Excerpt: The Political Blogging Murder
Chapter 1 — TWERF’d
To the lover of wilderness, Alaska is one of the most wonderful countries in the world. — John Muir
Laura Delaney sighed. She had been staring at her screen for ten minutes, trying to figure out how to turn TWERF’s latest action into a usable tweet.
Some rogue members of TWERF, or Thinking Wildly about Environmental Realism’s Future, had prostrated themselves in front of huge trucks carrying oil drilling equipment into Alaska’s Arctic Refuge. As the director of new and social media, Laura was responsible for immediately publicizing all of the group’s activities.
The trouble was that some of this land was privately owned, and the owner had sold drilling rights to a giant global oil company, even though drilling there had been banned by Congress. So technically, what both sides were doing was illegal: The group’s members were trespassing, and drilling on the protected land was illegal, too. Laura had voiced her concerns to her boss and TWERF’s executive director, Marina Delgadro.
“I don’t care if they were trespassing! We’ve got to get our message out there,” Marina said. Marina was a longtime environmentalist who had logged weeks on Greenpeace ships challenging Japanese whalers and camped out in trees in old-growth forests to stop loggers from cutting them down.
Laura kept searching online for inspiration. She knew that the oil drilling drones were manufactured by a company called Pagett’s, which she suspected was a subsidiary of a bigger oil conglomerate. She sent out a tweet with a link to the video of the TWERFers’ actions.
Just say no to Arctic drilling: We don’t need no stinking Pagett’s! #noarcticdrilling http://ow.ly/xSV29
Too obscure? Laura wondered. She was a fan of old movies, but she wasn’t sure if other Millennials would know what she meant. How many had even seen The Treasure of the Sierra Madre? More likely she should reference The Dark Knight Rises. Or The Hangover Part III. Laura tried some more generic posts:
Take a tip from Cookie Monster: C is for cookie, not for carbon dioxide emissions #noarcticdrilling
Under the sea! Under the sea! Darling, it’s better, down where it’s wetter, and it’s oil free! #noarcticdrilling
Laura switched over to TWERF’s Facebook page. The organization had about 2,500 Twitter followers but only about 500 Facebook friends. No one goes on Facebook anymore, Laura grumbled silently.
She posted the iPhone photos from the rogue TWERFers. My God, look at those grins. They acted like it was a slumber party. Selfies lying in front of a truck? Really?
Laura posted the video to Instagram. Of course, the square shape either cut off some TWERFers’ heads or she had to shrink them small enough so that they looked like munchkins. “Amateurs,” she muttered.
Better to post the video to YouTube in the group’s account. But would there be legal ramifications? She wondered. The TWERFers were trespassing, after all, and she could imagine the video being used in a future trial. That would further drain the organization’s meager finances.
Ah, yes, TWERF finances. This was the main problem working for a struggling nonprofit, Laura knew: Great cause — lousy money. Laura had been at the group’s bare-bones headquarters in Chicago’s West Loop for eight months, and she and the three other full-time workers were still considered “consultants” by the organization’s executive director. That meant month-to-month extensions of their contracts, not much in compensation — and no benefits.
The group was a fairly new environmental organization, unlike the longer-lived groups like the Sierra Club, the Nature Conservancy, and the League of Conservation Voters. They all worked for the same general goals, but TWERF was still trying to find its particular niche. Marina formed the organization eleven months ago, mainly to publicize financial contributions to lawmakers from oil and gas companies and to fight for better support for clean and renewable energy sources.
When Marina hired her, Laura was glad to leave the world of temporary staffing for a real new media job at age 25, and one in her chosen area of fighting climate change. Too many of her college classmates were still underemployed.
Still, she knew it was time to seek greener pastures. That’s one reason why next week she was headed to Washington, D.C., to attend the national Progressive Coalition convention, or Prog Coal, as is was known. After years of holding meetings in different cities around the country, the group’s organizers finally realized they would get more publicity if their meeting were in Washington. That way, members of the Beltway media too lazy to go elsewhere wouldn’t have to leave home to give the group any coverage.
