With a droll, self-deprecating demeanor, Robert Wright engages a smiling Mickey Kaus each week in a conversation broadcast on their Web site, Bloggingheads.tv. Their running quarrel has attracted a growing number of Web users who want to see rather than merely read bloggers — and who appreciate the efforts to wrestle with the issues of the day.
Mr. Wright, a lean, neatly dressed fellow with a slightly dyspeptic online persona, is more liberal than Mr. Kaus. The founder of the blog Kausfiles is a more lying-in-the-reeds, crocodilian type who describes himself a conservative Democrat. Even this is open to debate, Mr. Wright says: "There's widespread suspicion that his claim to be a conservative Democrat is less than completely forthcoming."
Mr. Kaus distinguishes the two of them as follows: "I like to attack Democrats. He likes to present a united front with Democrats." At any rate, Mr. Kaus said the two are close enough friends that even if he upsets Mr. Wright, "he won't be annoyed at me for more than a day."
Mr. Wright was elated about the recent midterm elections, while Mr. Kaus was more glum. Mr. Wright said one of the moments he savored was when the Republican National Committee's chairman, Ken Mehlman, said on CNN that Republicans had to continue to work on a bipartisan basis to accomplish things. "Continue?" Mr. Wright exclaimed incredulously. "That hasn't exactly been a pervasive theme recently."
On the subject of Iraq, Mr. Wright said, Mr. Kaus thinks there's "an appreciable chance" (about 10% to 15%) that the situation could turn out favorably: "I think," Mr. Wright said in disagreement, "he's off by about a decimal point."
Popular bloggers, Mr. Wright said, tend to have followings of people who are curious about what they look like. Enter Bloggingheads.tv. The company logo features a stick-figure illustration with a head inside a television monitor walking on two feet.
There are no commercial breaks, allowing the bloggers an in-depth and open-ended coverage of the issues. The subject matter — a mix of politics and some culture — makes the Webcast appear as though employees of the New Republic or the American Prospect had taken over a local news station and set up shop to discuss their differences with the National Review and the American Spectator.
Their Web site grew out of long phone conversations between Messrs. Wright and Kaus. "I found them very productive," Mr. Kaus said. "I always thought the talks were actually more useful than anything I write." They started the site with hopes that nuanced, open-ended discussion could reach a level of analysis beyond that of daily newspapers.
From his home in California, Mr. Kaus appears on a split screen alongside Mr. Wright, who is in New Jersey. They are sometimes informally attired, and in the background one can see such things as bookcases, filing cabinets, and air-conditioners. Mr. Wright's remarks are sometimes punctuated by gulps from a plastic cup or a roll of his eyes at Mr. Kaus's latest point.
At times, the video feed makes it feel like one is watching slow-motion NASA footage. Mr. Wright recalled the time a barking dog was heard in the background. But visitors to the site may be witnessing the beginnings of a new information and entertainment form, a kind of a garage band, so to speak, which could eventually fill a stadium. The Web site already draws about 150,000 visitors a month.
One viewer compared the duo with the Odd Couple, with Mr. Wright as Felix. "I took exception to that" and asked viewers for reaction, Mr. Wright said. "I'm sad to say they all agreed."
He said some viewers have commented on "how robotic I am." While Mr. Kaus is more on an emotional even keel, he said, "it's true that my default condition is to look like a robot." Mr. Wright said he was told Andrew Sullivan (before he was New Republic editor, back when Mr. Wright was editing his copy) called him "robo-editor."
Mr. Wright's approach is scholarly when interviewing well-known scientists and thinkers for another Web site, Meaningoflife.tv, where, for example, he talked with physicist Freeman Dyson about topics such as the three levels of mind. Think "Bill Moyers's World of Ideas" meets "YouTube." That Web site, affiliated with Slate.com, has in-depth interviews with such luminaries as Harvard entomologist E.O. Wilson and philosopher Daniel Dennett.
Mr. Kaus calls Mr. Wright, who is coteaching a seminar at Princeton on ethics, his "intellectual guru." Upon hearing of this, Mr. Wright shot back, "He's lying: It's his false humility shtick." Mr. Wright, author of "Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny," argues that history has a direction and that the world is moving toward greater interdependence. The son of a career U.S. army officer, he is currently working on a history of religion, covering a grand sweep from prehistoric time.
Bloggingheads.tv has "a growing cast of other characters," Mr. Wright said. Participants have included Byron York, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Ann Althouse, and Henry Farrell.
Lively discussion ranges from immigration policy to the merits of Bob Dylan. The Web site sells T-shirts and mugs featuring the Bloggingheads.tv logo. The bloggers also have their own argot, such as when Mr. Kaus "deploys the moose," a moose puppet he exhibits to tell a hard truth that no one wants to hear. The reference is to a puppet that Arthur Sulzberger Jr. produced at a tense meeting during the Jason Blair scandal. The site also features "dingalinks," named for the Web site's engineer, Greg Dingle, allowing a viewer to create a link to any given point in a video clip and send it to friends.
Mr. Wright said it is harder to be snide when talking with someone than when responding to them in print. That doesn't mean there can't be anger: One debate between David Corn and Byron York was so heated, Mr. Kaus said, that it had to be handled with tongs.
A great virtue of diavlogs, Mr. Kaus said, is that they are an antidote to the cocoons bloggers can get into when linking to friends and pointing out stories they agree with. Having to convince another person in real time, he said, forces bloggers to confront alternative opinions, and prevents them from lapsing into complete disjuncture from reality.
Over the years, Messrs. Kaus and Wright's paths have crossed at the New Republic, where they alternated writing the TRB column in the mid-1990s. For several months, Mr. Wright was editor of the magazine.
Earlier in his career, Mr. Wright attended Princeton, where he wrote his senior thesis under a professor of politics, Fred Greenstein, arguing that President Eisenhower was more assertive than widely believed behind the scenes in confronting Senator Joseph McCarthy.
A course at Princeton with essayist John McPhee gave Mr. Wright the confidence to be a writer; otherwise, "I was destined for law school," he said.
Mr. Wright might not have expected to be pioneering a new kind of Web format. Mr. Kaus said an advantage of video dialogs is they give one an indication of the human mind behind the byline: "You can't hide behind the printed page. It may raise your overall opinion of the speakers as ‘nice guys,'" Mr. Kaus said, but they can lower your sense of their "intellectual worth," because it's harder to maintain the dignity of appearing on a page and weighing in on chosen issues. He said the viewers realize: "These are human beings like everyone else."