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?