In 2004, a band of apparently outraged citizens launched OC Blog (www.ocblog.net). It would, they said, provide average guys of superb intellect with an extraordinary platform from which to denounce Orange County's political insiders. But speaking truth to power is dangerous work, maybe career-ending or even death-defying. So OC Blog's contributors use pen names to protect themselves from the rich and powerful and their gun-crazy political consultants. There's Kahuna, Lurk and Pistolero, among others. The site's most prolific blogger, who writes under the name Jubal, has become something of a celebrity in the small world of Orange County politics. In January, he appeared on KOCE's Inside O.C. With Rick Reiff,where his host accorded him the sort of treatment usually reserved for whistleblowers and ex-mobsters in the federal witness protection program: his face was obscured and his voice digitally altered to protect his true identity.
But neither Jubal nor his OC Blog comrades are whistleblowers. And though OC Blog promises to offer “penetrating insights into the machinations behind the Orange Curtain,” it is in fact one of those machinations.
Take Jubal. His identity is a matter of speculation among OC Blog readers, but it's well-known among the county's political reporters that Jubal is Matt Cunningham, a longtime fixture in OC Republican politics. (The name Jubal is, significantly, drawn from Stranger in a Strange Land, the novel by sci-fi writer and right-wing kook Robert Heinlein.) And rather than use his secret identity to advance bold political positions that might require a Kevlar vest and an escape plan, Cunningham has used his anonymity for the political advantage of the party in power—and for a lot of self-congratulation.
Cunningham runs Pacific Strategies, an OC political consulting firm, and BlogAtomic, a consulting business. He's a longtime party activist and a rising star in Republican political blogging, having joined the roster of conservative bloggers at the FlashReport (www.flashreport.org), recently featured in the San Diego Union-Tribuneas one of the state's most influential political blogs.
Cunningham isn't as prominent as his alter ego, but then Jubal's favorite blogger is Cunningham. So that's nice. Writing on the FlashReport, Cunningham links to OC Blog posts he has written as Jubal, pretending that he's only just discovered them, as any reader might. As Jubal, he links to Cunningham's posts on the FlashReport, pretending that Cunningham is offering the reader analysis that's even better than Jubal's. At no point is the reader offered even a hint that what appears to be a dialogue between two writers is actually a self-promoting monologue.
Cunningham's Jubal scam has obvious advantages. As a writer at a leading Republican political blog under his own name, Cunningham's link to the anonymous Jubal helps bolster OC Blog's credibility. And in return, Jubal's promotion of Cunningham's work inflates Cunningham's reputation as a master of the OC scene—a fungible asset in the consulting world.
But his dual role makes for some awkward situations. On one such occasion, Weekly contributor Alex Brant-Zawadzki asked Jubal about Matt Cunningham's position on the Foothill-South toll road extension. Jubal generously forwarded the question to Cunningham and then sent Cunningham's answer to Brant-Zawadzki. “In retrospect,” says Brant-Zawadzki, “he appears to have been playing with himself.”
Then there was the recent dustup between the FlashReport and OC Blog. In his April 6 story on the impact of political blogs, San Diego Union-Tribune reporter John Marelius interviewed the FlashReport's chieftain, Jon Fleischman. During the day, Fleischman serves the taxpayers—liberal and conservative—as the sheriff's department's spokesman; in his off-hours, he works on FlashReport with his hand-picked “stable of political professionals from around the state.” According to Marelius, Fleischman is proudest of the FlashReport's credibility, which he attributes to his insistence on named sources: everything on the FlashReport “has a name attached.” Fleischman told Marelius that he goes so far as to delete comments that are made under pseudonyms.
“It's a pain to do that, but I decided I wanted everything on my site to be attributed,” said Fleischman.
Dan Schnur, a longtime Republican political consultant and the FlashReport's “state capitol correspondent,” was even harsher about anonymous blogging. “If there's a user's guide to blogs,” he told Marelius, “rule No. 1 is if the blogger isn't sharing his name, his opinions aren't worth your attention.”
