The wrangling over the JournoList goes from weakness to weakness.
While there is far less to the whole controversy over the private online discussion group than meets the eye, it continues to draw far more attention and comment than the debate we should be having about the future of journalism.
That is a calculus that argues for turning attention elsewhere.
Unfortunately, I have been drawn into the wrangling in a way that begs some explanation and a clarification of views regarding the controversy.
So here goes:
Folks who have heard me speak at tech, media and journalism conferences know that I am not a fan of the Listserv phenomenon. I think it goes against the genius of the Internet to try and develop private discussion groups and I hold to the view that they will always become public.
Because I have taken this position, and because a number of friends and colleagues of mine were participants in the JournoList discussions, a conservative colleague inquired recently about whether I had joined this particular online discussion group — which brought together a few hundred mostly liberal journalists, writers and academics to discuss media coverage of politics and policy. I dashed off a response that outlined some of the reasons why I have never liked Listserv discussions. I tendered the old-school argument that people who work for competing news outlets ought not spend too much of their precious time discussing how stories can or should be covered with one another. I expressed my fears about groupthink. And I offered some examples of the issues that can arise – for reporters and columnists, for their critics and for consumers of media – when significant numbers of journalists engage in extended and supposedly private discussions about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. or Sarah Palin or the creeping socialist threat posed by health care reform.
After I sent the response off I decided, in the interest of transparency, to use it as the basis for a column, which circulated a bit as part of the whole controversy that has arisen since The Daily Caller website began to publish details of discussions that took place among the 400 or so journalists, academics and others – most of them centrists or liberals – from the inception of the online forum in February 2007 until it was shut it down in June 2010.
What intrigued me was the reaction to the column.
I was not surprised when conservative friends were offended that, in discussing my fears about journalists reading from the same page, I focused on the extent to which major media outlets reinforced the Bush-Cheney administration’s messaging in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. They also objected to my suggestion that the story of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. was spun by Karl Rove and others. And, presumably, they were nonplussed by my view that the wrangling regarding Wright was healthy for the republic and, ultimately, for Obama.
What was more intriguing was the response of a writer who was a participant in the JournoList discussions – and who I happen to respect as one of the most agile and adventurous thinkers in the country. This friend felt that I was being sanctimonious and self-serving in my dismissal of Listserv discussions in general and the JournoList project in particular as “gossiping” – and hurtful in suggesting that discussions of this kind might dumb down the discourse.
My writer friend’s point was a valid one.
Here’s why: The objections to private online discussions that I was raising had to do with the broad concept of these endeavors. But my writer friend asked to get out from behind the theoretical language and consider whether I really thought that specific reporters and editors who participated in the JournoList discussions were guilty of “wasting their time talking to other journalists, avoiding the bracing air of new ideas and dumbing down debate.”
Even more unsettling was another question: If I really do think that participating in private forums of this kind diminishes the discourse, then isn’t the natural conclusion that I believe the JournoList participants are less original, less vibrant, and less interesting writers than those of us who stay clear of Listservs?
That’s a “Take a Look in the Mirror, Buddy” question that demands an answer.
Many of the writers who took part in the JournoList discussions are people I know and hold in high esteem. A few are colleagues at The Nation. Others have been or remain writers for publications with which I am associated as a contributing writer. Still others are compatriots from campaign trails and the backs of hearing rooms. A few are folks I have debated on MSNBC, CNN, Fox, NPR and other networks. Most importantly, they are almost all writers and broadcasters who I continue to rely upon for information and insight.
I have disagreed with most of the JournoList participants, and will continue to do so. But when and where we differ, I invariably check my assumptions – just as I do when conservative writers I have come to trust go somewhere that makes no sense to me.
So, no, I do not happen to believe that the JournoList participants are lesser journalists. Quite the opposite. They’re some of the ablest practitioners of the craft. To suggest otherwise would be unrealistic or ridiculously partisan – the equivalent of dismissing everyone who has ever participated in one of Grover Norquist’s “Wednesday Meetings” of conservative insiders as a right-wing robot.
Where, then, does the JournoList debate take us?