“Hey, Laura.” Steve Cheng, TWERF’s director of programs and legislation, called over from his desk. “What did you post about the TWERF action in the Arctic?”
Laura read him her tweets and described to him what she was putting on YouTube. “Did you know they were going to do this?”
“Noooo. This was strictly an all-volunteer and very unofficial effort. I’ve been trying to get TWERF Alaska to write letters to the editor, call state officials, call their congressmen, file a lawsuit — anything to stop this drilling. I even sent them sample letters and scripts and suggested a lawyer who said he would work pro bono if they sued. But this is all we got. I don’t think it made TWERF very popular in the state.”
“Right. To succeed on the right climate track —”
“— you’ve got to get the people’s back,” they chanted in unison, echoing a Marina-ism. They both laughed.
Steve had a seemingly inexhaustible supply of colorful T-shirts with environmental messages. Today’s shirt was light green with a line drawing of a tree and the proclamation “MAY THE FOREST BE WITH YOU” in big black letters.
“Did I hear that you’re going to Prog Coal next week?” Steve asked Laura.
“Yeah, it will be my third one. There are always friends to see and a lot of new people to meet, and there will be workshops and presentations on all kinds of issues.”
“I’m thinking of going. It looks like I can get a semi-reasonable flight if I fly in the middle of the week coming and going.”
“That’s what I’m doing.”
Steve wheeled his chair around to face her. One of the wheels on his chair fell off, as it did periodically, and he tumbled to the floor. “Damn this cheap furniture!” he yelled, getting up and reattaching the wheel once again. Their desks and chairs were mismatched castoffs from another office in the building that had left its old furniture instead of paying to move it.
Laura chuckled. “Remember, Steve, it’s not ‘cheap.’ It’s ‘eclectic and non-traditional.’ Just like Marina told us.”
She switched back to the TWERF website. It was very slow loading.
“Hey, Tim!” Laura called over to Tim Huff, the group’s Internet guru and keeper of its donor database and email list. “Why is the site so slow today?”
“Server issues,” he mumbled. Lately, he seemed to spend half his time on his cell phone talking to the server that hosted TWERF’s site. Tim had built the entire operation in the cloud, since the organization couldn’t afford its own system. All staff members brought their own laptops to work, and Marina paid a low fee to the office on the building’s first floor for password-protected Wi-Fi access.
Laura switched over to Google Analytics to check how many retweets her tweets had been getting. The results weren’t stunning, to say the least, but there were some bright spots. A total of 150 retweets over the last four days. Apparently, people had been especially intrigued by her simple tweet on the possibility that oil and coal companies might have to pay a price for carbon emissions:
Will U.S. join the rest of the world in forcing polluters to pay for CO2? http://ow.ly/xSV29
She switched to her own Twitter feed. She followed an eclectic mix, including the established environmental groups, some news services, and several lawmakers. OK, plus Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Neil Patrick Harris, she admitted. There was already a hashtag for the upcoming Progressive Coalition meeting, #ProgCoalCon. Laura knew that would be the best way to get timely updates during the convention itself.
Marina strode out of her office, brightly colored scarf trailing behind her. “Meeting! Everyone! NOW! In my office!”
All five staff members crowded into Marina’s office. The two rooms that made up TWERF’s national headquarters were cramped anyway, and Marina’s office was small enough so that most staff members were forced to stand. Marina’s windows overlooked the Chicago River’s south branch. As she looked out the window, Laura realized that sometimes the staff felt like they were all fighting to stay afloat.
“As you know,” Marina began, “our fundraising hasn’t been very successful lately.” She glared at Lilly Martinez, the director of development and communications. “We’ve been having some glitches on our website.” Another glare at Tim, even though Laura knew those issues were not his fault. “We’re not engaging enough members in our activities.” This glare went to Steve. “And I’m not satisfied with the frequency and quality of our tweets and email blasts.” This time the glare was directed at Laura.
