Media

Journolist and Me

| Thu Jul. 22, 2010 9:58 AM EDT

I was going to write about the "scandal" surrounding Journolist, a private email listserv for wonks, academics, and liberal journalists on Tuesday. Instead, I went to an event at the National Press Club featuring the Miami Herald's Carol Rosenberg, the dean of the Guantanamo Bay press corps. (She's been there more times than pretty much any other journo.)

Rosenberg was at the press club to talk about the restrictions that media face covering the most important civil liberties story of our times; in May, she and three other reporters were banned from the prison camp after they reported the name of an interrogator who had already outed himself to the media years before. During the event, Rosenberg's lawyer, David Schulz, said that the Miami Herald and the other major news outlets he represents are close to suing the Pentagon and the Obama administration over the draconian rules and press restrictions at Gitmo. That was an actually important media story; the Journolist flap is ultimately inside baseball DC b-s that doesn't matter.

Unfortunately, this morning I awoke to find an email in my inbox from a friend. "I had no idea that you brought down Sarah Palin," he wrote. Indeed. I am the latest person to be "outed" as a member of the hated Journolist, and something I wrote on the list in 2008—that McCain's pick of Palin was "classic GOP tokenism"—is the banner headline at the website covering the "controversy" right now. So I guess I feel somewhat obligated to respond. The funny part, of course, is that anyone who read my work knows that I think the Palin pick was tokenism. I wrote a blog post at the time saying just that:

The selection of Palin smacks of tokenism. Every four years, the Republican party trots out its few non-white, non-male leaders for the Republican National Convention. Many get prime speaking spots. Apparently Sarah Palin gets the Vice-Presidential nomination. The pick is clearly partly directed at disaffected Hillary voters with the idea that simply putting a woman on the ticket will win their votes. This is obviously wrong, as Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro will tell you. But the GOP and their mouthpieces don't get it: on Fox this morning, an anchor said: "It looks like the glass ceiling hasn't been broken by Hillary Clinton, but by Senator McCain." There is just so much wrong with that sentence, but for starters: it's obvious that this pick is more about John McCain than Sarah Palin. It's not about women succeeding on their own; it's about them being given something by a man. Frankly, the comparison to Hillary Clinton is just insulting.

No one should be shocked that liberal bloggers have liberal views. (See David Corn's take of the Journolist flap here.)

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The Daily Caller, the publication that's been publishing the Journolist emails, has been taking advantage of a certain kind of confusion that I've found to be nearly universal among my conservative friends. This confusion is largely the fault of the mainstream media—specifically newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post—that like to pretend that journalists are faceless automatons that don't have opinions. Journalists at these outlets are supposedly unbiased and nonpartisan, always ready to give a fair shake to both sides of a controversy (even when one side is lying). These outlets are, by and large, the ones that were most responsible for getting us into the Iraq war. They are also the prime purveyors of what press critic Jay Rosen calls "the view from nowhere."

The view from nowhere confuses conservatives, and rightly so. Many of them think that it is something that all journalists and media outlets subscribe to, and that it's the way journalism has always been. Not so—"straight news" is a fairly recent institution, created mostly by competitive pressures: it's hard to be a monopoly newspaper in a big city without trying to serve "both sides." But there's another tradition in journalism—that of magazines likeThe New RepublicMother JonesThe Washington MonthlyThe New Yorker, and so on. Magazines have never shied away from coming to conclusions about the people and groups they write about. The Economist—a libertarian magazine that calls itself a newspaper—inflects almost every story with the same pro-free markets point of view. Like Mother JonesThe Economist trusts that its readers are smart enough to be able to tell what is straight fact and what is the author's argument. At magazines, most people agree with Jay Rosen: a story being "grounded in reporting" is far more important than it being "cured of opinion":

What editors and news executives should worry about is whether the news accounts delivered to users are well grounded in reporting. That’s the value added. That’s the sign of seriousness. That’s the journalism part. Original reporting and the discipline of verification—meaning, the account holds up under scrutiny—should be strict priorities. Whether the composer of the account has a view, comes to a conclusion, speaks with attitude (or declines these things) is far less important. Here, looser rules are better.

At its heart, the Daily Caller's Journolist series is an attempt to hold people like Matt Yglesias (who is not a journalist, and never claimed to be), Ezra Klein, and others to journalistic "standards" that we don't even subscribe to. Journalists shouldn't be judged on whether or not we avoided drawing conclusions in our stories, or how scrupulously we avoid letting people know what we really think. We should be judged on whether or not our stories turn out to be true. 

Like most conservatives, I don't believe the "straight news" myth. People who work for the Post and the Times have opinions and biases, and those things affect their work. (I do think that MSM reporters try to keep bias out, but the most basic acts of reporting—deciding who to talk to, what to cover, who you can trust—require journalists with opinions.) Nor do I think that journalists should hide their opinions—I think everyone would be better off if journalists weren't afraid to say what they really think. Knowing where a journalist is coming from is important information that readers should know. Marc Ambinder, who's an excellent reporter, took a big step in that direction this week.

The Daily Caller is trying to convince conservatives of something they already believe: the elite media is conspiring against them. Never mind that the journalists on Journolist were mostly liberals who work for explicitly liberal magazines (TNR, MoJo, The American Prospect) and websites (HuffPo, TPM, the Washington Independent). But if conservatives want proof that liberal journalists disagree with them, they don't need to steal our private emails. They can just read our work.

As my onetime colleague Jonathan Stein has written, "The fact that I was on Journolist is the strongest possible evidence that it was never an elite media cabal." But if conservatives can convince MSM reporters to be more open about their opinions and biases, they'll have done everyone a great service.