The Inside Scoop on JournoList

June 27th, 2010 at 11:08 am | 20 Comments |

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Over the past several years, there’s been a lot of chatter from both the left and right about the off the record list serve, Journolist, founded by Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein.  Mickey Kaus, for example, viewed it as some kind of vast, leftwing conspiracy. Yesterday, Klein ended “the List”, in the wake of a calculated–and sadly successful–effort from an anonymous member to damage the career of David Weigel, the Post’s superb blogger on the conservative movement.

In an earlier post, David Frum defended Weigel–more precisely, Weigel’s exemplary work, which stands on its own, regardless of the political worldview of Weigel.  But Frum condemned the List, calling it a “disaster waiting to happen” and “a formula for group-think”, before concluding, “Coordination seems to have been the purpose of Journolist from the start. It created “secret editors” to whom journalists privately reported, different from and undisclosed to their actual editors. That seems to me a genuinely sinister enterprise, a disservice to readers and corrupting of the participants in the list themselves.”

Now David was, of course, not a participant on the list–its members were broadly categorized on a continuum between the center and the left.  And, no, “left” did not mean some feverish Andrew McCarthy induced fantasy of a cross between Bill Ayers, circa 1969, and H. Rap Brown, but people like Ezra Klein himself–pragmatic, American liberals willing to look to the success of some European social democratic policies (Dutch health care being one favorite). This was deliberate, in that it allowed a frank exchange of views within a broadly constituted “family” of ideological affinity.  But, as it happens, I was an active participant of Journolist from almost its beginning in 2007–I came in about three months after the List started when there were about 75 participants, a group that ultimately grew to about 400.   Thus, I’m in a position to offer an insider’s response to David’s criticism.

Contra David’s speculation, Journolist wasn’t about “pre-editing” or “trying out” ideas in private, massaging them, and then putting them in the public domain.  Quite the contrary, it was wildly, untidily spontaneous.  That was the source of its entertainment value, which many participants thought was considerable.  I ask those of you who are conservatives to imagine an endless bull session of your best, smartest conservative friends.  And then imagine you would sometime not even bother talking about politics, and, instead, talk about movies, sports, and the best neighborhoods in which to raise kids in D.C. (an example of a very long recent thread).

People argued a lot–there was NO group think–about everything. Everything! In fact, the arguments would get so heated that sometimes Ezra –wise beyond his years–would have to step in and tell people to “take it offline.” (The exact phrase used to shut down arguments that had become uselessly vicious and ad hominem).  There were vigorous, almost nasty controversies about dozens of subjects–Obama, feminism, healthcare reform, the definition of “wealthy” in American society, whether Jim Webb would be a good VP candidate for the Dems in 2008 (that was a famously long and nasty one that I was involved with–I was a Webb supporter). Famous writers –whom if you didn’t know better, you would assume broadly shared the same views — disagreed vigorously about any given topic.   When remarks were published from the List, it wasn’t because someone had, effectively, written a first draft of his/her forthcoming article, and wished it vetted before a liberal, editorial star chamber.  Far from it; remarks were quickly drafted in the form of blogging posts.  Thus, somebody would make a spontaneous remark on the List (in effect, a private blogging post), and someone else would–scrupulously–tell that person that they really thought that comment was smart, and could they quote it, either attributing it to that person, or else anonymously.

David thinks wrongly that the List served as a way to vet or double check drafts of work before an ideologically congenial set of readers ahead of releasing them to their actual editors and to the general public.  And thus, in this view, a uniform “liberal line” was pre-cooked in the underground oven of Journolist.  But, in fact, the List’s process of intellectual review and analysis worked in exactly the opposite way.  People didn’t double check drafts of their work on the list.  What they did–besides the spontaneous comments I remarked upon–was post their already published stuff on the list. Somebody would say, “Don’t mean to toot my own horn, but here’s something I just posted about [healthcare, Israel, centrist Dems in the Senate, etc. etc. etc.].  That’s when they got a response, after their stuff was already published.  The published work—which inevitably many people might have missed for all but the most famous of writers—triggered the discussion.  The List served to facilitate the spread of this already published work, not to “try out” unpublished drafts.  In fact, these people–almost all working journalists or pundits of some sort–were terrified of having other people steal their ideas in gestation.  They didn’t write finished thoughts about scoops they had, or insights into particular episodes until they were already made public.