There is no satisfying this woman, Laura thought. It wasn’t enough that the professional staff all put in 60-plus-hour workweeks trying to keep the organization moving forward. After Marina spent money they didn’t have on a fundraiser to wine and dine the city’s progressive movers and shakers — a fundraiser that failed to raise enough money to meet the cost of the event — she had been on a tear. Marina was often gone in the middle of the day, having lunch with potential donors or legislators, trying to lobby them on environmental issues. Laura knew Marina always picked up the tab, further endangering the group’s meager finances.
“So I’m telling you all at once: I’m shutting down TWERF, and I’m leaving,” Marina said. “I’m moving to Earth First! because it gets more results than we do here. And I’m taking our email list with me. So we’re closing up shop. This office shuts down at the end of this month.”
The staff looked at her, stunned. “You can’t do that,” Lilly began. “People donated money to us because they felt some of the other groups like Earth First! were too radical and extreme.”
“I started this group,” Marina said. “As far as I’m concerned, those names and email addresses are mine. I’ve prepared an email and a web post announcing the closure. You’ll all be paid until the end of the month, according to our contracts. But you can all leave at the end of the day today.
“I really am sorry,” Marina said quietly. “I know we started TWERF with the best of intentions. It’s just — ” She shook her head. “That’s all.”
Laura looked around the room. Everyone’s mouth was hanging open.
“So — no more TWERF?” Tim looked quizzically at Marina through his thick black-rimmed glasses. “What are we supposed to do?”
“Look,” Marina said. “I was going to be gone anyway to present a workshop at the Progressive Coalition convention in Washington, so we can just close the office.”
Wait a minute — Marina was going to Prog Coal, too? Now Laura’s mouth hung open. She had been looking forward to some time away from Marina. Now she was going to have to find a way to avoid her.
Laura and the rest of the staff members slowly filed out of Marina’s office. Most were shaking their heads. Zombie-like, they all trudged back to their desks and began the disheartening chore of cleaning out their belongings. Laura made sure she forwarded all of her emails and contact information to her personal email account. Steve sent a group email to the staff — minus Marina — inviting everyone to meet for drinks after work.
Even Gwen Crawford, TWERF’s part-time administrative assistant, arranged for a neighbor to pick up her three children so she could join the group.
Later, the Marina-less staff settled around a table at Stanley’s, a corner tavern where they had met many times to plan strategy. They all ordered beers.
“Can Marina really do that?” Tim asked. “Just pull the plug on the whole organization?”
“Look, we’re not real employees,” Lilly said. “We’re all under month-to-month contracts, which say either party can end the working arrangement at any time, given a few weeks’ notice. We all signed those contracts. And the group is new enough so that there’s not even a working board of directors yet.”
“But just calling us in and saying — that’s it? What kind of way is that to run an organization?”
“I don’t think you all realize how bad our financial situation was,” Lilly said. “Marina paid top dollar for that fundraiser at the Somerset Hotel downtown but didn’t do the follow-up when it came to asking for pledges. When I tried to call people afterward, many were non-committal.”
“Don’t forget the scene she caused with her boyfriend. Or I should say, ex-boyfriend,” Laura said. “That can’t have helped.”
Laura vividly remembered how Marina had started crying and shouting when Connor Spenser, a corporate lawyer, told Marina at the fundraiser that he was ending their relationship. Some of the dignitaries, including several elected officials, looked on with distaste and walked out. That certainly had cut down on the donations.
Laura figured it was the breakup that had set Marina on edge in recent weeks. She didn’t used to be so harried — so bitter. Indeed, many of them had joined TWERF because of Marina’s enthusiasm and her vision. But now she just came off as being, well, over the top. If that was Connor’s fault, Laura felt a little sorry for Marina.
The breakup was going to make Prog Coal even more interesting. Connor would be there, too. He posted on liberal blogs using the screen name Left-syde Warrior, and he always ran the pub trivia tournament, an annual contest where teams competed trying to answer obscure questions about politics. If Marina and Connor crossed paths at the convention, there were bound to be fireworks. From Marina’s side, anyway.
“I feel bad for you people,” Gwen said. “It won’t be hard for me to get another job as a secretary or administrative assistant. But where are you all going to get jobs around here working on the environment?”
