Cursor.org launched in late 1997 with a mission -- as outlined in the Cursor Manifesto -- to expose the absurdities and excesses of an increasingly corporatized, sanitized and celebrity-driven news media.
Combining humor with insight, Cursor took aim at the product and personalities of the Twin Cities' print, radio and television media -- skewering the silly and crucifying the sanctimonious. "Pandermonium" introduced Cursor's inquiry into local television news by asking who was winning the race to the bottom: Which newscast was the most preposterous, the most inept, the most obsequious?
To answer the question, Cursor critiqued the sweeps offerings on the ABC, NBC and UPN affiliates, as well as CBS's owned and operated WCCO -- once home to one of the country's most respected local newscasts. But by the time Cursor tuned in, the main distinction of CBS's one-time crown jewel was its willingness to shill for the entertainment programming of its corporate parent.
Cursor then set its sights on media personalities, with the introduction of Budd Rugg, media parasite. The fictitious Rugg's schtick is that of a sycophant who lampoons the cult of the local media celebrity by professing to worship it: "They are my whole pathetic world. I've got a media crush like you wouldn't believe."
In short order, alternative weekly City Pages called Cursor "a hilarious bit of irreverence" and named it the Twin Cities' "best locally generated Web site," as it did in 2003 and 2004. Jim Romenesko, who would go on to become the Internet's media guru, wrote in St. Paul's Pioneer Press that "Cursor skewers media with aplomb. A National Lampoon-like Webzine that ought to give thin-skinned local media personalities the willies. Is Cursor truly award-winningly cruel? Oh, for sure, and that's what makes it so entertaining."
Cursor's entertainingly-cruel ethos was typified by contributor Mike Mosedale. In addition to launching the career of Budd Rugg, Cursor was the first to publish Mosedale's gonzo media criticism. His rants against infomercials disguised as news stories, bully-mouthed radio talk show hosts and the rubism of local media are among the classics memorialized in Cursor's "Moseum."
Mosedale has since become a feature writer for City Pages, penning more than 30 cover stories, including a collaboration with Cursor that skewered the aforementioned WCCO-TV for its "Survivoring" of the news. An Association of Alternative Newsweeklies' finalist for best media reporting, it chronicled the once-proud newscast's descent into whoring for "Survivor" and "Big Brother." Following the final episode of the original "Survivor," WCCO launched its own brand-extension -- State Fair Survivor. It ran for 13 straight days, accounting for more than 25 percent of each night's news. WCCO's synergasmic summer earned the station its own wing in Cursor's "Museum of Shameless Synergy."
Although much of Cursor's early coverage focused on Twin Cities' media, trends like newscast synergy were being played out in local markets across the country. Another insidious trend was television news' overreliance on live remotes to create a sense of immediacy. Cursor challenged this superficial device by promoting the antics of "The Crasher," a media guerrilla who waved protest signs behind reporters as their live shots aired. And "The Schmielsen Ratings" parodied the importance that television newscasts place on the Nielsen ratings. By simply phoning 50 households and asking them what they were watching, Cursor obtained results that varied little from the actual Nielsen numbers.
Cursor's commentary also extended to more obvious national issues. "Media Culpa" documented how the mainstream media turns to self-criticism as a way to keep a big story alive, and "Fox Hole" provided an early analysis of the ideologically-driven Fox News channel, before it became a money maker for Rupert Murdoch. And in 1999, Cursor launched a national edition, expanding its coverage to include links to political analysis, as well as media criticism from national sources.
Cursor's Ventura Watch took Minnesota's celebrity governor to task for dissembling about his military record, bullying the media and using his office for financial gain.
Following Cursor's 1999 publication of former Navy SEAL commander Bill Salisbury's debunking of Ventura's claim that he had been a SEAL, the Governor's office confirmed that Ventura had been a member of an Underwater Demolition Team (UDT) and not an elite Navy SEAL. In an interview with Minnesota Public Radio, Ventura spokesman John Wodele said that his boss never tries to mislead reporters or the public, and that he's careful to equivocate whenever referring to himself as a Navy SEAL. But Cursor's examination of transcripts of Ventura's national media appearances proved otherwise, showing that he consistently referred to himself as a SEAL.
In 2001, Cursor published Salisbury's "Jesse's Dangerous Game," that called Ventura on his claim that he had "hunted man" in Vietnam. Cursor obtained military documents which proved that Ventura never saw combat in Vietnam. Eventually, he admitted as much in an interview with the Pioneer Press.
Following the publication of "Jesse's Dangerous Game," Pioneer Press' media critic Brian Lambert called Cursor "a very funny and relentlessly feisty media watchdog...the sort of new media entity that prods/shames the 'pros' into doing better work." Cursor was also catching the attention of the national media, with Forbes.com calling it "a welcome contrast from the sliced-white-bread tone of so much modern mass-media journalism."
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Cursor began daily updates on the subjects of media, politics and war, with an emphasis on how the media was covering the aftermath of the tragedy. Cursor also launched "Bringing It All Back Home," original commentary by award-winning journalist Steve Perry.
Readers' response was overwhelming, with a consistent theme being that Cursor was an invaluable antidote to the jingoism of the U.S.' mainstream media. Cursor was quick to realize the importance of alternative news sources, scouring the international press for perspectives on the post-9/11 world. To this end, Cursor also compiled the Internet's most complete archive of articles about the impact of Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite channel. The archive has been linked to by more than 400 Web sites.
The biggest blind spot of the U.S. media was the impact that the war in Afghanistan was having on the civilian population. In December 2001, Cursor published professor Marc Herold's civilian casualty count, the first estimate of civilian deaths in Afghanistan resulting from bombing by the U.S. and its allies. More than 800 Web sites have linked to Herold's findings. Cursor has since published 30 original articles by Herold -- "Professor Marc Herold's Afghan Canon" -- that provide a critical analysis of U.S. policy in Afghanistan.