'Journolist' Flap Offers Lessons in Media Manipulation

Friday, 23 Jul 2010 04:32 PM

By Kathleen Parker

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The current Journolist controversy that has the blogosphere heaving sparks, and Washington even more self-absorbed than usual, is weak tea — a tempest in Barbie's teacup.

At least as concerns the so-called conspiracy itself.

As a larger lesson about the way we search and destroy each other in the political/media world, there may be something darker brewing.

For the millions who have no idea what I'm talking about, a brief history: Journolist was a listserv (Internetspeak for watering hole) where liberal-leaning journalists gathered to kvetch.

Started by prodigal blogger Ezra Klein for a few friends, it grew in numbers and popularity, attracting a few mainstream luminaries (Joe Klein of Time magazine) along the way.

But mostly it was a consortium of far lesser-known folks (academics, mid- to low-level producers, etc.) who enjoyed the camaraderie of the like-minded.

In the conservative world, we call such people Fox News. (Just kidding, guys, but really.)

Today, Ezra Klein is a ripened 26-year-old Washington Post blogger — hired as a known liberal — who makes trenchant observations about healthcare and other complicated policy issues.

Klein is young, in other words, and could be seen as relatively inexperienced in the world of which he has precipitously become a pretty high-level moving part.

Today Klein is best known — in certain quarters — for his role in creating the listserv, which is being characterized as the locus of left-wing conspiracy.

The story, such as it is, was broken by conservative Tucker Carlson's Daily Caller, a newish website where a number of my friends happen to write. And a former reporter was on the benighted Journolist.

It is no fun writing about friends and colleagues, but I think perspective is needed here.

Carlson has been making the news rounds with his traffic-driving story, appearing on Fox News, where he is a contributor, and criticizing journalists who posted comments suggesting that they were teaming up to advance a policy agenda and, more specifically, to get Barack Obama elected president.

It should come as no surprise that self-identifying liberals have liberal thoughts and friends, so no foul there, as Carlson has said. And, indeed, some of the comments are, on their face, condemnable, not to mention banal.

But some comments also have been presented out of context and, besides, were offered as part of an ongoing argument among colleagues who believed they were acting in good faith that theirs was a private conversation.

Were they naive to think so? In this world, yes. Was Carlson right to "out" the private comments of people, who, for the most part have no significant power? That, to me, is the more compelling issue.

On the question of context, I have room only for one example, but more can be found on Klein's Washington Post blog.

One of the most widely circulated is that these lefties were conspiring to get the government to shut down Fox News.

Well, one member — a UCLA law professor no one ever heard of (Jonathan Zasloff, sorry) — did write something to that effect. But it was a query about whether the FCC could pull the network's broadcasting permit once it expires for, in liberals' view, espousing a political agenda.

Whereupon, Michael Scherer of Time responded: "You really want political parties/White Houses picking and choosing which news organizations to favor?"

Even so, the headline was that liberals want to shut down Fox News, which is not precisely an accurate rendering of a non-conversation. There was no further discussion on the subject at Journolist.

Scandalous? Sure, if you want it to be. If you pull a few remarks from tens of thousands posted by 400 people over a few years, you can frame a debate any way you wish.

If you pull a mean quote about Rush Limbaugh, you've got Limbaugh time. Throw in Karl Rove, Fox News and Sarah Palin, and you're golden — for a little while.

But then the news cycle moves on, and maybe next week you'll be the one being hunted. In the meantime, we have to ask ourselves: Are we better off never having the ability to speak off-handedly among friends, to say in private what we could never say in public, to think aloud and uncensored?

Or do we resign ourselves to the new reality — that no one is ever to be trusted — and keep our thoughts to ourselves? The answer implied by the events here described suggests a country in which few of us would want to live.

Kathleen Parker's e-mail address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

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