“Around here” was the key phrase, Laura knew. Many environmental groups had headquarters in Washington, D.C., New York, or the West Coast. She knew there were state and local agencies, and some companies were starting their own sustainability efforts on recycling and getting buildings LEED certified, but there was more opportunity elsewhere. Maybe Laura needed to face facts: If she wanted to stay working in the environmental arena, she was going to have to move.
Steve was morose. After working as an unpaid intern while getting a master’s in public policy with an environmental emphasis, he became a paid staffer and tried to launch all kinds of programs for TWERF members around the country. He hoped to use his time at the organization to land an environmental job in Washington.
“What are you going to do, Laura?” he asked. “Did you know Marina was going to be at Prog Coal, too?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“She told me she was going. She’s heading up a session called ‘Environmentalism into Anarchy.’ I should have guessed.” Steve lowered his head onto his arms crossed on the table. “No income — how am I going to pay my rent? What am I going to do about my student loans?”
“I’m hoping to do some serious networking at Prog Coal,” Laura said. “You should, too. There are bound to be people we know. I hope I can turn my contacts into something that pays.”
Steve jerked his head up. “You think that will be successful?”
“That’s how I got my job at TWERF. I met Marina at Prog Coal last year. Look, Steve, we’ve got to start somewhere. Prog Coal is as good a place as any. You’ll probably know more people there than you realize, and you’ll make new contacts.”
They all made sure they had each other’s contact information and promised to stay in touch. Laura figured there was nothing to do now but head home.
* * *
Laura took the Brown Line El home to her apartment in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. She always knew that her time at TWERF would be limited, but she was hoping it would last until she found something else.
She stopped and picked up a take-out spinach salad at the Trader Joe’s deli bar. I may have to do a lot more eating in soon, she thought.
Laura climbed the stairs to her third-floor apartment in one of Chicago’s classic old brownstones. On the other hand, if I keep living here, I can drop my health club membership — these stairs really do the trick.
“Hello!” Laura called, opening the door, but she received no answer. She figured her roommate, Stacey McDermott, must be with her fiancé. They were getting married in seven weeks. But she saw that Stacey had propped up a wedding invitation with Laura’s name on it and attached a Post-it note.
“No excuses — you need to bring a date to the wedding!”
Laura sighed and fingered the thick white envelope. She had helped Stacey pick out the design on the rich white vellum paper. She opened the invitation and took out the RSVP card.
“Well, I would like to bring a date,” Laura said out loud, “but I have no date to bring right now.”
She ran through the men she had met in the last few months. There was Josh, a trader who only got in touch when he drunk-dialed her late on a Saturday night. Then there was Zach, whom she had met at the Blues Festival, but who turned out to be gay — he was just talking to her to make his boyfriend jealous. She had liked Charles, but he spent most of the time on their few dates reminiscing about his old girlfriend. Last Laura heard, they were back together.
No, I’ll go solo, she thought. She wrote her name under the area marked “guest” and added the number “one.” She sealed the envelope and propped it up for Stacey to find later.
Laura wandered into the kitchen carrying her spinach salad and computer. She propped up her laptop on the island counter in the kitchen, opened her salad, and got out a can of Diet Coke from the refrigerator.
She checked her email and Twitter feed — nothing startling in either place. There were emails from old friends and acquaintances who wanted to reconnect at Prog Coal. Laura had met a lot of people working as a new media and email intern in the 2008 presidential campaign during college breaks, and she looked forward to seeing them again.
To cheer herself up, she decided to check out some of her favorite political blogs. She often did this at the end of the day just to see what the political world was saying.
Laura ran through Think Progress, Talking Points Memo, Huffington Post and Daily Kos. At Eschaton, Atrios announced that he would be drinking liberally, as usual. Several sites referred to the wisdom at Hullabaloo and simply stated, “What Digby said.”
She turned to the website Act Like a Progressive to see Left-syde Warrior’s latest post.
