Ana Marie Cox isn't afraid to ruffle feathers - or to say goodbye.
She quit just before she was fired from the Chronicle of Higher Education. She left the liberal monthly The American Prospect under circumstances that required her to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Now she's swooped into Washington - where great pains are taken to keep feathers in place - as the sole writer for www.wonkette.com, a new gossip Web site.
"This is the first job I have had where my poor people skills don't matter," said Cox, 31. "I write and speak faster than I think and I often get people in trouble."
The new site is "devoted to gossip and nastiness in politics and Washington, D.C." It is the latest offspring from the Gawker "media empire" - the people who spread the word about the Paris Hilton sex tapes (via www.fleshbot.com, an "arty" porn site) and founded www.gawker.com, a snarky, Manhattan-based must read for the media-obsessed.
Gawker is sort of a virtual water cooler. It includes quick posts about banal facts (a roundup of health violations on the Lower East Side), celebrity sneering (jokes about Cynthia Nixon of Sex and the City), and lifestyles of the well-dressed (the menu for a Conde Nast lunch). It's buzz and chatter that may make you laugh out loud or roll your eyes in disgust.
While Gawker pokes fun at oh-so-hip New York, "D.C. is far more boring than it ought to be," said Nick Denton, the publisher of Wonkette, a name that reflects the capital's stodgy image. He favors the British press. "British papers are better," he said. "Far less accurate, shoddy and free with the truth - but at least they are fun to read."
Denton, who spent eight years at Britain's Financial Times, wanted a renegade to write for the site, and found that in Cox, whom he first discovered through her former Web "blog," AnticMuse.com. "Someone with a stable, 10-year career with the Washington Post is unemployable," he said. His goals for Wonkette: "Cause trouble, cover costs - that's about it."
With Cox at the helm, it's gotten off to a promising start. The site received 55,000 page views the first day it was up, Jan. 23, four times the amount Gawker.com had on its first day.
Twisting the news
Cox, a self-described "failed journalist," reports by surfing political blogs from the guest bedroom of her home in Arlington, Va., and by gathering information from tipsters who e-mail her with political sightings of significance. Pounding the pavement isn't her specialty; she prefers not to leave the house.
"[Wonkette] is a media vampire," she said. "We can only write stuff that has already been written. We're not trying to break news."
Instead, she aims to twist it a bit.
"I don't worry about being fair. I worry about being boring, about not being funny. I'm not trying to compete with Josh Marshall or any of the other serious political bloggers - I'm just trying to make fun of them."
In fact, Wonkette recently featured a not-so-flattering photo of Marshall with a caption mocking his Princeton credentials. Cox also posts a weekly "translation" of Tina Brown's celebrity-fueled Washington Post column - mercilessly skewering her copy.
According to one fan of the site, the capital's gab scene can use a fresh voice. "As a part-time consumer of gossip, I find the gossip columns [in Washington] to be stale and not very entertaining," said Nick Confessore, an editor with Washington Monthly magazine and a friend of Cox's.
Cox's site is different, he said. "There are no sacred cows for Ana. She is very smart and she has a wicked pen. She is willing to be a lot more aggressive and bitchy than most people."
Praise for the new site also comes from the former high priest of Washington gossip, Lloyd Grove. Grove, who for years authored the "Reliable Source" column for the Washington Post before moving recently to the New York Daily News, said in an e-mail: "What I've read so far is sharp and funny."
What does the current competition in town think?
"My attitude is the more the merrier," Ed Henry, who writes "Heard on the Hill" for the Capitol Hill political paper Roll Call, said in an e-mail. "The new site looks fun with all the dishing they do.
"But readers are always going to turn first to the columns that are actually breaking the news in the first place," such as his, he says, pointing out two scoops he recently had.
Cox says she's hopeful of breaking "big" stories, too. "I'm hoping for a Dennis Kucinich sex-tape moment," she says, or even something salacious featuring the Bush daughters, Jenna and Barbara.
She pauses, and reconsiders. That might be too mean, she admits.
Cox grew up in Lincoln, Neb., - far from Washington's Beltway. She graduated from the University of Chicago and dropped out of graduate school - a history program at the University of California, Berkeley - 10 years ago. She's worked as a writer and editor for various media organizations, including liberal investigative magazine Mother Jones and online satire site www.suck.com.
In her new gig, she's says she's ready to move on from failed journalist to "fake journalist." She wants to be funny, not angry, and absolutely not boring. "Angry is only funny if you remix it," she says, referring to the many versions of Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean's wild concession speech in Iowa that have been set to music.
While Wonkette is still finding its feet, Cox says she's already starting to get unsolicited tips and gossip. Nothing too major so far, but still fun. Somebody, for instance, spotted political consultant James Carville picking up pears at Trader Joe's.
Another feature of Wonkette is Cox's take on the day's hot political stories. She wrote about this week's news that Dean had fired his campaign manager, Joe Trippi, under the title "Trippi Bounced in Favor of Bigger Losers."
"Al Gore's advisers managed to fumble one of the surest bets in campaign history. ... Dean could have done worse only if he had tapped [Supreme Court justices Antonin] Scalia and [William H.] Rehnquist to be his campaign managers."
Cox bangs out her copy from her Mac G4 Powerbook - with a keyboard attached - on a desk facing a window. For inspiration, she hung a helpful poster on her wall: a post-World War II Dutch placard warning people to watch out for unexploded landmines.
"I do think it is important to watch for landmines; you never know when something is going to go off," she said.
When it does, Cox hopes to be there, probably adding fuel to the fire.