Meet Dr. Bill Siroty: Physician, Dean supporter, and New Hampshire’s indispensable media activist
BY DAN KENNEDY
NASHUA, NEW HAMPSHIRE — The doctor sitting across the table from me in the Southern New Hampshire Medical Center cafeteria, sipping iced coffee late on a Friday morning, would not be on anyone’s list of media stars in this state’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary.
William Siroty, a mild-mannered 52-year-old allergist and internist, doesn’t write about politics, analyze poll numbers, or blurt out pithy sound bites on TV talk shows. He speaks so softly that I have to ask him to repeat himself whenever a can goes clunk! in the soda machine behind me.
Yet he has turned himself into an indispensable media activist. How — and why — says much about the way the media operate in 2003. In an age when technology has given us access to everything but made it impossible to keep up, Siroty has emerged as an unlikely gatekeeper, sifting through the news of the day and trying to organize it in a way that makes sense.
Four or five days a week, Siroty sits down in front of his computer — usually around 10 p.m. — and starts poking around newspaper and political Web sites so that he can compile an e-mail that he calls simply "New Hampshire News Links." All told, he’ll check 30 to 40 sites for sure, and possibly a few others out of the 350 that he has designated as his "news favorites." If he can’t find an article online but he’s got a copy of the paper, he’ll scan it in. He has a TV on in the background — a rebroadcast of Hardball, or sometimes Letterman, "for noise."
By the time he wraps up, four or five hours later, he’s generally cut and pasted 60 to 70 stories, totaling more than 40,000 words. He hits "send," and the missive arrives in the electronic mailboxes of some 500 recipients, about half in New Hampshire and half elsewhere, including a number of influential folks in the national media. "The Note," an inside-baseball political newsletter published on ABCNews.com, recently went so far as to proclaim itself a member of Siroty’s "cult."
"If you want to find out what’s going on in New Hampshire politics and anything related to politics, it’s just an amazing resource to have," says NBC News political director Elizabeth Wilner, who recently left "The Note" and now puts together a competing newsletter, "First Read," for MSNBC.com. "I wish someone did that in Iowa and the other early states that we have to pay attention to."
"New Hampshire News Links" includes state-only stories, such as updates on the nasty Nashua mayor’s race and on the endless quest to change the way public education is funded. But the heart of Siroty’s e-mail is news about the presidential campaign, organized by candidate — polls, speeches, spats, the works.
The media landscape in "Links" is remarkably egalitarian. The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Boston Globe are on equal footing with the Manchester Union Leader, the Concord Monitor, the Nashua Telegraph, and Foster’s Daily Democrat. And you’ll find plenty of scooplets that you might have missed if you had relied only on the major national media.
Just last week, for instance, Siroty included reports from the Des Moines Register on a scuffle that took place after a campaign worker for Dick Gephardt allegedly called an openly gay Howard Dean aide a "faggot" — an incendiary little piece of news that barely rated a squib in the national press.
And if you hadn’t been reading "Links," how would you ever have known that John Kerry — according to the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune — is worried that not enough New Hampshire voters realize he’s a veteran? One might have thought that’s the only thing the average citizen knows about Kerry.
"People aren’t getting a full view of the news. I think I’m giving them a bigger picture," says Siroty. His goal, he explains, is to get beyond the limitations of any one paper — to provide "a larger variety of news from a larger variety of sources. The Web makes this doable, and I’m helping to facilitate that."
Boston Globe political reporter Glen Johnson, in response to an e-mail query, said he’s a Siroty regular, adding, "In an age where we’re deluged with information, I find it a good way to cut to the chase — and to stay in touch with the far corners of the state."
Yet it could also be argued that "New Hampshire News Links" is contributing to the very information overload that it is designed to counteract. Even the specialized audience that receives "Links" — political reporters, activists, campaign workers, and the like — can hardly be expected to read what amounts to two to three books a week and still manage to do their jobs. Siroty himself admits he doesn’t read everything he posts, and that he often just skims to make sure the story he’s about to copy will be of potential interest to someone out there.
Walter Shapiro, a political columnist for USA Today and the author of a book on (no kidding) the 2004 presidential campaign, One-Car Caravan: Running for President Before America Tunes In (PublicAffairs), says he’s a huge Siroty fan. Yet he admits to reading it in not much depth — a consequence, he says, of the impossibility of being a truly well-read political junkie in the age of technology.
"The real problem is that one can spend six hours reading without reporting," says Shapiro. "There’s the Hotline, there’s Bill, there’s the ABC political ‘Note,’ there’s the CBS ‘Washington Wrap,’ there’s NBC’s ‘First Read,’ there’s PoliticsNH.com. Because you don’t want someone to do all of your reading for you, I also get five newspapers delivered to me at home, in New York." Shapiro likes to check in on the blogs that the presidential campaigns have posted on their Web sites, too.
"By this time," Shapiro laments, "it’s six o’clock in the evening, I haven’t made a phone call, and I’m feeling guilty because I haven’t been watching CNN all day."
In the midst of such a glut, Siroty’s "Links" is something of a double-edged sword. Its sheer comprehensiveness is its most impressive feature. But only if you’ve got the time to read it.