Journolist was just a vast political and cultural discussion/argument/high-powered cocktail party of a site, a bunch of pretty high-powered people, some famous, some not, gassing about a million subjects, some mundane, some of great and present significance.   It wasn’t at all planned or coordinated in the way David imagines.  Perhaps there is a bit of projection going on here.  Conservatives, in Congress and in the conservative entertainment complex, are, usually, “on message.”  David himself is frequently harassed for being some kind of heretic from the prescribed line.  This is the phenomenon of the “conintern”, as Jacob Weisberg famously labeled modern conservative, institutionalized thought.  Maybe hundreds of conservatives on a listserve would have used the opportunity to purposely coordinate their line.  But that was not a stated nor enacted purpose of Journolist.  These are liberals–nothing is organized!  And another point:  liberals like to argue.  With both conservatives and themselves.  There is no epistemic closure on the left.  To have read the wildly divergent and sometimes nasty Journolist thread on just the famous Henry Louis Gates police incident would have been enough to demonstrate that to a non-participant.

So I think David got this one wrong.  Indeed, I think it would have been hard for him to get it right.  He chose to characterize an enormous body of writing which he had never actually seen (except for a few irritated quotes from Weigel, who was mostly blowing off steam about people who had attacked him).

Now it’s one thing not to have been a member-participant of Journolist, although that might give you some pause before you attacked it tout court.  Still, it’s true that you don’t have to be a cook to know that the soup is salty.  But shouldn’t you actually taste the soup before commenting on whether it’s salty or not?

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20 Comments so far ↓

  • tequilamockingbird

    Disorganized, all-over-the-map liberals; suspicion by regimented conservatives? Rings true to me.

  • Carney

    Everyone likes to see themselves not just as the good guys, but as the scrappy, under-funded underdogs, handicapped if not hamstrung in their fight by their respect for intellectual and personal integrity, internal diversity and dissent, fair play, and basic decency.

    The other side, of course, is always the Empire: a vast centralized machine of ultimate evil, with unlimited funds, cynicism, and malice; exploiting its unending, swarming hordes of creepily brainwashed (and often stupid) footsoldiers that have an Orwellian capacity for 180 pivots and doublethink; and benefiting from constantly “cheating” because it has zero respect for honor, mercy, or a “fair fight”.

    I constantly run across, on both sides of the political divide, this precise combination of smug self-flattery and delegitimization/dehumanization of the other.

    This picture serves not only to justify things (like JournoList) that would seem sinister if done by the others “it’s US, after all, the GOOD guys, don’t you get it?” but to justify a raging hatred of the other side. One’s own transgressions are exceptional, a reaction to extreme circumstances, an understandabe impulse to “stop playing nice”, “drop the kid gloves” and “finally let them have a taste of their own medicine” and quickly forgotten, while the enemy’s transgressions are a typical, a reflection of their true nature, and bitterly brooded over and remembered.

  • ninjapirate

    “These are liberals–nothing is organized!”

    GTFO… this is who you work for….

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Change_to_Win_Federation

    “The Change to Win Federation is a coalition of American labor unions originally formed in 2005 as an alternative to the AFL-CIO. The coalition is associated with strong advocacy of the organizing model.”

  • oldgal

    Carney, Well stated. I can only add that it seems everything we learned in kindergarten has been forgotten.

  • ninjapirate

    ” People argued a lot–there was NO group think–about everything. ”

    Oh please… all groups have group thinking… doesn’t matter if it’s a strip club, a congregation, a baseball team, or JournoList… there are no groups without group thinking… I’m sure all the wrong thinking people were preselected out….

  • Rabiner

    ninjapirate:

    “Oh please… all groups have group thinking… doesn’t matter if it’s a strip club, a congregation, a baseball team, or JournoList… there are no groups without group thinking… I’m sure all the wrong thinking people were preselected out….”

    Group thinking is a failure to consider all alternatives based on a narrow point of view of a group. If there is a wide range of participants within a group, group thinking should not occur as all alternatives are presented and the strongest argument rises to the top and gains acceptance. JournoList as described by the author seems to follow the latter and not the former from these two examples of group dynamics.

  • ninjapirate

    Rabiner:

    “I’m sure all the wrong thinking people were preselected out….”

  • Rabiner

    ninjapirate:

    What did I say that you disagree with? ‘Wrong thinking people’ I feel you are saying would be ideologically different to Ezra Klein but from the article it appears there was ideological differences within the ‘group’.

