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Chief of the Web: An interview with James Taranto

By Bernard Chapin
web posted August 23, 2004

James TarantoJames Taranto is the editor of opinionjournal.com which is the online division of The Wall Street Journal. Unlike many of its competitors, WSJ's mission is clear and not plagued by nuance. It "stands for free trade and sound money. Against the interference of taxes and ukases by kings and other collectivists. For the defense of individual autonomy against dictators, bullies and even the tempers of momentary majorities." Active support for the freedom of peoples and the freedom of markets can be found everyday in the positions taken by its contributors. Opinion Journal is a premier outlet for conservatism and its columnists include luminaries like Pete du Pont, Peggy Noonan, John Fund, and Claudia Rosset.

Before becoming the editor of Opinion Journal, Mr. Taranto was deputy editorial features editor of The Wall Street Journal and earlier in his career he was an editor at City Journal. In June of 2004 a book that he co-edited with Leonardo Leo entitled "Presidential Leadership: Rating the Best and the Worst in the White House" was released.

BC: First off, you are the editor of opinionjournal.com but most readers are probably familiar with you via your feature called "Best of the Web Today". In my mind, this piece is really not a column in the traditional sense, but more of a uberblog. How do you describe the piece to others? Also, how important do you think blogs are in today's media environment?

JT: I describe Best of the Web Today as "a column in blog format." I'd say some bloggers have a tendency to overstate the importance of what they do in influencing the media, but there's no question that blogs perform a useful service in criticizing the media and holding them accountable, and occasionally even in breaking stories.

BC: Your not-so-secret weapon in fighting the left is humor. In my biased opinion, this seems to be the wisest strategy to use against progressives as their greatest wish is that others take their schemes and fantasies seriously. Have you discovered that some conservatives have taken issue with your style and irreverent tone?

JT: No, though occasionally someone will take issue with a particular joke. De gustibus non disputandum est.

BC: How important is Opinion Journal to The Wall Street Journal overall? Is the website highly regarded by those at the flagship? Do you think that online magazines can be profitable without paid subscribers? I know that last year The New York Times reported that their online division was in the black.

JT: OpinionJournal is obviously a small bit of the vast institution that is The Wall Street Journal, but my impression is that it is very highly regarded by both the editors of the editorial page and the executives at Dow Jones. My understanding is that OpinionJournal makes a small profit; revenues come from advertisements and sales of subscriptions to our Political Diary e-newsletter.

BC: You used to work at City Journal, which Peggy Noonan called, "the best magazine in America." How did your time there shape the journalist you are today? Also, with immediate gratification available through the internet, what is the print journal's future prospects?

JT: At City Journal I mastered editing, so that my first job at The Wall Street Journal, editing editorial features (or op-ed pieces) was a breeze. OpinionJournal and especially Best of the Web Today have enabled me to broaden my horizons and develop a distinctive writing style and sensibility.

BC: Concerning Senator Kerry, "the haughty, French-looking Massachusetts Democrat," do you believe that he'll win the election in November? What do you think the Bush team can do to reverse the president's drop in the polls?

JT: It's always perilous to make predictions, but I can't imagine Kerry will wear well with the electorate when people start paying attention to the campaign. I think Bush needs to stress the importance of remaining resolute on terrorism, and he also needs to be persuasive.

BC: How concerned are you regarding the ever increasing radicalism of the Democratic Party? Shouldn't more people be outraged that Michael Moore's deceitful film, "Fahrenheit 9/11," was endorsed by so many high ranking liberals like Thomas Daschle and Terry McAuliffe? Do you have any ideas on how conservatives can better illustrate to the American people the counter-cultural nature of today's liberals?

JT: The Democrats are out of power for the first time in decades and are looking for a formula to regain power. They tried being reasonable, at least on foreign policy, between Sept. 11, 2001, and Election Day 2002. It didn't work. So now they're trying something else. If they lose big this year, that'll take the steam out of the Angry Left, at least for the moment. If they win, they'll have to govern, which will force them to be more responsible. So ultimately I think the Michael Moore phenomenon will play itself out without doing too much harm to the country.

BC: With "Fahrenheit 9/11," I've heard some conservatives argue that the paranoid and hysterical nature of the film will harm its ability to influence voters, but, given the fact that so many people receive their news from entertainment outlets, do you think that Moore's movie could have the effect he intended? Is it not conceivable that many a young person will "connect the dots" and buy into this conspiracy and that the impact will be felt at the polls?

JT: Fortunately, young people tend not to vote in great numbers. There's no question that someone ignorant who goes to see "F911" will walk out with a bad impression of President Bush, but the whole argument is so incoherent, I tend to doubt whether it'll last till election day. And I suspect that the vast bulk of people who see this film would never consider voting for Bush anyway.

BC: Speaking of illustrating positions to the American people, I happened to see you on "Hardball" the other day. Chris Matthews' comments aside, you've mentioned before in "Best of the Web Today" that you're available for television appearances. How integral do you believe television is to conservatism? If we really do live in a "sound byte culture" are not televised appearances the best way to win hearts and minds?

JT: Obviously television is an important medium, but speaking from personal experience, I find it to be very ephemeral. It's fun to do TV, but when I've finished I don't really feel as though I've done something important or developed my points thoroughly, which I am able to do in print.

BC: Do you think the stability and viability of the United States is more threatened by internal enemies than external ones? If a sizable percentage of our population is taught that there is nothing special about our nation, or that patriotism is the same thing as jingoism, who will be left to defend the integrity of shores and the idea of free markets and free peoples?

JT: I take your point, but let's not get carried away. An al-Qaida nuke in New York or Washington would be a hell of a lot more damaging than all the multicultural idiots in all the universities in the country.

BC: Thank you for your time, Mr. Taranto.

Bernard Chapin is a writer living in Chicago. He can be reached at bchapafl@hotmail.com.

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