THAT SOMEONE like Bill Siroty — a gay, Jewish, liberal activist from Long Island — could make a difference in a state long known for its insularity and conservatism shows how much things have changed in New Hampshire.
Down the street from the medical center is Nashua City Hall, where a plaque commemorates the spot on which John F. Kennedy kicked off his presidential campaign, on January 25, 1960. The date itself is telling. By January 25, 2004 — two days before the presidential primary — Howard Dean, John Kerry, et al. will have crisscrossed the state many dozens of times over the course of what for some of them has been a two-year-plus campaign.
New Hampshire used to be the sort of place where little-known candidates such as Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern, and Jimmy Carter could come out of nowhere and establish themselves as serious contenders. For many years now, though, it’s been something else entirely: a national media circus in which every move is watched, dissected, and analyzed.
In the wake of an enormous influx of former Massachusetts residents over the past several decades, New Hampshire today is far more like the rest of the country than it was, say, in 1972. That’s when the Union Leader, with a little help from Richard Nixon’s dirty tricksters, destroyed Edmund Muskie’s candidacy by attacking Muskie’s wife, and then dubiously claiming that he had cried at a rally outside the paper’s offices. The media isolation that made it possible for the Union Leader to own that moment is as much a part of the past as the factories that used to dot the New Hampshire hillsides.
Bill Siroty got his start as a media activist during the 2000 campaign, when he was a Bill Bradley supporter. He started putting together Bradley articles for a few of his fellow campaign volunteers, and "it sort of mushroomed from there." After March, when Bradley’s campaign folded, "Links" evolved into an e-mail for supporters of Al Gore and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Fernald (who ended up losing to Republican Craig Benson in 2002).
It was around this time that Siroty began dropping off printouts for radio talk-show host Deborah "Arnie" Arnesen, a veteran Democratic activist and onetime candidate for governor. He continues to clip a few pieces just for Arnesen, who is now heard on WKXL Radio, in Concord, and in the Boston area on WPLM (AM 1390). "You know how you can have your own personal shopper? I’ve got my own personal Bill," Arnesen jokes. "The Internet has really transformed who the gatekeepers are. It used to be Time and Newsweek that pulled the stories together. Now he’s doing the equivalent of that."
Also at about this time, then–New Hampshire Democratic Party chair Ken Robinson began showing "Links" to national journalists, thus expanding Siroty’s audience beyond local party activists. And Siroty decided to keep it up even after the 2000 election.
Recently Siroty declared his support for Howard Dean, who stayed overnight on July 3 with him and his partner, Bill Stelling, before a campaign event the next day. Yet it is a sign of Siroty’s fair-mindedness that not even Robinson, who is now John Kerry’s New Hampshire state director, is concerned that Siroty may start spinning "Links" Dean’s way. "Bill’s a good guy. I think he’s fair. I don’t really have any concerns related to that," Robinson says.
Siroty himself says that, if anything, he’s bending over backward to make sure he includes negative Dean stories. "I’m probably being more negative toward Dean than I would normally," Siroty says. "I think I’m psychologically trying to compensate."
IT ALL BEGAN with the Hotline. Starting in 1987, a few political junkies started putting together a daily compendium of stories from every news outlet they could find. You could use your modem-equipped computer to dial in to the Hotline’s electronic bulletin board (typical download time: 10 to 15 minutes), or receive it by fax or by mail. Suddenly it was possible for political reporters everywhere to know precisely what their colleagues around the country were writing.
Today the Hotline, now part of National Journal, is updated five or six times a day, and it covers stories ranging from the New Hampshire primary to the Philadelphia mayor’s race. It’s also expensive: the average subscription costs $5500 a year, says Charles Todd, the Hotline’s editor. Yet Todd professes not to worry about a free service such as Siroty’s, saying, "I love what Bill does. It’s very useful. It speeds up what we want to make sure we’re keeping up with."
The Hotline may have been the first of the new, technology-driven political media, but many others have followed in its path. With the rise of the Internet in the mid 1990s, dozens of political Web sites have come and gone. Unlike in 2000, when dot-com entrepreneurs were crazy enough to think they could make money from politics (remember Voter.com?), this year’s models appear to be powered by the more reliable fuel of civic passion.
Take PoliticsNH.com, one of five state-politics sites started by the mysterious "Josiah Bartlett." Though intended as a money-making venture, the site is modest and lightly staffed; there’s even a button you can click to make a donation. Managing editor James Pindell says he just hired his first full-time reporter.
PoliticsNH.com specializes in the nuts and bolts of grassroots politics. A highlight is the "Tally Board," which keeps track of which presidential candidates are being supported by 105 prominent New Hampshire Democrats. The site covers local political stories as well. Readership, Pindell says, is up to about 10,000 "unique visitors" a day.
"We’re not as interested in doing the candidate profile as we are the campaign-manager profile," says Pindell. "For us, it’s about telling the story of process. We want what the junkies want. We’re junkies and journalists at the same time."
