The Daily Caller exposé of the JournoList listserv was a parody of a modern major newspaper investigation. It ran for days, bristled with indignation, amounted to almost nothing, and made its case out of various whiffs and hints of perfidy.
The Daily Caller is a "24-hour news site" launched in January by Tucker Carlson, a former Crossfire host, and Neil Patel, a former adviser to Dick Cheney. It attracted little notice until it came across stark evidence that left-wing journalists talk among themselves. The evidence was JournoList, founded three years ago by 22-year-old Ezra Klein, then an associate editor at the American Prospect. JournoList itself was no secret, but the Daily Caller got its hands on something, well, gosh-darned golden: the actual texts of the big and little ideas the listserv's members shared with one another.
Kicking off its exposé on July 20, the Daily Caller said JournoList was "comprised of several hundred liberal journalists, as well as like-minded professors and activists" and revealed that during the point in the Barack Obama presidential campaign when his fulminating pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, had Obama back on his heels, there was a lot of traffic on JournoList discussing what to do about it.
Here's the Nation's Chris Hayes (a former Reader contributor) saying let's write about something else. "Our country disappears people. It tortures people. It has the blood of as many as one million Iraqi civilians—men, women, children, the infirmed—on its hands. You'll forgive me if I just can't quite dredge up the requisite amount of outrage over Barack Obama's pastor."
And here's the Washington Independent's Spencer Ackerman saying fight fire with tar. "If the right forces us all to either defend Wright or tear him down, no matter what we choose, we lose the game they've put upon us. Instead, take one of them—Fred Barnes, Karl Rove, who cares—and call them racists."
The discussion led to collective action: a letter that deplored the moderators' preoccupation with Wright during an ABC debate of Democratic presidential candidates. Forty JournoList members signed the letter; that's one in ten, a measure of collectivism's limits among journalists, even when the cause is greater professionalism. And if memory serves, it was the speech of a lifetime that got Barack Obama past Wright, not the letter, nor the Washington Independent calling Rove a racist. (Did it? Asked to comment by the Daily Caller, Rove "said he found it curious that such talk was tolerated within the group." But if he remembered actually being called a racist, he didn't say so.)
On July 21 the Daily Caller had another exclusive: Sarah Spitz, a producer for a public radio station based at Santa Monica College in LA, had said on JournoList that if Rush Limbaugh were having a heart attack in front of her she'd "laugh loudly like a maniac and watch his eyes bug out." The Daily Caller professed itself astonished by such inhumanity, and by the lack of responsible progressive voices speaking up in reply to advocate CPR.
And 24 hours after that, the Daily Caller featured a self-described "explosive story" about lefty journalists scrambling about for ways to bring down Sarah Palin. There was Chris Hayes again, cheering on the conspirators. He wrote, "Keep the ideas coming! Have to go on TV to talk about this in a few min and need all the help I can get."
They say about university politics that the reason they're so vicious is the stakes are so small. There was a time when the Daily Caller's perturbed sanctimony might have been ignored by journalists preoccupied with the future of America and the fate of the earth. But these days journalists regard themselves less as America's master adjudicators than as insecure adjuncts who would kill for tenure but teach courses no one signs up for. Some prominent voices of reason among the moderate mainstream media winced at the Daily Caller revelations and gave ground.
Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post: "None of this adds up to a Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy, and there is no reason to believe that some conservative commentators don't have similar discussions. But there is no escaping the fact that some of the list's liberal literati come off sounding like cagey political operatives."
And Politico's Roger Simon: "Klein determined who would get on JournoList—political reporters, academics, think tank members, left-wing bloggers—and it grew from a manageable 30 members to a pretty unmanageable 400. . . . Klein appears to be a very honorable guy, but I think he created a Frankenstein monster without meaning to do so."
"The far right is right on this: this collusion is corruption," blogged the Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan.
I think the Daily Caller exposé was malign and malignant, and it was on the right that it metastasized. A couple other righty sites, Free Republic and iOwnTheWorld.com, worked up lists of what the latter called "JournoList Conspirators." In a nice touch, iOwnTheWorld.com added mug shots and snickered "This latte party sure looks exclusionary. It looks nothing like America. It looks more like the upper west side of Manhattan." I spotted the mug of Tracy Van Slyke, who lives a block from the Starbucks on Logan Boulevard, which I guess is close enough to the upper west side coffee klatch for a conspiracy theorist.
