The Spectacle Blog

Journolist-ic Ethics

By on 7.23.10 | 2:30PM

Since 1993, Grover Norquist has held an off-the-record meeting every Wednesday where conservative activists, policy wonks, and government officials exchange ideas about policy and politics. Sometimes journalists attend. Depending on a particular journalist's ideological and partisan disposition -- which can vary quite a lot given the state of our media landscape, which includes both 'straight news' reporters (i.e. people who attempt to hide the almost-always-left-of-center opinions that shape their journalistic choices) and opinion journalists with various worldviews and temperaments -- journalists may be there to get ideas that will influence how they think about issues, or they may just be there to get perspective on how conservatives are thinking about the issues of the day.

The Wednesday Meeting has periodically been the source of breathless fear-mongering on the left about the all-powerful conservative conspiracy to control media narratives. This is, of course, absurd. Much of the hyperventilating over Journolist is equally absurd, John Guardiano's included.

Everyone who has reason to be embarrassed by a direct quote in the Daily Caller's series on Journolist is an openly opinionated commentator. (The one partial exception is Jeffrey Toobin, who presents himself as a middle-of-the-road analyst on CNN, but his weaselly nature has always been pretty obvious.) Everyone who has been shown to have their work influenced by conversations on Journolist is, likewise, a commentator. That Chris Hayes tries to get perspective from other liberals before he goes on TV to opine on a topic, or that Joe Klein incorporates ideas from off-the-record exchanges into his blog posts, is not exactly earthshaking news. Commentators on the right do exactly the same thing -- it's just our emails don't get leaked because we're smart enough not to conduct these exchanges on listservs where we let the audience expand to include 400 people. This practice is a double-edged sword -- you get the benefit of idea-sharing, but you have to be careful not to get sucked into groupthink. Liberals seem more prone to the latter failing, but that's more a problem for them than for anyone else, and it's not much of a scandal.

The straight-news reporters who were on Journolist are being accused of being complicit in the partisan hackery they observed (even if they didn't participate in the discussions), but the charge doesn't really wash unless you can look at their work and point out how it is skewed by exposure to liberal conversations. Orrin Judd provides some useful perspective:

[O]ur friend Rick Perlstein was on the list and, in the meantime, he also had his own list of pet conservatives from whom he'd gather the opposing viewpoints. So there's nothing wrong with the list per se. Nor does this seem like a conspiracy to shape the news, no matter how much a few participants might have wished it to be one.

This brings us to the conduct of the Daily Caller itself. It is a bit precious for Tucker Carlson, who spent years cohosting Crossfire with James Carville and Paul Begala -- two of the most unprincipled Democratic hacks in the world -- to act like he's shocked, shocked to find evidence of partisanship among liberal commentators. (By implying symmetry between partisans on the left and opinionated but not-so-partisan commentators on the right, by the way, Crossfire did more to influence public discourse to the disadvantage of conservatives than Journolist could ever hope to.)

More seriously, Carlson is being flat-out disingenuous when he puts the burden on Journolist members to release the context of the threads that Jonathan Strong has reported on with a gloss that the people quoted all say is misleading. Everyone on Journolist was party to an off-the-record agreement. As explained above, having people trust you to keep conversations off the record is an important part of practicing journalism. (It shouldn't be a surprise that my source, who was willing to break the agreement to the extent that he treated an off-the-record discussion as an on-background discussion, is an academic, not a journalist.) The Caller is in possession of the complete threads (I gave them too much credit when I assumed they must not be), and was not party to that agreement. If the Caller is witholding information from readers to sensationalize the narrative, as the people they're quoting all claim that they are, they are practicing tabloid journalism.

And you know what? That's okay! There's room on our media landscape for tabloid journalism. The National Enquirer holds back information to sell more newspapers, and also pays sources. That doesn't mean there wasn't value in busting John Edwards when the mainstream media wouldn't touch him, it just means that when you read the National Enquirer you have to keep in mind the kind of operation they run. If Tucker Carlson wants to run his website like a tabloid, he's welcome to do so -- but he shouldn't be lecturing anyone about journalistic scruples.

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