I have, of course, been reading the coverage of the controversy since it developed, and I’ve had a number of casual conservations about the forum with journalists who joined the list and journalists who avoided it. But, since we’re checking assumptions, I decided to take another read through The Daily Caller’s ruminations on the JournoList emails, a thankless task that reminded me of the extent to which this “controversy” has been blown out of proportion by people are determined to imagine that there is a “liberal media conspiracy” – of the sort, one presumes, that gives us endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a health-care “reform” that caused insurance company stock values to rise and a Wall Street “reform” that somehow fails to get rid of “too-big-to-fail” banks or protect working families from foreclosure.
I also read over four score and seven posts regarding the JournoList imbroglio – including some of the thoughtful commentaries by participants I particularly respect like Dave Weigel, John Judis, Mike Tomasky and, above all, my colleague Chris Hayes. (Chris, who goes out of his way to be transparent and who classes up any conversation he joins has been maligned in especially unfair ways during the course of the controversy.) I took into account a wise observation from my writer friend that: “A lot of people on jlist aren’t journalists. They are the people journalists should talk to a lot more than they do: economists, historians, social scientists and brilliant writers like Rick Perlstein. I’ve learned a lot on jlist.” (Full disclosure: Rick is not just brilliant, he’s a buddy going way back who honored me by including a story I’ve often told about Jefferson and the press in his essential book Nixonland. It is, no doubt, worth noting here that Nixonland was well reviewed by no less a liberal co-conspirator than George Will.)
I ended up where I thought I would: Respecting the people I have always respected. That does not mean that I don’t think a few of them wrote things that I would not have written – and, I suspect, that they would not have written if they thought their private comments were going to become fodder for attacks on their independence and integrity. Nor does it mean that I have become a fan of Listservs. I still think that conversations of the kind that played out on the JournoList are better had in public.
That is a point I will keep making.
But, considering the absurdity of the attacks on journalists who in many cases criticized and discouraged irreponsible practices, I’ll also keep making the point that the JournoList controversy has been inflated by people who want to score partisan points – or draw traffic to their websites. I’ll also continue to argue that it was wrong, incredibly wrong, that Dave Weigel, one of the ablest and fairest chronicler’s of the Tea Party movement and conservative politics, was forced out of his position with The Washington Post because of a few intemperate remarks on the JournoList. (Slate has wisely picked Weigel up.)
So where does this leave us?
The writer friend who accused me of being sanctimonious didn’t just make me uncomfortable. Whether I liked it or not, I was confronted with the fact that, while I had written what I believed, I had not provided sufficient nuance or perspective.
Hopefully, what’s said here adds a small measure of those valuable commodities to a discussion that does not seem to be going away.
And, now, let me add a little more.
The biggest problem I have with the JournoList controversy is not with a particular private forum or private forums in general. It is with the notion that journalists – or elected officials or candidates or other public players – are not allowed to explain themselves.
No one can or should be defined by any one statement, by any one debate, or by any one ListServ they have joined.
We live in volatile times. Too much time is wasted worrying about what is said in passing. Instead of looking for an email sent in haste, or an online conversation rooted in the heat of a moment, we should encourage journalists on the left and the right to talk more about how they practice their craft. I’ve been far more impressed with the commentaries written by participants in the JournoList forum – and with some of their critics — than I have been with snippets I’ve read from the forum. Instead of looking for the “gotcha” moment that allows us to mischaracterize a writer, a talk-radio host, a judicial nominee or even a presidential candidate, it is far better to invite people to explain themselves.
That’s not easy when national debates are launched by Tweets.
But that should be seen as a challenge, not an excuse.
Journalism is changing. It is becoming more opinionated, more aggressive and more rapid-fire in its responses to the demands of a 24/7 news cycle. Some people believe that Listserv discussions will help them to do a better job, or at least to sort through the questions that arise in a period of transition. I happen to disagree. But that disagreement is a subtler one now, thanks to my writer friend’s prodding. And isn’t this as it should be? There’s a reason why we suggest that journalism is “the first draft of history.” We improve upon it not by hunkering down and suggesting that we have said all that can be said but by recognizing that there is always more to the story, not by looking for a “gotcha” moment but by looking for explanations and deeper insights, not by clinging to assumptions but by doing our best to answer the questions that make us uncomfortable.