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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Exploding JournoList Conspiracy Theories

Many people have already made pertinent comments on the insider brouhaha over the resignation of Dave Weigel from the Washington Post for off-the-record comments at a left/center-left listserve called the JournoList. But they mainly focused (see Nate Silver’s post on the subject) on the implications of the incident for prevailing definitions of journalistic (or blogger-journalistic) objectivity. All I’d add on that topic is an objection to the premise that one must be a member of a political community to report fairly and competently on that community, which is an insult to, among others, the long line of conservatives (does anyone remember William F. Buckley?) who have made acute observations about the Left over the years. Personally, I got in the habit of reading Dave Weigel because he was one of the few people writing on the Tea Party phenomenon, particularly in its early days, who didn’t have a tendency to either celebrate it or dismiss it. I didn’t really know or care what his personal ideology happened to be.
But there’s another aspect of the JournoList controversy that needs to be addressed: the prevalent assumption in some conservative circles that it existed in order to coordinate or enforce some sort of ideological or party line among its participants. This premise is the basis of Andew Breitbart’s bizarre offer of a $100,000 bounty to anyone who can turn over the entire archive of the listserve so that he can publish tidbits from it:

Dave Weigel is a portal into the dark world of hardcore liberal bias in the media. This opening gives us a deeper insight into the insidious relationship between liberal think tanks, academics and their mouthpieces in the media.
As we already uncovered in our expose on the “Cry Wolf” project, members of academia and think tanks are actively working to form the narrative used by the press to thwart conservative messages. Like a ventriloquist’s dummy, the reporters on the listserv mimicked the talking points invented and agreed upon by the intellectuals who were invited to the virtual cocktail party that was Klein’s “JournoList.”

As a reasonably active, and not always orthodox liberal, member of the group, I have to say that this whole coordination conspiracy theory about JournoList is dead wrong.
I say “dead wrong” for two reasons: first, anyone looking for a party line does not need to belong to some off-the-record listserve to find it; it’s a whole lot easier to select a reliable opinion-leader for one’s “team” and simply follow it. And second, speaking for myself (and doubtless many others), I consulted JournoList more often than not to make sure I wasn’t being redundant in my own writing. If someone else had said what needed to be said on a given topic, I would generally leave it alone, or at most link to it in passing if I thought it was particularly well-stated. And I think this was true for most JournoList participants, few of whom were, in any event, in the business of distributing talking points to “the troops.”
In any event, JournoList fostered too much disagreement to serve as any sort of “echo chamber,” much less a commissariat, as has been attested by one of its least orthodox members, former TDS managing editor Scott Winship. I can only hope that conservatives (who I gather have a lot more off-the-record listserves than do liberals) have as much diversity in their own private discussions.
So what was the purpose of this “secretive” listserve, if not to influence the ideological direction of journalism and blogging and journo-blogging? I always thought of it as a virtual water-cooler of particular value to people like me who have escaped from Washington but are still trying to make a living writing about politics (a point Matt Yglesias has made). But it worked both ways: I’d like to think that those of us who don’t live in a place where today’s mark-up in Senate Finance is a common lunch-table topic had a salutory effect on residents of the Emerald City who participated in JournoList.
And it’s precisely that horizon-broadening effect that seemed to be Ezra Klein’s main focus in starting the thing to begin with; not so much in terms of geography, but as a way to bring together political writers with subject-matter experts, including social scientists, policy wonks, and also folks with a political speciality. For example, as a confirmed Cracker I was often consulted on southern political topics. And I also had more than one occasion to set the record straight on the history and influence of the Democratic Leadership Council/New Democrat tendency in recent political history, since I spent a long time working for the DLC. Since most political writers have some sort of specialty, everyone’s work benefitted from the opportunity to avoid, or at least reduce, uninformed bloviation.
By definition, it’s impossible to prove conspiracies don’t exist, and it’s understandable that people excluded from a private listserve tend to assume the worst about its membership and purpose. But if it has any impact at all, the demise of JournoList will probably make the DC-based center-left a bit more insular, a lot more paranoid about private communications, and in small but tangible ways, less informed and interesting. Sadly, Ezra’s hope of creating a bipartisan and trans-ideological version of JournoList will likely expire as well, since leaks would be virtually guaranteed. Anyone who thinks “there’s no such thing as off-the-record!” will be pleased. But until such time as we have 24/7 surveillance and brain monitoring of everyone who writes about politics, there will be private opinions and private communications, just in a smaller and truly secretive circle.

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