When Mike Tronnes co-founded the website Cursor.org with Rob Levine, Mike Mosedale and Brad Zellar ten years ago, few of the attention-getting strategies of the internet were at his disposal. Cursor predated Digg and Reddit, RSS was an acronym just being born, and social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook didn't yet exist. He had to resort to desperate measures to promote his site. And, brilliantly, he did so in a highly visible way that simultaneously promoted Cursor's mission of media critique: He'd crash live newscasts, showing up on-screen behind reporters holding signs that cleverly exposed the hype-generating ruses they employed.
The first time I saw Tronnes, he was standing behind WCCO's Randi Kaye as she lead off the evening news with a "LIVE" report broadcast from the field where new governor Jesse Ventura had coached the Champlin Park High School football team... hours earlier. Questioning the newsworthiness of the story -- and its "live" coverage from a venue long emptied out of its newsmakers -- he held up a sign that read "Can't this wait until the sports news?"
There on the sign was the URL for Cursor, an online source for more criticism of the Twin Cities media scene. In the ten years since, Cursor has expanded its scope to include viewpoints on national media and both national and international politics. It now gets site visits in the five figures every day, and its Media Transparency project, spearheaded by Levine and launched in 1999, has compiled one of the more extensive maps of the conservative philanthropy movement, tracking 40 grantmaking groups on the political right and where their more than $3 billion in gifts are going.
On the site's tenth anniversary and with a fundraiser in progress, Tronnes agreed to discuss Cursor, his time as "The Crasher," and the evolving nature of the progressive blogosphere.
Paul Schmelzer: What are some of your favorite "media crasher" moments?
Mike Tronnes: When Cursor began in 1997, most of our invective was directed at local TV news. Even then it was hopelessly beyond reform, but it did provide endless opportunity for ridicule. We had a columnist named "Budd Rugg," who skewered the idea of local media celebrity, and whose schtick was that of a pathetic media sycophant. In 1999 I had a brief star turn as "The Crasher," walking onto live remotes of local TV newscasts while brandishing signs that both advertised Cursor and questioned what passes for reporting on TV news. I made my way onto a live remote from a Prince concert with a sign that read, "The program formerly known as The News."
Another trend that was ascendant at the time was synergizing news stories and network programming. It reached its peak -- or nadir, depending on your perspective -- in the summer of 2000 when WCCO-4 turned its newscasts into a promotional vehicle for the just-launched "Survivor." We documented this flagrant violation of the public trust in "Survivoring the News," and in a City Pages cover story that I worked on with Mike Mosedale, a founding member of Cursor, whose gonzo media criticism is archived in "The Moseum."
PS: When you started Cursor, the online media landscape was completely different. What are the changes you've seen in the realm of blogs and online media, and how is Cursor adapting to this new climate?
MT: Cursor.org began in 1997 as a local media criticism site. In 1999 we started a national version of our "Media Patrol" digest, adding politics to the mix, and after 9/11, expanded it to include international affairs. At that time the blogosphere was dominated by right-wing voices and many now-popular progressive news aggregators didn't exist. Nor did Google News, which is invaluable for seeing where a story's at, and what kind of play it is or isn't getting. Also, there were no sites like Media Matters or Think Progress that provided rapid response to conservative misinformation and the mainstream media's parroting of it.
This proliferation of sources certainly allows us to cover more ground, but it also makes our aggregating function trickier, because a lot of our readers also frequent those sites. And while we're always on the lookout for articles and issues that haven't made their way around the progressive aggregators and blogosphere, much of our effort is spent contextualizing those that have. Now it's less about discovering a story, and more about organizing and advancing it.
PS: Your site Media Transparency, maintained by Rob Levine, was one of the first resource portals to look into the funding of the political and religious right...
MT: Right. When Media Transparency launched in 1999, most people had only heard the term "vast right-wing conspiracy," without knowing much about it or how it functioned. But as conservatives expanded their influence in government -- see The Conservative Movement Moves In -- Media Transparency's research and editorial became invaluable for reporting on the impact that conservative philanthropy has on public policy. We currently track 40 conservative funders in a database that includes 8,000 recipients of 50,000 grants totaling more than $3 billion.
And while Cursor mainly draws from other editorial sources, Media Transparency is a content provider for anyone investigating conservative causes and organizations. Two good examples that I mentioned before are Media Matters and Think Progress. Cursor often links to them, and they in turn regularly link to Media Transparency's research.
PS: With Cursor and Media Transparency, your role is less visible: fundraising, hiring writers, marketing. An new article in The Nation talks about the funding of bloggers, how many news bloggers are volunteers, and how "progressives tend not to put their money where their mouth is." Cursor is a nonprofit that relies on grants and individual donations to survive -- and you're doing a fundraising appeal now. When you pitch potential funders, what's your best argument for the continued (and generous!) support of Cursor/Media Transparency?
MT: Cursor and Media Transparency are incorporated as Cursor, Inc., which is a 501(c)(3), the IRS's designation for non-profits. The majority of our funding comes from foundations, and our general argument to them is that we've successfully developed two Web sites and are an integral part of building what is often referred to as "progressive media infrastructure." We've put together an online fundraising site built around this theme, which includes an archive of articles and editorials about funding progressive infrastructure, called "Work In Progress."
Since most left-of-center foundations don't give grants for general operating support, unlike their counterparts on the right, our proposals have centered on specific projects relating to Media Transparency. The pitch being that with additional funding, we can promote Media Transparency's research to a more mainstream media audience. The goal is to get reporters and producers that cover subjects like school vouchers, Social Security privatization, or faith-based initiatives, to follow the money trail and paint a more complete picture of who's behind the various policy proposals, which are often inaccurately portrayed in the media as being grass roots in nature. The great irony is that while Media Transparency tracks more than $3 billion in conservative funding, we're scrambling to get a piece of the much-smaller pie that's available to progressive organizations.