Perhaps the most celebrated — and overblown — Internet phenomenon of the post-bubble era is the weblog. With dreams of online wealth long gone, thousands of bloggers are getting online and posting their thoughts with no goal other than getting noticed. Many, if not most, blogs are worth exactly what you pay to read them. But there are some exceptions — and those exceptions, like Bill Siroty’s "Links" and PoliticsNH.com, show how technology makes it possible for an individual with something to say to become part of the media conversation.
For instance, Joshua Micah Marshall, who writes the weblog Talkingpointsmemo.com, recently raised nearly $5000 to travel to New Hampshire and cover the primary in the 10 days leading up to the vote — more than he needs, he wrote, unless he intends to work in "princely Howard Fineman–fashion — you know, gold-plated quill pen, vellum notebook, personal food-taster, etc."
Now, Marshall is not your average blogger. For one thing, he’s a real journalist — he’s a columnist for the Hill, a weekly newspaper that covers Congress, and a prominent freelancer. For another, his blog is heavy on reporting.
Because of those qualities, Talkingpointsmemo.com has become a favorite, especially among liberals. Marshall himself says the Internet has given him a way to have an impact as a solo practitioner — and to do it far more cheaply, and with wider distribution, than an iconoclast like I.F. Stone could manage a generation ago. At its 1960s peak, I.F. Stone’s Weekly had a circulation of about 70,000. By comparison, Marshall reports that his site was seen by nearly 350,000 unique visitors in October alone.
"Doing these blogs, you’re not trapped into any of the prescribed rubric of traditional journalism," Marshall says. "It doesn’t have to be an opinion column or a feature article or a short news piece. You can mix and match. It appeals to me, because there’s more room for a slightly more transparent writing style — a more intimate kind of writing."
Established media, too, can take advantage of technology to compete more evenly with larger rivals. The Concord Monitor has long labored in the shadow of the Union Leader, New Hampshire’s only statewide paper, even though the Monitor has a reputation as one of the best small dailies in the country. (According to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the Union Leader’s weekday circulation is 61,249 to the Monitor’s 20,500. The Union Leader’s New Hampshire Sunday News outsells the Sunday Monitor by 81,917 to 22,444.) Now, thanks to the Internet, not only is the Monitor’s coverage of the New Hampshire primary as readily available as the Union Leader’s, but the Monitor is also co-hosting a series of forums with the presidential candidates this week on the Washington Post’s Web site.
The Hotline’s Chuck Todd talks about "the viral idea-marketing that the Internet allows," adding that "it’s so easy to pass things around that it does level the playing field." The result, he says, is that at least among political junkies who try to read everything, there is "an equal chance" for reporters to get their work noticed.
Especially with someone like Bill Siroty pulling all that work together in one place.
PEOPLE WHO don’t know Siroty assume he must be Superman — putting in the 80 to 100 hours a week that are not uncommon for physicians, and then banging out "New Hampshire News Links" when he should be sleeping. In fact, Siroty says his medical practice is part-time. So, yes, he’s working hard; but no, he’s not in any danger of collapsing from sheer exhaustion.
A tall, beefy man with dark, curly hair, Siroty smiles easily and has a boyish enthusiasm for the game of politics. With evident delight, he recalls driving the actor Ron Silver around on Super Bowl Sunday in 2000, and hanging out with Walter Shapiro one evening during the Bradley campaign.
"I was always a newspaper freak," Siroty says — so much so that he laments having to rely so heavily on the Web, where "context" and "emphasis" melt away. He talks about wondering whether anyone reads "Links," then running into someone who’ll tell him, "Oh, that was a great article you had two weeks ago." He mentions an article by New York Post reporter Deborah Orin, and says, "She’s always nasty. I don’t know her. Does she ever smile?" He refers to the Washington Times, whose articles he often includes, as being more than a paper put out by "right-wing Moonie nuts — some of their articles are valid."
Despite his rigorous fairness, he does emphasize issues he cares about — gay rights, the death penalty (he’s opposed), and health care.
As for what’s next, he’s not sure. He’s thinking about offering a version of "Links" on the Web, and he’s already reserved a URL: www.nhnewslinks.com. He may start asking for donations to cover his expenses — he estimates that he spends more than $100 a year on paper copies of the Concord Monitor so that he can stay ahead of the paper’s slow-to-be-updated Web site. And he admits that he’s enjoying himself — especially on those occasions when he attends a political function and gets quoted in "The Note."
"It’s rather incredible that I’m helping to make news in my own way," he says. "I’m being quoted as a source, and I couldn’t write nationally if I tried."
And yes, he’d love to find a way to do "Links" full-time.
In an age of media concentration and corporate journalism, it’s reassuring to know that it’s possible for one person to make himself heard. Bill Siroty may be a physician, but he’s no spin doctor. By serving it up straight, he’s carved out his own niche.
So the next time you see the national media mention a story that had appeared in the Keene Sentinel, the Portsmouth Herald, or the Laconia Citizen, stop and think of Siroty. Because they probably learned about it from him.
To sign up for "New Hampshire News Links," send an e-mail request to email@example.com. Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]phx.com. Read his daily Media Log at BostonPhoenix.com.