominant difference is that in any era the way to effect change is to build popular support. To build popular sup-port you have to be able to reach people and educate them. In Alinsky’s day, really the only way to do that was to get the atten-tion of editors and TV producers. So the tactics, it was all built for spectacle: how do we get the TV cameras to show up. There was a certain set of things you did: you created spectacle, you shut down streets, you created havoc. Nowadays the media world isn’t three television stations that almost everybody watched; it’s a fragmented landscape. So even getting the attention of, say, CBS News isn’t going to do you that much good. But how do you reach that fragmented audience. You can distribute your in-formation without having to go through the traditional media gatekeepers. You have to be funny, to be entertaining. You have to be creative, to cut through the clutter—in everybody’s media there’s a lot more clutter out there. That’s the biggest differ-ence: it was relatively easy to reach the American public because there were so few media outlets; now it’s fragmented, and how do you do it? But back then you had to go through gatekeepers and today you can go around them.