‘Journolist’ and the banality of detail
Gawker’s Journolist reveal is unlikely to find a liberal conspiracy. In any case, the media must expect its conversations to be public
The document dump is only a few weeks’ worth of exchanges, but even this slice of the conversation would have given Breitbart a bargain on a character-per-word basis: about $0.25 per keystroke.
Of course, most of those characters are quote-denoting carats, metadata mish-mash and sigfiles. The would-be treasure-trove is, as the Atlantic put it, “repetitive garbage”. The Atlantic was referring to the dingbats and to/from headers, but – I mean no offense by this – they might as well be talking about the actual content, and not just of Journolist, but of the conversations most reporters have with each other all the time.
As I’ve written before, the biggest threat to freedom of the press isn’t government snooping but groupthink. Journolist archives have glimmers of debate, but list founder Ezra Klein intended the list to be one of polite discussion. He told list members, as he considered shutting it down, that he came up with the list after a back-and-forth with Time Magazine’s Joe Klein about the Iraq war:
“Taking the conversation out of the public made it less defensive, less about winning.”
I’m in favor of the compassionate exchange of ideas, I guess? But maybe the Iraq war is not the best example of a topic where we can all “agree to disagree”. Indeed, most conversations we’ve seen from Journolist simply underscore the pervasiveness of conventional wisdom more than they do bias toward a specific ideology. If Journolist had an agenda, it wasn’t to advance a particular worldview but to advance the careers of particular journalists.
Indeed, Journolist’s only casualty was Dave Weigel’s gig at the Washington Post; and then, almost immediately after departing, he founded a new listserv, one dedicated to promoting his writing. Ironically, Weigel’s listserv morphed quickly into something Journolist wasn’t: a forum in which writers of all political shades and depths talk to each other. Full disclosure: I’m on the list, but I mostly lurk.
People on “Weigolist” quickly began joking about having their comments leaked, but awareness about the fragility of our privacy hasn’t dampened the conversation. If anything, it may have helped it along. In the wake of the news about domestic surveillance, it may sounds like heresy, but there are times when knowing you’ll be held accountable for your words benefits the public. I’m in favor of personal privacy and institutional transparency. Making conversations among journalists (rather than between them and sources) public is a check on corrosive institutional bias: unlike the government, we don’t have any other mechanism of oversight.
If we keep the conversations we have just among ourselves to ourselves, we eliminate true dissent via structure and habit. We sink further into the very notion that all issues can be discussed through the lens of left and right. Call it the Sunday Show Syndrome.
Transparency and erosion of barriers to access into the national conversation (and international one) have done much to complicate that vision. Indeed, that’s what the NSA revelations have done. I believe that journalists who cling to a bifurcated political framework will increasingly find themselves adrift. The professional market for one-of-two-sides reporting is still strong. The public appetite for it? Not so much.
Weigel parted ways from the Post because of a not-that-partisan (but kind of mean) joke about Matt Drudge. And that separation has turned out a lot better for Weigel than the Post, which hired him to “give readers a deeper understanding” of the conservative movement.
Mostly unspoken was the notion that it would be a sympathetic understanding; Weigel started his career reporting for libertarian outlets and self-identified as a “rabid conservative” himself early on. After the Post, he landed at Slate, and over the past three years has followed his reporting and critical analysis, rather an ideology. Just in recent months, he’s noted that “of course” the IRS has a liberal bias, that Republicans have overhyped the Benghazi “scandal”, and written a eulogy to Michael Hastings, in which he emphasized the importance of seeing the world not through a left/right prism but through a powerful/powerless one.
The Journolist scandal blew open Weigel’s career beyond a conservative/liberal continuum. That very binary view blinded those who wanted to use the list’s existence to prove engineered media bias. They believed the emails they saw, full of self-serious nitpicking and table-drumming thoughtfulness, were the tip of the iceberg. In fact, they turned out to be more a life-raft.
[Image via Flickr user Dave]