  • ninjapirate

    “it appears there was ideological differences within the ‘group’.”

    Unlikely… probably more arguments over means rather than ends…

  • nhthinker

    http://www.ee.surrey.ac.uk/Contrib/SciFi/StarTrek/STTNG/aliens/borg.html

    A collective intelligence, formed of organic beings with cybernetic enhancements, the Borg wander the galaxy, seeking out cultures to assilimate. The Borg are rumoured to have developed their cybernetic culture in the Delta Quadrant, before turning up in the Alpha Quadrant.

    The Federation are introduced to the Borg prematurely by “Q” in the second season TNG episode Q-Who, but they are implied at the end of the first season TNG episode The Neutral Zone. They rapidly become the single greatest threat facing the Federation, building to a climax in the stunning season 3 cliffhanger episode The Best of Both Worlds where the Borg take on the entire Federation! Episode includes a historical reference to the inception of the Borg traced to a 21th century human cabal called the JournoList.

    —-

    Real life is gravitational drawn (by use of warp drive) to imitate Star Trek episodes.

  • gruffbear

    The issue about the Journolist is not “message coordination.” It’s about a group of leftish policy advocates co-opting the participating journalists. To the extent that the journalists came to feel that they had a common cause with the policy pimps, the co-opting did happen.

    The participating journalists may have enjoyed Journolist immensely, but the ethical breach it presented now hangs like a sword of Damocles over their heads. Just think. There must be a half-dozen or more complete archives of listserv communications out there. What a treasure trove of blackmail material! Maybe for someone in control of one of these archives, the Dave Weigel incident was just a shot across the bow.

  • Chris

    I m not sure what went on in Journolist, but claiming that “I’m sure all the wrong thinking people were preselected out…” seems like a self-sealing argument to me. Given that the author (at a conservative site, no less) says that there was nothing but constant arguing and no group think, what would count as evidence that the sentence “I’m sure all the wrong thinking people were preselected out…” is false?

  • blowtorch_bob

    How about some more coverage on the tea party. We’re already getting more than enough coverage on the beltway punditry.

  • LFC

    NinjaPirate seems to have made up his mind about JournoList without having any actual knowledge of how it functioned or who was subscribed to it. The author is simply wrong.

    GTFO… this is who you work for…
    “I’m sure all the wrong thinking people were preselected out.”
    “Unlikely… probably more arguments over means rather than ends”

    Fact free but 100% definitive. That makes him a perfect Republican in today’s mold.

    Though I do have to admit that your handle is pretty good. Do you happen to be a follower of the FSM?

  • JJWFromME

    This from Ezra Klein is key:

    It was an idea born from disagreement. Weeks, or maybe months, earlier, I had criticized Time’s Joe Klein over some comments he made about the Iraq War. He e-mailed a long and searching reply, and the subsequent conversation was educational for us both. Taking the conversation out of the public eye made us less defensive, less interested in scoring points. I learned about his position, and why he held it, in ways that I wouldn’t have if our argument had remained in front of an audience.

    http://voices.washingtonpost.com/ezra-klein/2010/06/on_journolist_and_dave_weigel.html

    basically, civil war had broken out among establishment types like Joe Klein and upstart “Juice Box Mafia” types like Ezra Klein, and basically the launching point was the Iraq War. Joe Klein’s signing up for Journolist was a kind of gesture of generosity, and that was the list’s birth. Joe Klein was willing to dialog outside of public view, so everyone could speak frankly and get some satisfaction. It’s kind of related to the reason why the Federalist Papers were written with pseudonyms. The contributors’ names would have changed everyone’s attitude about contributing. Only on Journolist, everyone knows each others’ names, but the space is out of the larger public view, so everyone can speak frankly. Remember, the 1st Amendment is about protecting everyone’s right to free speech, but also freedom to *assemble.*

    Now someone can interpret an assembly in a certain way (they’re conspiring, etc.), of course. But look at the reason why this assembly had to happen in the first place–the Iraq War. If it wasn’t for *that* assembly of interests that met in *ahem* certain places in Washington once upon a time, there would be no Journolist (come on, if there was ever an American political event that was less based on public deliberation, you’d have to go back to the Spanish American War)…

    The case for freedom of assembly, I think, is eloquently made by Henry Farell in this dialog with Cass Sunstein:

    http://bloggingheads.tv/diavlogs/8936?in=00:01&out=55:44

  • easton

    Here is Jon Chait from TNR:

