Can you Dig it? Yes You Can.

Zuade Kaufman and Robert Scheer launched Truthdig in 2005 to report the news that too rarely makes headlines. Now they have another goal: figuring out how to survive
1986

Huffington launched her eponymous Web site in May 2005, six months before Truthdig—conceived, she claimed, as a progressive counterweight to the conservative Drudge Report. At a day old The Huffington Post was dominated by news of plummeting real wages, Congress’s ethics problems, and a $300 million bank fraud by Iraq’s deputy minister. Iran’s nuclear revival was also a concern.

Over the years, though, HuffPost has proved itself every bit as adept at shape-shifting as its creator. It has expanded beyond tasteful political outrage to become the Web’s most successful consumer marketplace of news, ideas, tips for healthful living, and celebrity scandal. Its home page is now an uneven playing field where environmental catastrophe, Third World poverty, Miley Cyrus’s twerking, and Khloe Kardashian’s divorce vie for attention.

According to Huffington, who considers Scheer a friend, Truthdig succeeds not just because of its content, but also its constancy. “Truthdig has thrived—and scooped up awards along the way—because it has stayed true to its DNA,” Huffington wrote in an e-mail. “Its core values of challenging conventional wisdom and drilling beneath the headlines are present in every story.” Huffington exited Left, Right & Center in 2011, the year AOL purchased HuffPost, but Scheer has remained. His political stance has hardly budged since the first day he went on air.

“Look, in my life I don’t have the capacity to accommodate,” Scheer says. “It might have not been the wiser course, and maybe I could have accomplished a lot more, but I think I’m driven by experiences and feelings that trump those other things.”

Scheer is fond of pointing out that he has never experienced politics as an abstraction. “For me,” he says, “the issue always was, Shouldn’t the ordinary person get some kind of a break?” He comes by his working-class sympathies honestly. In Lithuania his mother, Ida Kuran, was part of the Jewish Socialist Bund movement, and as a New York City garment worker she threw herself into so many labor disputes that it prevented her from obtaining citizenship. Frederick Scheer, his father, was a knitter mechanic and a shop steward who led many bloody workplace battles. He ran afoul of his Communist-led union for denouncing a workforce agreement they had just negotiated as a cave-in to management. Frederick and Ida never married, and once while riffling through the mail to intercept a report card, Scheer discovered his father had another family.

Scheer attended City College in New York. Through his study of engineering, economics, and New Left social critics like C. Wright Mills and Bertrand Russell, he found a theoretical base to match the experiential politics of his youth. Scheer may be the only far-left journalist of the ’60s who broadened his audience in subsequent decades without moderating his views—maybe because he was always less committed to the utopian visions of the counterculture than to the majoritarian ideals of the Depression. After leaving Ramparts and Berkeley for L.A., Scheer interviewed every president from Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton. He lasted almost as long at the Los Angeles Times as conservative mainstay William Safire did at The New York Times.

In the summer of 2010, during a visit to New York for the 14th Annual Webby Awards, Scheer and Kaufman attended a cocktail reception for winners and nominees at the Standard hotel’s rooftop bar on the edge of Greenwich Village. Visiting the rest room, Scheer found himself “looking out the window at this beautiful view,” he remembers. “I saw my father’s factory—one of those buildings that have been turned into fancy restaurants. It was where he had worked for 25 years and where he had had a stroke at his machine, dragged himself home on the subway, and then died a few days later.”

The very next evening Scheer had an irresistible opportunity to strike a blow for his parents’ politics. The 2010 Webby Awards ceremonies were being held at the onetime world headquarters of Citibank, just around the corner from the New York Stock Exchange. When Scheer strode up to receive Truthdig’s prize for best political blog, he seemed to welcome the Webby tradition that limits all acceptance speeches to five words. “Wall Street,” he said, grinning up at the gilded rotunda. “What fucking thieves.”

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Chris Hedges didn’t know it then, but he took his first step on the road to Truthdig on a sun-drenched May afternoon in northernmost Illinois. Dressed in a black academic robe and white sash, a gentle breeze ruffling his thin golden hair, Hedges, then the Middle East bureau chief for The New York Times, offered the Rockford University class of 2003 not one word of praise or encouragement in his commencement address. “I want to speak to you today,” he told the graduates, “about war and empire.” Hedges’s microphone was cut off twice, and students did their best to drown out his indictment of a corrupt body politic with chants of “USA! USA!” and a chorus of “God Bless America.” “Fear engenders cruelty,” he pressed on. “Cruelty, fear, insanity, and then paralysis.”

The speech didn’t go over well with his employer, either. “The Times gave me a written reprimand,” says Hedges, who is 57. “The choice was, I muzzle myself or be fired. And I wasn’t gonna stop speaking out.” He quit and turned to book writing, detailing the nation’s decline in such counterintuitive best-sellers as American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America and War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning.

When Kaufman approached Hedges in 2006, she promised him the equivalent of a literary penthouse on Truthdig’s site that he’d be free to decorate as he saw fit. He’s made the most of that freedom. In columns like “Shooting the Messenger” (about attempts by some on the left to elevate Edward Snowden at the expense of WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning) and “Outsourcing Torture” (about CIA and U.S. military prisoners’ rendition to interrogators in Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt), Hedges at his best has tempered his righteous indignation with nuanced argument and a wealth of supporting facts. His Truthdig leitmotif—how perpetual war always degrades democracy—stretches back to Pericles’ Athens and draws on his own decades of reporting from many of the world’s worst war zones.

