Today’s Guest: John Amato, political website founder, CrooksAndLiars.com
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.
BOB ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: 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.
JOHN AMATO podcast excerpt: “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: Well, John, let me ask you this. A lot of the blogs, they simply reprint what’s appeared in the mainstream press, or they just link to other things, but one of the things that I think that’s happened with your site is, you’ve actually done some of your own original reporting, and you’ve gotten interviews, right?
ANDELMAN: How did that start, and how have you come along with that?
AMATO: It’s a lot of fun. I mean, there are some bloggers that just offer opinions, and they are quite comfortable, and it’s necessary, and it’s important. Some people will just analyze news or talk about candidates and policy and the direction of different parties, whether they’re Democrats or Republicans. I like to do reporting, and I get a kick out of making phone calls and then asking questions. I have done that a bunch of times, and people are responsive on the other end because people know CrooksandLiars, so they understand that my site is in their own words, I guess you’d say. It’s a credible site because it is so visible, which really shouldn’t matter even if I was a smaller blogger, but I love doing interviews. I’ve interviewed directors, I’ve interviewed musicians, and I’ve interviewed a lot of politicians and authors of books.
I try to bring as much as I can to the site and to my readers, and I try to bring part of my own personality to the site. It’s just not strictly political analysis or political content. I like people to know what music I like. I like people to know what books I’m reading. I like people to know what TV shows I’m watching. I think that the more they know about me, the more they can put things in context, and then in return, the readers also give back to me. I mean, I posted about a jazz legend, Milt Hinton, that I studied with in Hunter College, and I just told that this man was a giant, and I must have gotten fifteen emails from people that had been touched by Milt Hinton. There’s a sharing of ideas.
The original reporting and the interviews, it just gives my readers more content, more reasons to come back, more reasons to say that these guys are working hard. This is what we want people to do. We don’t want them to be lazy. We don’t want them to get their facts wrong. We want them to be out there and tearing up the terrain trying to break new ground, trying to get to stories that the mainstream media will forget about.
Since I’ve had medical issues, I’ve had some doctors that I have not liked, and so do you remember when Rush Limbaugh got busted for having the little blue pills and they weren’t in his name? Well, I called the California Medical Board, and then I called the Florida Medical Board. And it is illegal for somebody to put a prescription in one person’s name and then give that prescription to somebody else. I wasn’t going after Rush Limbaugh having these blue pills, I was going after the doctors because that was illegal. Rush Limbaugh should get prescriptions in his own name. That’s just a little story, and I got the D.A. on the phone down in Florida, and he was pretty embarrassed that they had to kick it to another county. But it raised awareness to the fact that doctors are not allowed to use the prescription pad like they were doing for Rush Limbaugh. Doesn’t happen in Los Angeles.
ANDELMAN: John, you mention Limbaugh, and I wanted to ask you something relative to Limbaugh. Starting with Keith Olberman, changing the subject a little bit, but as Olberman has caught on and attracted a bigger audience, some people think he’s become nothing more than a lefty Limbaugh. How do you feel about that?
AMATO: I don’t agree, and there are a lot of different reasons. I think that Olberman finally took the track of, which, if there were Democrats in office and they put us in a war that was based on, let’s call them what they are – lies — and they decided to be able to tap phones, want to read our emails, they decided to torture people, they decided to rendition people, send them to countries where they will be tortured, to have Abu Ghraib, the list goes on and on, to have an Attorney General that’s nothing more than the President’s best buddy, he would be doing the same thing if it was a lefty in office. There has been so much corruption and, I believe, incompetence in this administration that he decided to become more of an opinion-maker, and he decided just to let it hang out, and I know the right doesn’t like him too much, because now his popularity, he’s the number one show on MSNBC, but he does not distort. Again, you can disagree with him, just go and fact-check him. I won’t even say he’s left-wing, that’s up to him to tell you, but how many people on AM radio or on cable news do we have that are liberals? You can’t name any. I mean, let’s not even talk about Fox. MSNBC after the elections, who was their first hire? Tucker Carlson, a guy that got kicked off of CNN. So it’s good to have a voice out there that is critical of the administration, and I doubt, if there isn’t a swapping of administration in 2008, that he will suddenly give them a pass. I mean, I know most bloggers on the left will not sit by idly if a Democrat is in power, and in 2010 says, “We think we have intelligence, and we need to invade Turkey.” That’s not going to fly.
ANDELMAN: Have you reached the point of picking a candidate to support for 2008?
AMATO: No, I haven’t.
What I usually concentrate on is what I believe to be smears or narratives that are untrue. Right now, I’m just letting all the candidates speak. My readers are smart enough to know who they want. If I endorse somebody, I don’t know if it’s going to sway anybody, but I kind of want to stay out of that. I want to just let the candidates duke it out.
I will post when Barack Obama is on Leno, and he’s funny, and if Hillary’s here, or if John Edwards is there, or Richardson or whoever else is going, and I’ll give them all space if it’s warranted. I’m my own guy, so I post what I think is relevant to people, what I think is funny, what is entertaining, or what is critical of, let’s say, a vote on Iraq or a vote on war or on the budget or this bankruptcy bill. We can go into each vote on and on, so right now, I’m staying out of picking somebody in the primary. We’ll see what happens as we get closer, but I’m probably not going to endorse anybody. My readers are smart enough to make up their own minds.