    Last week Ezra Klein closed up Journolist, an email exchange for liberal pundits, academics and think-talk types, along with some straight reporters who wanted to keep tabs on what we were thinking. There’s always a fascination with things that are kept secret. If the identity of Deep Throat was revealed in 1974, within a few years nobody but Watergate junkies would have remembered his name. But because it was a secret, identifying Deep Throat became synonymous for decades with breaking the biggest story in journalism — until he identified himself, at which point everybody immediately ceased caring. (You’ve probably forgotten already. It was Mark Felt.)

    If I hadn’t been on Journolist, I probably would have been fascinated with it as well. I’d probably be imputing great powers to it, like the fantastic description weaved by David Frum:

    The idea that likeminded journalists would engage in formalized pre-discussions amongst ideologically like-minded people before publishing for the broad public is a formula for group-think. Genuinely private discussion via email is one thing. Coordination among colleagues: very different. Coordination seems to have been the purpose of JournoList from the start. It created “secret editors” to whom journalists privately reported, different from and undisclosed to their actual editors. That seems to me a genuinely sinister enterprise, a disservice to readers and corrupting of the participants in the list themselves.

    Frum’s description is a more lurid version of what Ross Douthat imagines. Let me disabuse everybody by revealing that Journolist was not created for people to work out some party line. The discussion was private not because the conversations were too explosive to be made public, but because they were too mundane. Conversations consisted of requests for references — does anybody know an expert in such and such — instantaneous reactions to events, joshing around, conversations about sports, and the like. Why did this have to be private? Because when you’re a professional writer, even in the age of Twitter, you try to maintain some basic standard in your published work. I don’t subject my readers to my thoughts on the Super Bowl as of halftime, or even (usually) the meaning of the Pennsylvania special election two minutes after polls close. You want the ability to share your thoughts with a group to which you may not have physical proximity.

    Why was the group exclusively non-conservative? I wished it did have some right-wingers, but I went back and forth on this and I can understand the reason it didn’t. You wanted to have some discussion of politics that didn’t constantly require establishing first principles, so you could muse about a vote to extend unemployment benefits without having to refute the notion that Franklin Roosevelt deepened the Great Depression. It was the same reason that any community of interest exists. There was plenty to argue about. Eric Alterman and I both participated in Journolist — that didn’t keep us from maintaining a rather hostile public relationship. The same is true of many other members of the list. There was no explicit or implicit understanding that “we’re all friends.” It was like a bar you frequent, containing some friends, some total strangers, and some guys you get into brawls with.

    The notion that the list existed to work out some party line, or to vet ideas before they became articles, is silly. Sometimes people used the list to gather liberal counterarguments to an idea before they wrote it. (You can try it with conservatives, too. I call this “research.”) But the notion that Journolist was some kind of Comintern editing ideas before they were published bears no relation to reality, and flies in the face of the interests of those involved. The liberal writers on that list are my competitors. My goal is to publish original ideas before they do. Telling them my ideas in advance would be a criminally stupid act. So even when people did float a concept, which was rare, they naturally tended to be cagey about it. But, again, most of the things people discussed on Journolist were discussed because we didn’t think our readers would care about them. Matthew Yglesias — another member of Journolist who feels free to criticize me and of whom I feel likewise — sums up the enterprise:

    I’ve been looking back a bit at what’s archived in my inbox and what you see lately is an effort to organize a happy hour in Dave Weigel honor, many threads about World Cup matches, Wimbledon matches, NBA Finals games, etc., and mostly a lot of what amounts to self-promotion. People sending out links to articles they’ve published or talks they’ve given, sometimes followed by a reply or two. We had a thread in which people speculated as to where Peter Orszag will end up when he leaves the White House. This is the sort of thing that journalists like to talk about, but don’t like to write about in public, because it’s unprofessional to publish baseless speculation.

    I’m sorry to spoil the excitement. It was a chat group.

  • JJWFromME

    It sounds like it was a combination of leveling with each other (and probably levelling each other as well, because the animus against Joe Klein was intense), and just shooting the breeze–”hey how about those Mets?” which probably, initially, was largely to break the tension. And in the end, probably there was little or no tension. (Now Ezra works for the same paper as Charles Krauthammer–water under the bridge, etc etc.)

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