Four years ago Hedges wrote a book called The Death of the Liberal Class, chronicling the traditional left’s degradation into “courtiers or mandarins, who have nothing to offer but empty rhetoric.” In some Truthdig columns he devotes himself to speeding these courtiers’ ideological execution. After the 2012 presidential election, Hedges excoriated liberal voters for clinging to isolated issues like abortion rights and gender equality while “ignoring the vast corporate assault on the nation and the ecosystem along with the pre-emptive violence of the imperial state.” Last November he singled out those “liberal Jewish critics inside and outside Israel” who—when confronted by the brutal facts of Palestinian oppression—“unleash a savage vitriol, which in its fury exposes the self-adulation and latent racism at the core of modern Zionism.”

Truthdig’s Israel coverage has caused friction between Kaufman and her sister, who is raising her family within shelling distance of Palestinian positions. Kaufman admits that Truthdig content has at times caused her internal friction as well. “Some of what we put out on the site is harsh for me,” she says. “I feel it’s too extreme. But that doesn’t mean it’s not going to go on the site.”

Hedges doesn’t concern himself with sparing readers’ feelings. “It’s very hard to know on the Internet who your audience is,” he says. “And I don’t really care about the audience. I think of producing the best work that I can and being as honest as I can.” The site has struggled to monetize his popularity. In eight years he’s made three appearances on Truthdig’s behalf—at a salon at Kaufman’s house, at a New Mexico retreat, and at a paid event at the Santa Monica Bay Woman’s Club.

In 2010, borrowing a fund-raising idea from The Nation, which charges its readers to bond with their favorite writers on the high seas over plates of unlimited shrimp, Kaufman and Scheer asked Hedges to participate in an annual ocean cruise for Truthdig’s fans. Asked why he declined, Hedges doesn’t lack for reasons. “Let’s start with the fact that cruise ships are major polluters,” he says. “Then there’s the whole notion of sitting around the buffet table, which is a little nauseating. I like my privacy and my space, and I don’t think I’d get either on a cruise ship.” 

Instead Kaufman and Scheer agreed to Hedges’s counterproposal: a five-day trek he agreed to lead through the White Mountains of New Hampshire. “It’s pretty rigorous, actually,” Hedges says. “You have 45 pounds on your back and hike eight to ten miles a day. You go up 5,000 to 6,000 feet.” The physical requirements alone may have discouraged the majority of Truthdig’s audience, which skews age 40 and older. Thirteen Truthdig fans signed up, at $2,100 apiece.

Truthdig’s editorial future and its financial viability may depend less on its mid- to late-career stars from old media and more on its young reporters—who have been immersed in the Internet since childhood but are being steeped in Scheer and Hedges’s journalistic ideals. Truthdig is fundamentally a family enterprise, though a far less conventional one than, say, The New York Times. Beyond Scheer, his sons Peter and Joshua (the latter, 34, is a Truthdig podcast interviewer), and Kaufman, who has become a sort of adopted daughter, there are a half dozen bloggers in their twenties and early thirties who are being nurtured as if the future of journalism depends on them. Most started as interns, but long after they complete the program, few leave the nest entirely.

NSA wistle-blower Edward Snowden.

Upon his graduation from the Berklee College of Music in December, Donald Kaufman began an internship at Truthdig. His band, Visceral Design, has relocated to L.A., and although he plans to continue composing and recording “psychological electronic pop” with his bandmates, he also has definite ideas about the Web site’s direction—some of which he discussed with his mother over the holidays.

Donald, 23, says he has no tolerance for what he calls “the emotional porn” of the mainstream media and the Internet. “There’s so much anger and fear and insecurity,” he says, “but it’s been put in the wrong frame of reference so many times that we don’t know what we’re upset about. So people will turn their anger and frustration on Alec Baldwin sooner than they will on Obama or John Boehner.” Still, he finds nothing wrong with highlighting celebrities when they put their fame to work promoting issues essential to the site. 

Donald was encouraged by a Truthdig video post last October that featured Russell Brand on British television. The clip—in which the actor-comedian spoke about economic disparity, environmental degradation, and a corporate takeover of government to an increasingly hostile interviewer—got “huge traffic,” Donald says. “Brand was really falling along the same political lines as Chris Hedges but in a way that might be more entertaining to certain people.”

Sounding like an Internet mogul in the making, he suggests Truthdig might have something to learn from the Web site of London’s liberal Guardian newspaper, which has posted exclusives of Snowden’s leaks on state surveillance at the same time it has planted browser cookies on visitors’ computers to get a better idea of their search interests and how to market to them. As for building revenue, Donald says, “if Truthdig is just looking at advertising, that’s never going to work because the market is so saturated.”

Donald has told Scheer and his mom that they must take Truthdig seriously as a brand. “They need to have public talks every three or four months,” he says. “There are much better ways of mobilizing the readers they have. They also need to focus on younger people, too—although I do tend to meet a lot of college kids who know about Truthdig.”

In leveraging live appearances for all they’re worth, the site would be following the lead of recording artists who might once have made the bulk of their living through album sales but now rely on ticket sales and merchandising to make up for what iTunes and audio streaming have forever taken away.

“If the music industry has been able to solve its predicament,” Donald Kaufman says, “so can Truthdig.”

 


 

Ed Leibowitz is a writer-at-large for Los Angeles. His last piece, about the 1994 Northridge earthquake, appeared in the January issue.


This feature originally appeared in the February 2014 issue of Los Angeles magazine

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