Laura had been surprised to learn that Connor Spenser was Left-syde Warrior. She found out by accident at the TWERF fundraiser when Connor repeated — almost verbatim — something about the Keystone XL pipeline she had read the night before.
“Connor,” Laura told him, “I think I recognize the words you just said. Do you sometimes post online under a different screen name? Left-syde Warrior?”
Connor’s smile hadn’t reached his eyes. “Guess you found me out, Laura,” he said breezily. “But please don’t mention it to anyone in my firm.” He indicated several other lawyers at the fundraiser. “They often have a different attitude about politics.”
“But Connor, you’ve done this for years! Lots of people have learned so much from what you’ve written online!”
“Like I said, Laura, I keep my business life and my online life separate. And I’d like to keep it private as well. So please just drop it.”
Laura had remained mum. Many people who wrote diaries or commented online did so under anonymous screen names. It was only a few who used a real name or some form of their names, or posted when they would be guests on a cable news show.
But Laura also was confused, because lately, it seemed as if Left-syde Warrior’s posts were sounding a little more — mainstream. Was this change in attitude Connor’s reason for breaking up with Marina? Some kind of change in his political beliefs?
Laura resumed reading. Connor’s post was entitled, “New right-wing meme: President gets special rights on Twitter.”
The post quoted the latest from the Drudge Report. “Twitter lets this president use MORE than 140 characters!!!” the diary from Left-syde Warrior blared.
They. Are. Fucking. INSANE. The algorithm cuts off characters at 140, and nothing can change that.
Laura started reading the comments.
Why are you trying to use logic to explain what the right wing does?
— Winking Progressive
I don’t understand the point of this diary.
— Fringe Leftie
Fringe Leftie says that about nearly every diary, Laura thought. Maybe the guy needs a dictionary or something.
Let’s face it: You get to say more if you go beyond 140 characters. We need more thoughtful pieces. I think tweets are overrated.
— This Old Democrat
Hey, old guy. Suck it up.
As often happened on blogs, the comments descended into a side subject — in this case a back-and-forth argument about the effectiveness of other communication vs. Twitter — rather than the original subject. This is why I don’t post much, Laura thought.
But deep into the comments, Left-syde Warrior added another comment.
They do have a point, though. The president gets perks that others don’t get. That’s not fair.
— Left-syde Warrior
Laura looked at the comment. Well, he’s the president, she thought. Of course he gets to have things others don’t. Like Secret Service protection.
Maybe Connor is having an off day, too, Laura mused. Of course, he didn’t just lose his job, like all of the TWERF staff members did.
She started reading other posts. There were diaries about Social Security funding, NSA spying, boosting voter turnout, and “disaster capitalism,” whatever that was. There were requests for money bombs for various Democratic candidates, a call asking for letters to the editor about Planned Parenthood, and a plea to start referring to the Tea Party as the New Confederate Party of America. There was yet another in the seemingly endless parade of petitions to the White House to legalize marijuana.
Here was an interesting post, by Green Lady: “How big do storms have to get?”
Higher ocean temperatures mean more water gets swept up into hurricanes and typhoons, creating bigger and stronger storms. All this means more flooding, more destruction, and more deaths. Even a minimal rise in sea level can cause a catastrophe.
Laura knew this was true, but the issue was not cut and dried; there were many factors that caused strengthened hurricane seasons. Still, with devastating storms, wildfires, and tornadoes, sometimes she, too, wondered what it would take for people to notice that the atmosphere had changed, that it was getting to be past time to do something about it. She added:
Why do you think we’re having so many “storms of the century” every 20 years or so?
— Enviro Girl
Laura always posted using the screen name “Enviro Girl.” She also used a tag line that was a quote from the Sierra Club founder and environmentalist John Muir: “Keep close to Nature’s heart.” Hey, it might be corny, but it was what she believed. She grew up in a town that was so progressive that recycling was practically considered a religion, and they were one of the first towns in Illinois to have compost pickup.
Laura stood up, stretched, and ran her fingers through her short dark hair. Her salad finished, she rinsed the plastic container and put it and her soda can in the recycling bin. She took her laptop to her bedroom, where she settled in to do more reading.
