Debunking the Journolist "Conspiracy"
Jonathan Chait is a senior editor at The New Republic.
I've written before about Journolist, a liberal email list that conservatives have claimed was the center of a liberal media conspiracy but in reality was anything but.
The Daily Caller, a conservative website, has a new story claiming to have obtained evidence that Journolist was everything conservatives feared: the epicenter of a deep liberal plot to control media discourse. "It's everything you may have suspected," comments an excited Sarah Palin. "It is no less corrupt than the comically propagandistic Fox News and the lock-step orthodoxy on the partisan right in journalism - but it is nonetheless corrupt," asserts Andrew Sullivan.
The story revolves around two email threads. I've reviewed them both, and it utterly belies the wild account in the Daily Caller and the even wilder reactions by Palin, Sullivan and the like. The first thread came on the heels of a Democratic primary debate in Pennsylvania, in which the moderators almost completely ignored public policy and asked both candidates a series of questions revolving around Barack Obama's alleged lack of patriotism or American-ness. Some members of the list, put off by the ABC News team's questions, decided to write a letter expressing their umbrage.
A couple of points pertain.
First, the Daily Caller notes, "Journolist members signed the statement and released it April 18." This is literally true but probably gives readers the impression that all of Journolist signed the letter. In fact, 41 people signed the letter, out of 400 people on Journolist. In other words, Journolist was a vehicle for them to network with each other. This was not an effort "by Journolist." Most people on Jounolist had nothing to do with it.
Second, the letter was hardly an example of secret message coordination. It resulted in an open letter. Everybody who agreed with the sentiment signed their name to it and published it. It was a completely transparent action. The Daily Caller breathlessly describes it like so: "a group of liberal journalists took radical steps to protect their favored candidate." But opinion journalists organizing a petitition is not a radical step. Now, it's true that some members of the list who don't engage in political activism, like me among many others, felt a little uncomfortable with the email list being used to organize a political activity. Soon thereafter Ezra Klein, the list organizer, instructed people not to use the list to organize petitions.
The second email thread is actually even weaker. Chris Hayes, a writer for the Nation, posted a message arguing that the attack on Jeremiah Wright was part of a concerted conservative smear campaign and that the issue did not merit attention. Hayes' argument was immediately met with sharp disagreement. The Daily Caller does not quote any of the emails taking on Hayes. In fact, the very next one, by Rich Yeselson, argued:
"Chris, we should make usable distinctions even when--especially when--the Right doesn't"
"Larry Lessig isn't Jeremiah Wright. You can condemn one and defend the other. I don't want to carry Rev. Wright's baggage--I'm happy to carry Larry Lessig's and the Obama staffer. I don't think much of Bill Ayers, but, in that case, I'm happy to uphold the principle of not indulging in guilt by association."
"We make distinctions--they smear."
And Ed Kilgore chimed in:
"First of all, we all do know and understand the importance of combatting reactionary or partisan-Republican media "frames" of contemporary events and their significance. And we know their power to influence public perceptions and political outcomes. But it's equally important to acknowledge that politics isn't just about "frames" and narratives and memes and noise. Underneath it all is a little thing called Objective Reality (pace the post-modernist denial of same), which sometimes survives all the distortions. And it's at least arguable that the Jeremiah Wright controversy, for all the politically-motivated distortions and exaggerations of it, is at least marginally "real" in the sense that it raises legitimate issues about Barack Obama's view of his community, his country, his God, and how they all relate to each other. I think he's already addressed those issues, and probably will do so again, in ways that make me proud to have the opportunity to listen to him. But this isn't just a matter of "fighting" or "surrendering" to the Vast Right Wing Machine. Similarly, I don't think we have an obligation to express total solidarity with anyone attacked by the Right." (Both have given me permission to repost.)
Numerous other posts made the same point. A few of the more left-wing writers on the list, including Spencer Ackerman, agreed with Hayes. In other words, what followed was... an argument! The Daily Caller explains, "Several members of the list disagreed with Ackerman - but only on strategic grounds." This was because Ackerman's contribution came late in the argument and was ignored by everybody, and because Ackerman was in the habit of writing wild, bombastic things that people usually didn't feel like responding to. (It wasn't a secret -- you could read his various blogs!) The implication of the Daily Caller's description -- that the email thread consisted of general agreement -- is completely false.
Now, you could say that Hayes' post was an attempt at message coordination if you define the term very loosely. Here was a writer saying that a story did not merit attention. Since he emailed a lot of other writers, his attempt to persuade them that the Wright story didn't merit attention could be seen as an attempt to get liberals to stop writing about Wright. But of course, this would also be true of anybody who suggested that a particular topic merited more or less attention. It's the same as if you ventured such an opinion at a party, or in a published article.
More importantly, Hayes' argument fell almost completely flat, and there's no evidence that anybody decided to stop writing about Wright. Ezra Klein, the organizer of Journolist, wrote a blog post about Wright the next day.
Let me make a couple concluding points. First, this conspiratorial analysis of Journolist utterly misses the nature of the thing. It was like a bar you could go to and talk, or argue, with a bunch of people with whom you had something in common. But the group as a whole did not jointly participate. Almost every discussion was limited to a small percentage of the group that was interested in the topic. Most people ignored most of the topics. To pick out some quote and say that nobody disagreed, and thus to imply that everybody agreed, is very much like quoting something somebody said in a bar and implying that everybody else in the bar must have thought the same thing. There was no expectation of general agreement. Most of the topics were trivial, and when they weren't, people argued frequently.
The conversations were "secret" for the same reason my discussions around the water cooler and in the halls are secret: people were tossing off casual reactions that they didn't deem worthy of publication: half-baked ideas, gossip, off-the-cuff reactions, chatter about sports or television.
Second, you might wonder why the Daily Caller described the email chain it obtained, and didn't publish the chain. I can't answer that definitely. I suspect, though, that the editors realized that publishing the whole chain would contradict the conspiratorial descriptions that make the article so apparently lurid. They are painting a picture of a secret coordination medium among mainstream journalists, when the reality is an argument between moderate and left-wing journalists.