ANDELMAN: The campaigns have obviously gotten very Internet-savvy. They’re raising a lot of money that way. Have any of the campaigns reached out to you, either to give you news items or to try to get your support?
AMATO: See, this is what they’re doing very smartly. They’ve reached out to certain different types of bloggers that know that you can’t…. to try to sway a blogger, if he has any self-decency or dignity, you just can’t do it. And so there’s … he’s actually a friend of mine, well, we’ve become friends through the Internet, but his name is Peter Daou, and he runs the Internet for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. We used to do a lot of little email chats here and there. He’s off the list now, because he’s now not a blogger any more, he’s a political operative, so you know, they are being very smart, and they know that they cannot curry favor with us, but they all, from all candidates, they send out press releases, they send out, well, “This is Barak’s position,” or “This is John Edwards’ position on this,” let’s say it’s stem cells. Well, this is Hillary or Bill Richardson or Joe Biden or even Chris Dodd’s people, they make information available. They tell us their Web site set-up, and if they want to make a statement…. You know, a bunch of people made a statement about Imus, John Kerry, they’re all welcome to, but it doesn’t mean we will use anything.
ANDELMAN: Okay. Are there any Democrats that you don’t support?
AMATO: As far as in what fashion, for the Presidency?
ANDELMAN: In any fashion, at any national level.
AMATO: Well, there’s a lot of Democrats that I’m not thrilled with. I won’t go through all of them. A bunch of them are in the House, and they are these so-called blue dog Democrats. There is a Web site called I think ProgressivePunch.com or .org, and you can see every vote that a House member and a Senator has taken, so you can track their record. No more is it a secret. They’re like, “You’ve elected these people, what are they doing?” You can actually see their voting records, and the people who want to continue funding the war endlessly or who are voting with Republicans more than Democrats on key issues, those are people that I won’t support, and we let them know. If you read my blog, you will see occasionally where I’ll see Stenny Hoyer, who’s now the new Majority Leader, and he was not very clear the other day on his stance on the Iraq war and what he felt our next move was, so I will say, “I didn’t get that, Stenny Hoyer.”
ANDELMAN: Are there any Republicans in national office that you admire or support?
AMATO: (Sighs.) Let’s see. You know, I’ve been working so hard with dealing with the corruption with this administration. If you’ve noticed, everything’s changed since 2006, and for whatever reason, the Republican party decided to give Bush a rubber stamp through all these years.
John McCain was supposed to be this maverick, and then he let Bush kiss him on the head during the 2004 election where Bush’s team spread rumors that he was fathering illegitimate black babies, and I couldn’t understand, how could a man be smeared like that and then turn around and say, “Well, you know, that’s the way it goes.”
I don’t know. I mean, I believe in forgiveness, but that’s just almost criminal in my mind, and then when you had John Warner, who seems to be very respectable, when they got together with this military commissions act and now allow torture and started taking away the rights of counsel to prisoners? To me that’s a violation of the Constitution and everything that’s American. Behind the scenes, they yell a lot. Chuck Hagel screams a lot about how out of touch Dick Cheney is, and he has actually, he did vote on the new budget with the Democrats. But other than that, if you look at their voting records, that’s where you’ll see the sound and the words and the fury on TV when they’re yelling back and forth, you just have to wait when they place their votes. And that’s why the term rubber stamp Republican came out because there hasn’t been, now that the Democrats have come in, there is some oversight, but my God! You’ve heard the story, $9 billion, if you saw the pictures of that much money in suitcases, missing. How can there not be any hearing to find out what happened to $9 billion? So I’ve been very disappointed with this crop.
A right-wing blogger that I like, this guy John Cole from West Virginia, and he blogs on BalloonJuice. It got to the point, he used to be what I would consider a Bush cultist, which was just support him because he’s the President, no matter what he’s doing or saying. And finally the Republican party broke him, and it was interesting, because he’s a staunch conservative, but he wanted them all kicked out in the 2006 election, because he believes that the party has been corrupted. So it’s pretty interesting. True conservatives, true people that are true to their principles have not been happy with many from the Republican Party.
ANDELMAN: I have one last question: many people find that their political views become more conservative as they get older. Are you seeing any sign of that within your own beliefs?
AMATO: How do you define “conservative” in that context? What is the center? Do you know what I mean? Has anybody defined what the center is? I believe that we all through our experiences in life, we all come to decisions and conclusions which we are comfortable with morally, what we think is the right thing to do. So that’s how I’ve developed my convictions, so they are not changing, they’re only getting stronger since I’ve been involved with blogging and in the political process. So I don’t believe that that’s the case, but then again, you need to define what conservative means or what the middle means or the left or the right. You have what I consider the extreme Christian right, and on my site, I write a lot about the extreme Christians. I’m a Catholic, and my sister is a born-again Christian, but I don’t knock the people. I knock their leaders because there is so much money being made. I mean, to not want to have stem cell research to me is insane, or to stop the Plan B pill. For what reason? This will save… They are against abortion, and here’s a pill that’s an incredible pill so that people won’t have to make that choice, and they are against that. We have to define really what is the center? I mean, there are right wing bloggers that try to say they’re center-right as a way to confuse journalists and confuse listeners. We can all disagree on different issues and maybe go not so much as far here as there, but again, what does that mean, the middle? That’s what I want somebody to explain to me.