She looked around. She would miss this room — and this apartment — if she moved. She had lived here for eighteen months, after she saved up enough to move out of her parents’ home in a nearby suburb. Laura would miss Stacey, her family, many friends, and the city itself.
She decided to amuse herself with some right-wing political websites. She could do this for only so long, or else her eyes might roll right out of her head. She focused on the website Make Mine Red. They were always good for some outrageous comments.
Someone who called himself or herself “Sexy Republican” had a diary with the title, “Dems = Hitler?” Not too sexy an idea, Laura thought. The comments were all along the same line.
Damn straight. We need to ignore federal officials when their actions go against the Constitution.
Little Eichmanns of the left are stopping people from carrying guns where it’s legal. If I want to take my Glock into a bar or into church, that’s my right!
— Don’t You Dare Try to Take My Guns
President is DICTATING AGAINST HIS AUTHORITY. First it’s health care and gun control. Death camps will be next.
— Mr. Original Intent
Second Amendment solutions!
— Don’t You Dare Take My Guns
We’re more effective when we argue ideas, not call people names.
— I’m Always Right!
Well, look at that. Someone with a brain in his or her head, Laura thought.
A new diary described how the IRS supposedly had new powers to issue criminal charges against people for not filling out Census forms. Or something. It was hard to figure out the argument. I don’t understand the point of this diary, either, Laura thought.
I don’t want jack-booted IRS thugs reading my email.
— Driving in the Right Lane
Time to get rid of Fedzilla.
— Ready for More Tea
When you are being TAXED for your labor, you are under SLAVERY.
— Reddest Guy
Leave it to the right-wingers to be paranoid about the IRS, Laura thought.
Taxes are always too high. Time to reform the tax code. It’s worth swapping something the left wants, like closing tax loopholes, for lower corporate rates. Bonus is it cuts down the power of the unions.
— I’m Always Right!
Lower corporate rates? How about NO corporate rates?
— Confirmed Capitalist
There also was a debate about the merits of fracking. Laura knew that support for hydraulic fracturing was losing steam in some areas. But many on the right, especially GOP governors and legislatures, were still in favor of it, and there was an ongoing battle over its use in economic development. Laura also knew that many cash-strapped farmers were willing to sell fracking rights on their lands to natural gas companies. She was against fracking from an environmental standpoint — and for the earthquakes it caused — but she could see how small farmers still suffering from the recession needed extra income. Some states had passed fracking regulations, like capping wells and controlling fracking fluid runoff.
We need the energy. The farmers need the money, and they’ve got a lot of land. What’s not to love about this idea?
— Confirmed Capitalist
Even Pope Francis doesn’t seem to think fracking is a good idea. He’s writing an encyclical about the environment.
— I’m Always Right!
Fracking is safe! There are too many regulations about it already. Just because the pope meets with some foreign filmmaker and gets a free environmental T-shirt doesn’t mean U.S. companies have to pay attention.
Some posts picked up the item on the supposed special Twitter privileges.
Not only is he trying to take away our guns and turn this into a socialist country, he gets to write longer tweets than anyone else!
— Proud to Wear a Tin Foil Hat
That would always remain Laura’s favorite screen name. And I bet that poster doesn’t even see anything ironic about it, she thought.
ONE-FORTY! That’s the limit. That’s the same number of characters in the Second Amendment! Coincidence? I don’t think so!
— Don’t You Dare Take My Guns
WTF? Laura thought. Where do these people come up with these ideas? And even if it were true (and a quick count showed that the count was off by a few characters), that would be significant because —?
Just then, her phone pinged that she had an incoming text message. It was Steve.
Going to Prog Coal after all! Just booked my flights! U have a place to stay? I need to crash w/someone.
Sorry — staying with a friend. But you might run into someone you know there. I’ve slept on friends’ hotel room floors at Prog Coals.
Can U introduce me???
Laura laughed. Now she wasn’t just going to have to avoid Marina — she was going to have to baby-sit Steve.