Predictably, the anonymous OC Blog went nuts. Silence Dogood was first on the attack—and found immediate support from Cunningham, writing on the FlashReport. Cunningham likened anonymous bloggers to John Jay, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, who published the Federalist Papers under the pseudonym Publius. It's a line Cunningham's used before in his persona as Jubal.
Fleischman, who should have been the 800-pound gorilla in the fight, backed down. In an April 8 post on the FlashReport, Fleischman claimed Marelius misquoted him and reaffirmed his admiration for OC Blog: back in December, he praised the “handfun [sic] of anonymous bloggers,” and he now declared OC Blog his “favorite example of anonymous posting done right.” He singled out Jubal for special praise.
Contacted by the Weekly, the Union-Tribune's Marelius stood by his reporting. “I was asking him about anonymous content,” said Marelius. “If there's a definition of 'attributed' that means something other than having a name next to the words, it's news to me.” He said that Fleischman has not contacted him seeking a correction.
Fleischman's stated opinions on anonymous blogging may change from day to day, but Cunningham is remarkably consistent. Whether writing under his own name or as Jubal, Cunningham is consistently in the right wing of Orange County Republican politics, and praises and damns the same people.
Nowhere is Cunningham's Heinleinian impulse clearer than in Tuesday's race for California's 35th Senate District seat. The race should have been a blowout: Tom Harman is a Republican with years on the HB City Council and several terms in the Assembly; Diane Harkey, his opponent, entered politics just two years ago, when she was elected to the Dana Point City Council.
Despite that asymmetry, Harkey has the backing of the party's political operatives, men like Cunningham and Jubal, whose love of Harkey is overshadowed by a hatred of Harman they can trace back to 2000, when he beat Republican Party insider Jim Righeimer for the Huntington Beach Assembly seat. Harkey is supported as well by virtually every politician whose off-camera activities make the Weekly such a lively, sexy read. There's Mike Schroeder, the most powerful man in the county, managing, as he does, the campaigns of the two most powerful law-enforcement agents in OC—our embattled (sexy) sheriff and our DA. There's Sheriff Mike Carona himself, a man whose name ought very quickly to become associated with the stink of political death—and, sure, sex; Costa Mesa City Councilman Gary Monahan and Mayor Alan Mansoor, who'd like local cops to pester anyone with brown skin for their papers; Huntington Beach resident Jim Silva, maybe the dumbest man in politics but a reliable insider; fellow HB resident Scott Baugh, head of the county's Republican Party; and HB Congressman Dana Rohrabacher.
Cunningham backs Harkey too, though he has failed to inform his readers of his financial interest in her campaign. Documents show Harkey's campaign paid $1,050 to BlogAtomic, Cunningham's blog consulting business, on Jan. 17. He hasn't disclosed that payment in any of his subsequent posts on the senate race, all of them pro-Harkey, and he certainly hasn't disclosed the payment on OC Blog, where he has been even more vociferous in support of Harkey.
Don't expect moral outrage from the mainstream press. Writing on his own blog, Orange Punch, Orange County Registereditorialista Steve Greenhut declared, “There's a good reason for [anonymity] at OC Blog, given that its writers are well-connected people who cannot write freely without harming their careers or their bosses.”
It's hard to imagine Cunningham's blog work—as himself or Jubal—”harming” his career or boss. For one thing, he is his boss. For another, he is a Republican political consultant in a Republican county. His postings, whether as Cunningham or Jubal, are consistently right of center. And, like I said, everyone in the know already knows that Cunningham is Jubal.
While it's hard to see how Jubal's writings could harm Cunningham's reputation, it's easy to see how he has used his secret identity to abuse the trust of his readers. He's only been able to get away with it because those who know about it—insiders—either support it or consider it unimportant. And so Cunningham's been able to go on with his fraudulent little duet, promoting Jubal who promotes Cunningham, in both cases pretending to supply readers with real insider knowledge. But, of course, the real insiders can see through Cunningham's con. The only people who can't are those who believe they can trust what they read on FlashReport and OC Blog. Saps.
Portions of this story first appeared in Blotter items by Will Swaim.