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Monday, August 02, 2010

Reynolds on Journolist

Instapundit conservative blogger Glenn Reynolds (also a law professor at the University of Tennessee) published a provocative op-ed about Journolist in Sunday's Knoxville News.

Reynolds begins by pointing out that J-List was merely a list service, and "like most email lists, much of the content was profane or sophomoric." However, Reynolds quickly references a few selective (and incendiary) quotes and implies that they are all attributable to journalists. Then, he makes a few hasty generalizations about the list (and media) from these few selective quotations. Remember, the list members exchanged well north of 10,000 postings since 2007.

Yes, some of the quotes are embarassing. In turn, some of the people who wrote what was quoted have apologized for their remarks. All of the participants thought they were contributing to an off-the-record forum that they did not expect to become public.

Furthermore, some of the most incendiary quoted postings were not written by journolists, though Reynolds emphasizes at the very beginning that the list included "reporters at top publications like the Post, the New York Times, Newsweek, Politico, PBS, Time, etc." Reynolds never mentions that the list additionally included academics (like me), policy wonks, social movement and labor activists, etc. I don't know how many of the 400 members were working journalists, but then again neither does Glenn Reynolds. Listowner Ezra Klein long ago disabled the function that allowed members to see the email identities of the other members. Only people who posted were known to everyone else -- and many members were silent parties on the list. There's no way of knowing if they even read the content.

Moreover, many of the journalists on the list were bloggers or people who work for opinion outlets like Mother Jones, The Nation, The New Republic, etc. This is an important distinction since many listmembers are being criticized for lack of objectivity when their job is to provide opinions. Given academic freedom, scholars like Reynolds and I are likewise free to express our opinions in private email lists or in public newspaper columns. Are the J-list critics like Reynolds saying that journalists of all types should not be free to talk privately to each other and to academics, activists or wonks?

In any case, let's consider Reynolds's discussion of what he sees as the list's worst offenses to journalism:
Some JournoList members talked about getting the FCC to shut down Fox News, or about denying web traffic to rivals deemed too conservative. And, most troubling, there were concerted efforts to choose a storyline and spread it across the outlets for which they all worked, so as to manipulate the public's perceptions. When John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate, JournoList participants coordinated their attacks.
Should I begin by pointing out that Instapundit primarily links to and blogrolls fellow conservatives? His blogroll doesn't include Daily Kos or Ezra Klein, for instance, and just last week Reynolds declared that he won't send traffic to particular websites.

As has been reported, the single member who asked a question about whether the FCC could shut down Fox News (“but is there any reason why the FCC couldn’t simply pull their broadcasting permit once it expires?”) was in fact a law professor -- and working journalists replied that it was a bad idea. Nobody actually advocated the idea. It was an hypothetical question about what might be possible, working from a assumption that Fox is an arm of the Republican Party rather than a genuine news network.

Professors -- even Reynolds -- sometimes conjecture about ideas that are quickly viewed as incredibly dumb by others with more expertise in the subject area. That doesn't mean the forum hosting the idea is to blame.

As for the remaining attacks, Reynolds provides no evidence for them. Yes, individuals on Journolist may have urged colleagues not to write about specific stories, or to emphasize other important stories in their blog posts or opinion outlets in order to shape a particular news cycle -- but there's no evidence that these posters were non-opinion journalists and no evidence that the ideas were overlooked in the media (even by J-listers). Where are the smoking guns?

Daily Caller originally quoted Chris Hayes of The Nation and some other opinion journalists arguing that the Jeremiah Wright story was a distraction from the real issues in the Clinton-Obama primary campaign and that many right-wing media outlets (like Fox) were trumpeting the Wright videos for partisan purposes. Not even Hayes's colleagues at The Nation listened to his advice as the magazine posted dozens of stories about Wright in 2008. Indeed, many J-listers undoubtedly wrote about the Jeremiah Wright story regardless of what colleagues were urging: Ezra Klein pointed out his own post the very next day after being encouraged to go silent.

By contrast, when any overtly political activism appeared on J-List, Klein shut it down.

The idea that J-list was the source for Sarah Palin attacks is mind-boggling. Andrew Sullivan was not on the list. So far as I know, no one associated with television programs featuring Katie Couric or Charlie Gibson was on J-list. Tina Fey (or SNL writers) never posted, so I presume no one from SNL was a listmember. And Sarah Palin herself provided plenty of new ammunition on a daily basis from the campaign trail. She's the one that emphasized Alaska's proximity to Russia, supported the bridge to nowhere, talked divisively to the "real America" about Barack Obama's "socialism," and claimed "Obama sees America as imperfect enough to pal around with terrorists."

The attacks on Palin practically wrote themselves. The Daily Caller posted first reactions by members of J-list who (like the American people) had very little idea of Sarah Palin's identity. Most of the participants in the thread responded to her words and ideas in any case -- and several slimey lines of attack that did appear in other political outlets were dismissed in the thread by various J-list members.

Daily Caller reproduced this email and many J-list critics have referenced it as proof that an "unofficial campaign" of journalists was secretly backing the Obama campaign:
Daniel Levy of the Century Foundation noted that Obama’s “non-official campaign” would need to work hard to discredit Palin. “This seems to me like an occasion when the non-official campaign has a big role to play in defining Palin, shaping the terms of the conversation and saying things that the official [Obama] campaign shouldn’t say – very hard-hitting stuff, including some of the things that people have been noting here – scare people about having this woefully inexperienced, no foreign policy/national security/right-wing christia[n] wing-nut a heartbeat away …… bang away at McCain’s age making this unusually significant …. I think people should be replicating some of the not-so-pleasant viral email campaigns that were used against [Obama].”
First, Levy is not a journalist, obviously.

Second, Levy was talking about the very large group of people (including bloggers) who openly advocated for Obama in specific domains even though they were not in any way coordinating with the campaign -- or even with each other. That's why he talks about "viral" outlets. And third, Levy thought national novice Palin provided an opening for the exact kinds of attacks that unknown Obama experienced. And he was right. Andrew Sullivan's infatuation with Trig (shared by others) proves the point.

As Kathleen Parker opined last week, the J-list controversy is "weak tea— a tempest in Barbie's teacup."

Ironically, and perhaps hypocritically, Reynolds previously coauthored a book on "the appearance of impropriety," which argued that many contemporary Washington ethics battles are "tempests in ethical teapots." The book criticized the press and bureaucracy for focusing on "regulatory minutiae."

Maybe Reynolds should give it another read.

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