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When Libertarians Cry

Getting fired is never easy, but the brush-off that bloggers at the Pajamas Media Ad Network received this January was particularly callous. "I just received a Dear John form letter," says Jeff Goldstein, a libertarian and mixed martial artist who writes on the blog Protein Wisdom. The notice began as a promotion for Pajamas Media's new TV channel, but buried halfway through was news that Goldstein's contract--and those of his fellow bloggers on the PJM Ad Network--would be terminated. When I spoke to Pajamas Media CEO Roger Simon five days later, he was unsympathetic. "Let's put it this way: We gave those people more than--we gave them what we gave them on the theory that the advertising market for blogs was going to go on an upward curve," he said. "But all in all, it was a consistent loser. We looked at the near-term economy, and we decided the money we had could better be devoted to the television project."

In most industries, of course, laid-off workers aren’t avowed libertarians or die-hard free marketeers, so they can be bitter about job cuts without running afoul of their core economic principles. Not so the bloggers on PJM's Ad Network, who, with some exceptions, have chosen to accept their fate with Randian equanimity. "Business is business, red in tooth and claw," wrote the blogger Allahpundit. "Thank god I have that pothole-filling job in the new Obama WPA to fall back on.”

Instead, many of the laid-off bloggers have found a different way to express their angst about Pajamas Media's business strategy: They're calling the owners of PJM sell-outs. "The initial purpose was to support citizen-blogging as a counterweight to the MSM, but they've been getting away from that for years now,” says Goldstein, echoing statements I’d heard from other bloggers like Guy Rado, Rusty Shackleford,and others. “My biggest criticism is that they've become what they're fighting against."

When Pajamas Media was founded in 2005, the influence of the conservative blogosphere was just cresting. The blogs' critique of the "MSM," which they considered bureaucratic, complacent, and liberal, had just been validated by the Rathergate scandal, in which a number of conservative blogs disproved the authenticity of what CBS News claimed were George W. Bush's Texas Air Guard records. Hoping to channel this spirit of "citizen journalism" and anti-MSM defiance--"We do not need four of five layers of editors to screw this up like they have at the L.A. Times," one Pajamas blogger explained at the time--Roger Simon, a fedora-sporting screenwriter, and Charles Johnson, of the blog Little Green Footballs, launched Pajamas Media. It began as "an alliance of 170 blogs," as The Washington Post put it, that would leverage their combined readership to attract advertisers and pay a share of revenue to each blogger. While they were not uniformly conservative--PJM initially signed up The Nation's David Corn, who ended up a token liberal in a flock of Malkins--they rapidly came to resemble a broad cross-section of the right-wing blogosphere. The visible manifestation of this alliance was the, a blog-aggregation website which they said would feature the best of their blog content alongside original reporting and wire stories (but only as it was getting off the ground).

But Simon and Johnson--who left PJM in 2007 to devote time to his own website but remains a contributor--never completely bought into the hype about a decentralized alliance. Their vision of the company's future revolved around turning the PJM Portal into something much more conventional--a respected news and opinion website that would ostensibly rival outlets like Slate and In Simon and Johnson's telling, the PJM Ad Network was just supposed to be a cash cow that would fund this effort, rather than a heroic blogger confederacy.

But the blog network didn’t develop into the cash cow, or even calf, they were hoping for. As time went on, Simon and Johnson focused on establishing star bloggers such as Glenn Reynolds, and promoting them as their own alongside "PajamasXpress" pieces by established writers like Michael Ledeen and Victor Davis Hanson. This struck disfavored bloggers as "MSM-like" behavior: "Early on, each morning they would aggregate the best stuff from the blogs in the network, but after a while you just never saw that stuff. It was either the people writing for hire or the express bloggers," says Goldstein. "You'd send them links and they just wouldn't link to you," complains Shackleford, a blogger who goes by a pseudonym connoting anti-government paranoia and only agreed to talk to me from a blocked phone number. "It became a lot like the MSM because you had editorial decisions going on."

As far as management was concerned, however, the bloggers could groan all they wanted; PJM still wasn’t bringing in any money. And so Simon et al finally decided to kill the blogging operation and focus exclusively on web TV. "The thinking is this," Simon explains. "We're heading for a kind of convergence in the next few years. The Internet and television will fuse. ... What we're trying to do is build our own news and opinion network from the people working with us and new people." He's betting that devices like the Apple TV will replace regular cable television in the next few years, allowing companies that produce newsy content for the web to compete side-by-side with shows from CNN and Fox.

To that end, Pajamas has constructed its own full-scale TV studio in El Segundo, California, and it has hired "talent" like Joe the Plumber, who covered the Gaza crisis as well as the fiscal stimulus. PJM has also asked its star bloggers to appear as anchors and analysts, even though, as Johnson tells it, "a lot of our bloggers have good faces for radio." ("Not everybody has to look like Michelle Malkin," Simon adds.)

"There are all kinds of plans," says Johnson. "Instead of the usual talking head, Meet the Press kind of thing, they're going to add more production value: on location shots, montages of various issues. All the stuff you can see on Keith Olbermann and Bill O'Reilly." Simon says they even plan to create an inverted version of The View, where "three conservatives gang up on a liberal."

So it’s hardly surprising that the bloggers feel abandoned--like the fauna in Animal Farm who saw their leaders turn into what they had railed against. It also doesn't help that PJM is cozying up to the RNC and bragging that its programs will soon share DNA with Keith Olbermann’s, nor that so many of PJM TV's new commentators come from Beltway think-tanks.

Of course, just because PJM is striving to be a relatively standard media outlet doesn't mean it has to talk like one. Which explains why Joe The Plumber spent so much of his time in Gaza lambasting the "mainstream media," and why PJM's blog ads are spending the last few weeks before their official shutdown on April 1 hyping Rick Santelli-inspired anti-bailout "Tea Parties." The fact is that ostentatious bluster about the MSM is the only thing left to separate PJM TV's brand from its competitors--without it, it’s simply a collection of talking heads trying to muscle in on the Beltway establishment. Raise that point with many of PJM's old bloggers and you won't be accused of liberal bias at all.

Barron YoungSmith is a reporter-researcher for The New Republic.