Currently based in Ireland, Marcy Wheeler completed her Ph.D. in Complit at Michigan in 2000. The author of Anatomy of Deceit (2007) and the creator of the journalism blog emptywheel, Marcy talks here about her alt-ac career as an independent reporter on national security and political blogger for public justice.
Before joining CompLit to get her own doctoral degree, Marcy’s work involved teaming up with Ph.D. grads to assist companies in their use of language. The job dealt with the nuances of language, teaching businesses how to use it in different registers, and included in-depth research, site visits, translations of documentation for experts, and collaboration. She also hired people from diverse backgrounds, with tech writing as well as liberal arts degrees, who could learn to solve new problems.
These experiences way, she could transfer her skills from work to graduate school, but they are not the only thing that she brought with her into academia. Besides that job, she volunteered for a Latino cultural organization in San Francisco; it was there that she first noticed how texts which originally started showing up in newspapers eventually became literary in the 90s. So what would happen if she looked at newspapers and print culture from a literary perspective? This was a question for her dissertation.
Driven by the same intensity and curiosity, Marcy then started her Ph.D. already having a comparative project in mind. This helped her finish the degree in only five and a half years. From the broader corpus of journalistic literature in Eastern Europe and Latin America, she quickly narrowed down her interest to feuilletons in Czech and Argentinian literature. Tracing the origins of the dissident writing she was interested in the 1970s and 80s, Marcy had to look as far back as the serial novel traditions in France. Her dissertation ended up involving the works of people who were disappeared, tortured, and surveilled, which deeply informed her later expertise on torture and surveillance.
Marcy’s mindset during the Ph.D. was, counterintuitively, to never be a “100% graduate student.” In addition to teaching, she worked in LSA in the Dean’s Office as a staff throughout the program. She also did extracurricular activities to keep her mind off of dissertation work, such as socializing with her peers in her dissertation writing group and playing frisbee during her writing phase. Being aware of her cohort mates who were dealing with immigration laws, Marcy was also acutely conscious of the things that made it easier for her than for them in the program.
After completing her Ph.D., Marcy taught shortly in the Communications department at U-M. But that’s when she started to think that the university was no longer the right place for her. She turned down a job offer to teach literature and left academia – a decision that came just as she was diagnosed with cancer and had to undergo chemotherapy for about nine months. To be able to financially support herself and pay her bills through this difficult period, Marcy turned back to her former expertise in documentations, this time working as a representative in Asia for an automotive company.
The turning point of Marcy’s career was in 2003 when she started participating in the emerging blogosphere as an independent journalist. She started covering the CIA leak case of Valerie Plame, which led to her writing Anatomy of Deceit, a journalistic book about Lewis “Scooter” Libby’s involvement in Plame’s affair in 2006, right before what became known as “the Libby trial.” Given her close investigation of the case, Marcy realized that she could no longer represent the company she was working for overseas, so she changed her career entirely to full-time blogging.
Emptywheel was Marcy’s pseudonym when she started the blog which is supported through donations and earns her a living wage in Michigan. For a long time, her voice on the site was perceived as male, as back then the blogosphere was even more gendered than the internet is today. Most people also are unaware that she has a Ph.D., something that Marcy does not publicize, especially after noticing how some senior law professors and other talented people don’t disclose their backgrounds in their blogs. Not unlike the feuilleton, this seems to democratize the discussion of expert topics and make for a more horizontal discursive space.
Alongside her blog, Marcy does research projects that are tied to congressional issues or surveillance. But although she is an award-winning journalist and an expert in this topic, she does not define her work as traditional journalism. Rather, through the prism of Comparative Literature, she sees it as “another lane of journalism.”
Investigating the history of print journalism made her think about how, in journalism, the emphasis is always on the credibility of documents, and not their provenance. This is why she insists on using the term “reading” instead of research. Her comparative literature background allows her to treat language as anything but transparent in journalism: she maintains that she can find details in the documents that others don’t find because she is keen on reading things differently. By approaching government-issued documents as stories, she believes, against journalists and colleagues, that she is doing more than simply “complementing” the news. This is because, she argues, in an era where there are often more documents available than sources, we don’t realize how recent this so-called “objective structure” of news production is. “When we start seeing things like ‘fake news’ now, that’s not new. It’s not the internet ruined objective news, it’s specific stations that emerged with the rise of the cable,” she explains. And this is what reading reports from a literary perspective can reveal.
This interview was conducted by Shira Schwartz in 2019, and edited by Duygu Ergun and Luiza Duarte Caetano as part of their work as Graduate Student Diversity Allies in the Summer of 2021.