Presswatch

The Klein Clan

By From the October 2010 issue

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Journalistic bias has traditionally been a matter of groupthink. "For decades liberal media elites were able to define current debates by all kicking in the same direction, like the Rockettes," as the Wall Street Journal put it in a 2004 editorial. In an age of media diversity, they can no longer reliably do this. Perhaps as a result, some liberal journalists have resorted to out-and-out conspiracy -- not that it's been effective.

Over the summer the Daily Caller, Tucker Carlson's new online magazine, obtained a tranche of messages from Journolist, a defunct, ideologically exclusive (no conservatives allowed) e-mail list that included academics, bloggers, and think-tankers as well as reporters and left-liberal commentators. Journolist, run by Ezra Klein, a young blogger at the Washington Post, had some 400 members, and the Caller's series of reports provided an often hilarious though occasionally disturbing look into the media hive.

One revelation was downright scandalous. In 2008, members of the list engaged in efforts to suppress news about then-candidate Barack Obama's then-pastor, Jeremiah Wright. The Caller reported that ABC News's "tough questioning" of Obama at a debate with Hillary Clinton "left many of [the Journolist participants] outraged." The most damning comment came from Spencer Ackerman, who worked for the Washington Independent:

What is necessary is to raise the cost on the right of going after the left. In other words, find a rightwinger's [sic] and smash it through a plate-glass window. Take a snapshot of the bleeding mess and send it out in a Christmas card to let the right know that it needs to live in a state of constant fear. Obviously I mean this rhetorically.

And I think this threads the needle. 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.

Smashing somebody's [sic] through a plate-glass window seems like an odd way to thread a needle, but atrocious prose is the least of the problems here. The problem isn't bias, either. Assuming Ackerman was an opinion writer rather than a straight-news reporter, he was entitled to express his views.

But he was not engaging in a public debate. He was privately strategizing about how to keep information from the public. And although his fellow journolists took issue with his proposal, they did so "only on strategic grounds":

Kevin Drum, then of Washington Monthly,...disagreed with Ackerman's strategy. "I think it's worth keeping in mind that Obama is trying (or says he's trying) to run a campaign that avoids precisely the kind of thing Spencer is talking about, and turning this into a gutter brawl would probably hurt the Obama brand pretty strongly. After all, why vote for him if it turns out he's not going [to] change the way politics works?"

But it was Ackerman who had the last word. "Kevin, I'm not saying OBAMA should do this. I'm saying WE should do this."

The final product of the Journolist debate was a pathetic "open letter," which I discussed in this space in July 2008. Still, Ackerman was urging journalists to carry out a political dirty trick in order to suppress the news and thereby aid a candidate for public office. That's about as unethical as journalism can get -- and because the list was off the record, it was done under the protection of journalistic ethics.

These revelations belie Ezra Klein's defense of the enterprise back in March 2009, after a few e-mails had been leaked:

The point is to create a space where experts feel comfortable offering informal analysis and testing out ideas. Is it an ornate temple where liberals get together to work out "talking points?" Of course not. Half the membership would instantly quit if anything like that emerged.

This statement turned out to be true only if parsed as a denial that an e-mail list is literally an ornate temple. Plainly the list was a forum where liberals got together to work out talking points, as evidenced by that "open letter." (Klein has said that he later instituted a ban on such open letters.)

MANY OF THE JOURNOLIST messages were more embarrassing than scandalous. A collection of excerpts titled "Obama Wins! And Journolisters Rejoice" revealed male journolists to be an unattractively lachrymose bunch:

David Roberts, Grist: It's all I can do not to start bawling.

Josh Bearman, LA Weekly: 11 months ago I burst into tears by myself on a plane while watching Hardball when my mind wandered to the image of President Obama being sworn in. I've been fighting it ever since.

Michael Tomasky, the Guardian: I'm just jelly. Lord!

Laugh, and the world laughs with you. Weep, and the world laughs at you.

On November 7, 2008, the following exchange ensued:

Laura Rozen: People we no longer have to listen to: would it be unwise to start a thread of people we are grateful we no longer have to listen to? If not, I'll start off: Michael Rubin.

Michael Cohen, New America Foundation: Mark Penn and Bob Shrum. Anyone who uses the expression "Real America." We should send there [sic] ass to Gitmo!

Jesse Taylor, Pandagon.net: Michael Barone? Please?

Laura Rozen: Karl Rove, Newt Gingrich (afraid it's not true), Drill Here Drill Now, And David Addington, John Yoo, we'll see you in court?

Jeffrey Toobin, The New Yorker: As a side note, does anyone know what prompted Michael Barone to go insane?

Matt Duss: LEDEEN.

Spencer Ackerman: Let's just throw Ledeen against a wall. Or, pace Dr. Alterman, throw him through a plate glass window. I'll bet a little spot of violence would shut him right the f--- up, as with most bullies.

Joe Klein, Time: Pete Wehner...these sort of things always end badly.

Eric Alterman, Author, What Liberal Media: F---ing Nascar retards.

Isn't it lovely to see Toobin's and Alterman's sensitivity to those with mental disabilities?

In another Caller story, "When McCain Picked Palin, Liberal Journalists Coordinated the Best Line of Attack," a Journolist elder statesman described his approach to his work:

Time's Joe Klein then linked to his own piece, parts of which he acknowledged came from strategy sessions on Journolist. "Here's my attempt to incorporate the accumulated wisdom of this august list-serve community," he wrote. And indeed Klein's article contained arguments developed by his fellow Journolisters. Klein praised Palin personally, calling her "fresh" and "delightful," but questioned her "militant" ideology. He noted Palin had endorsed parts of Obama's energy proposal.

On the surface, this resembles what I do in my online column for the Wall Street Journal -- but only on the surface. Each day readers send me hundreds of e-mails, from which I get lots of good ideas. But unlike the Journolist, my community of readers is truly diverse, and its members are not my ostensible competitors.

The result: My readers help me turn out a unique journalistic product, one that makes me look smarter than I actually am. By contrast, Joe Klein and his comrades -- Ezra Klein, Spencer Klein, Michael Klein, Eric Klein, Josh Klein, Matt Klein, Jeffrey Klein, Jesse Klein -- produce homogeneous drivel and look dumber than they actually are.

Yes, it's possible. 

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About the Author

James Taranto, a member of the Wall Street Journal's editorial board, writes the Best of the Web Today column for OpinionJournal.com.