There used to be a specter haunting the American media—a specter called "Journolist." A by-invitation liberal Internet listserv that grew to 400 members, it was introduced to the larger public in a lurid March 2009 Politico cover story asking the question, "Proof of a Vast Liberal Media Conspiracy?" After all, it did not appear on any LexisNexis searches; it had never been mentioned in a print publication of any kind. It was protected, author Michael Calderone observed, by a "'Fight Club'-style code of silence."
The legend grew. Republican flack/Weekly Standard blogger Michael Goldfarb called it "a little creepy." Blogger/quixotic candidate Mickey Kaus complained that it was "contrary to the spirit of the Web." A guy from National Review explained that this was "how liberal bloggers and major left-of-center voices in the mainstream media work out their message coordination" and speculated about its use as a tool of ideological blackmail. Occasionally sensible conservative David Frum imagined "'secret editors' to whom journalists privately reported, different from and undisclosed to their actual editors" and pronounced it to be "a genuinely sinister enterprise."
Dude, if only I had known... Where, I ask you, is the fun in being part of a Genuinely Sinister Enterprise if all you think you're doing is deleting e-mails about Medicare repayment schemes? Yes, dear reader, I was there (along with at least four other Nation editors/columnists). The idea that anyone could spin a conspiracy of media control out of this group speaks as powerfully as anything I've ever seen to a "paranoid style in American politics" (if I might coin a phrase). In fact, nobody on the list ever cleared anything with anybody. Many of us could barely stand one another. People argued over everything, not always civilly. Not long ago, I received an e-mail from another member reading: "I'm starting to understand what conservatives don't like about liberals!" I took issue only with the word "starting."
Personally, the list offered me the opportunity to simultaneously sharpen my ideas, improve my expertise, locate knowledgeable sources and bullshit about baseball. The cost was occasional aggravation and a lot of lost time. (If I had a Proustian masterpiece inside me somewhere, J-List is to blame for its continued nonexistence.) As a collective we held people's feet to the fire, encouraged excellence, bemoaned administration wimpiness and took numerous opportunities to remind New Republic editors and authors that they work for a reactionary racist lunatic. This casual cross-pollination of information, ideas and anxieties can only have had a salutary effect on the quality of American liberalism, high-minded journalism and public policy–oriented scholarship.
But as Mr. Jagger sang back in 1964, "It's all over now." A member of the list actually researched its archived conversations to professionally discredit one of its members. Blogger Dave Weigel made some nasty comments about the conservatives the Washington Post recently hired him to cover. Undoubtedly it was naïve and imprudent of Weigel to do this. The idea that anything could be a shared secret among 400 people is just plain silly. The comments were leaked first to "Fishbowl DC" and then to Tucker Carlson's new website, The Daily Caller. (As it happens, Carlson had recently been rejected for membership in the group, owing to its desire to remain relatively ideologically coherent. According to J-List founder and Capo di tutti capi, Washington Post wunderkind Ezra Klein, Carlson "tried to change my mind, and I offered, instead, to partner with Carlson to start a bipartisan list serv. That didn't interest him.")
Weigel was forced out of his job covering conservatives at the Post without reference to the quality of his work. Numerous conservatives praised both his fairness and accuracy. As Frum said, "Weigel is a fine reporter. He writes intelligently and insightfully about the conservative world. If somebody is doing his job, he should keep his job." New York Times conservative pundit Ross Douthat noted also that "no journalistic standard was violated by firing off intemperate e-mails to what's supposed to be a private e-mail list."
But the Post, like so much of the journalistic establishment these days, is extremely wary of this new species of the opinionated blogger and almost comically eager to placate conservatives when they "work the refs." Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander lamented that "Weigel lost his job. But the bigger loss is The Post's standing among conservatives." Raju Narisetti, Weigel's editor, explained in Alexander's post on the topic, "I don't think you need to be a conservative to cover the conservative movement. But you do need to be impartial...in your views." Narisetti went on to suggest that in the future, the paper quiz potential reporters: "In private...have you expressed any opinions that would make it difficult for you to do your job?"
This is pernicious Orwellian nonsense. The Post tolerates—nay, embraces—all kinds of opinions among its reporters. Was it OK to believe that George Bush would never lie to the country about Iraq, torture or pretty much everything else? How about the fact that a presidential blowjob was somehow sufficiently consequential to throw almost all of the paper's rules on sourcing and verification out the window? Weigel's coverage of conservatives was accurate and intelligent, which is more than can be said of the Post's reporting of either of the above. His private musings are none of their business.
Following the takedown of Weigel, Klein made the unavoidable decision to remove this particular weapon of professional destruction from the arsenal of unprincipled employers and dissolved the list; yet another victory for the culturally toxic combination of conservative conspiracy-mongering and mainstream media cowardice.