Van Slyke runs the Media Consortium; I described it last November as an alliance "of independent print, electronic, and online outlets whose politics are progressive and whose mission, according to its website, is 'to amplify independent media's voice, increase our collective clout, leverage our current audience and reach new ones.'" The consortium struck me as a good idea. "The hazards of collaboration seem trivial," I wrote, "when the alternative looks like insignificance and death."
Van Slyke calls herself a JournoList "lurker" who rarely contributed but read with delight. "It was really great debate and analysis by a lot of reporters and policy experts," she says. "It was a fabulous place to learn. But it was not a place to coordinate anything."
On July 30, Andrew Breitbart's BigJournalism.com invoked the Media Consortium to damn JournoList by association. Of the 150 or so names that had so far surfaced on JournoList, "nearly a quarter" were connected with the Media Consortium, wrote John Sexton. "Of course we don't know that any particular reporter is committed to the goals of the Consortium," he went on. "But the Media Consortium is an indication that using the media to push a progressive agenda was an idea at least generally acceptable to many of JournoList's members. At the least, it would explain why there was so little pushback when nakedly political operatives attempted to co-opt the list."
Sexton had spotted a diagram labeled "The Emerging Progressive Media Network" that accompanied a story Van Slyke coauthored for In These Times four years ago. It described itself as a way to "move progressive issues and narratives into the national debate." Sexton was vexed and suspicious. "It's not quite a smoking gun since it's not clear how accurate any of this is," he wrote, "but it's certainly a sophisticated consideration of how progressives can (and indeed should) push stories into the mainstream to create change. Whether they ever succeeded is an open question, but the desire to try is beyond doubt."
He continued, "Klein may not have countenanced open media collusion on JournoList, but he certainly seems to have welcomed lots of people who did."
Sexton's almost-smoking-gun revealed what exactly? That progressive media, most without a pot to piss in, were working together to get their ideas a public hearing? This is un-American why?
Ezra Klein shut down JournoList, but a smaller successor, the ironically named Cabalist, started right up. Van Slyke won't say if she joined. "The general public doesn't care," she says, on the subject of who's talking to whom. "There are small groups on the right and left who do care. What really bothers me is how the right wing is using this to once again defame progressive media, and journalists in general."
The worst thing about scare tactics is that sometimes they actually scare. It was Andrew Breitbart who released, totally out of context, the snippet from a speech Shirley Sherrod gave to the NAACP in March that got her fired last month from the Department of Agriculture. I'd like to think that frightened attempt to mollify the right, with no effort made to first establish the facts, was as low as the Obama administration will ever go to placate its enemies. It let itself get rattled, just as some journalists were rattled by the Daily Caller.
"It's totally the same fear," says Van Slyke. "This government is way too aware and way too afraid of the chatter on the right."
Chris Hayes thinks the JournoList flap is "comically overblown" and so do I, but look—we're worse than fellow travelers, we're friends. Actually knowing him, I find it impossible to think of Hayes as an ideologue at work under cover of journalism. He says JournoList averaged about 50 e-mails a day and when hot issues like Jeremiah Wright came along, the number spiked. If you're into cherry-picking, there were lots of cherries.
"I have two metathoughts about JournoList," he told me. "The first is you have to understand that what the Daily Caller did was entirely 1,000 percent a commercial decision." By spotlighting Jeremiah Wright one day, then Sarah Palin, then Rush Limbaugh, "they were systematically attempting to attract people with bigger platforms who could use those platforms to publicize the Daily Caller." Which happened. "It's actually genius," Hayes said. "There was no actual journalistic reason to write a story and quote a woman nobody had heard of from a public radio affiliate." But sure enough, Rush Limbaugh was soon talking about Sarah Spitz on his radio show.
And the other point, said Hayes, is that he puts a lot of thought into what he writes, but less when he's sounding off on a listserv, which, it turns out, is no sanctuary. So he's not joining Cabalist. "In the wake of this whole thing I got off every listserv I was on," Hayes said. "It was 'OK, fine, that's the new rules. I will call people up if I want to have a private conversation.'"