Saturday, June 26, 2010

Reading Between The Lines Of Ezra Klein's Reason Why He Is Closing Down The Journolist

The 'Famed' Journolist that Ezra Klein helped found is being scrubbed in the wake of fellow member David Weigel resigning from the Washington Post. All after Weigel's emails became public. The Journolist-- a place where liberal bloggers can practice epistemic closure and group-think in safety-- is going bye-bye. He announced the closing of the list the other day and I did what I could to separate what he said and what he really meant.

I began Journolist in February of 2007. It was an idea born from disagreement. Weeks, or maybe months, earlier, I had criticized Time's Joe Klein over some comments he made about the Iraq War. He e-mailed a long and searching reply, and the subsequent conversation was educational for us both. Taking the conversation out of the public eye made us less defensive, less interested in scoring points. I learned about his position, and why he held it, in ways that I wouldn't have if our argument had remained in front of an audience.

I wasn't allowed on other email lists. So I packed up my toys and started my own 'Cool Kids Club'. Joe Klein wasn't invited.

The experience crystallized an idea I'd been kicking around for some time. I was on all sorts of e-mail lists, but none that quite got at the daily work of my job: Following policy and political trends in both the expert community and the media. But I always knew how much I was missing. There were only so many phone calls I could make in a day. There were only so many times when I knew the right question to ask. By not thinking of the right person to interview, or not asking the right question when I got them on the phone, or not intuiting that an economist would have a terrific take on the election, I was leaving insights on the table.

There was always some token Republican or conservative on those lists. They made me feel yucky. Always making me doubt myself. I didn't want that. Plus, seeing how I was in charge of the list, I can always make sure my two cents were the last word on any subject.

That was the theory behind Journolist: An insulated space where the lure of a smart, ongoing conversation would encourage journalists, policy experts and assorted other observers to share their insights with one another. The eventual irony of the list was that it came to be viewed as a secretive conspiracy, when in fact it was always a fractious and freewheeling conversation meant to open the closed relationship between a reporter and his source to a wider audience.

We would tell dick jokes. A lot.

At the beginning, I set two rules for the membership. The first was the easy one: No one who worked for the government in any capacity could join. The second was the hard one: The membership would range from nonpartisan to liberal, center to left. I didn't like that rule, but I thought it necessary: There would be no free conversation in a forum where people had clear incentives to embarrass each other. A bipartisan list would be a more formal debating society. Plus, as Liz Mair notes, there were plenty of conservative list servs, and I knew of military list servs, and health-care policy list servs, and feminist list servs. Most of these projects limited membership to facilitate a particular sort of conversation. It didn't strike me as a big deal to follow their example.

Obviously the first rule was flexible. The second was ironclad. There was a third rule. "No Girls Allowed". That soon went away. Besides, this was my list. Where else can I safely announce that I grew my first pubic hair?

But over the years, Journolist grew, and as it grew, its relative exclusivity became more infamous, and its conversations became porous. The leaks never bothered me, though. What I didn't expect was that a member of the list, or someone given access by a member of the list, would trawl through the archives to assemble a dossier of quotes from one particular member and then release them to an interested media outlet to embarrass him. But that's what happened to David Weigel. Private e-mails were twisted into a public story.

David Weigel must have really, really pissed someone off.

In a column about Stanley McChrystal today, David Brooks talks about the union of electronic text, unheralded transparency, 24/7 media and a culture that has not yet settled on new rules for what is, and isn't, private, and what is, and isn't, newsworthy. "The exposure ethos, with its relentless emphasis on destroying privacy and exposing impurities, has chased good people from public life, undermined public faith in institutions and elevated the trivial over the important," he writes.

This is both good and bad. The good is that we can help craft a media message for someone like George Allan and the word, "Macacca"* and keep it alive until it sinks his candidacy. The bad is there is no way in hell we can spin any good out of Bob Etherigde and his assault on two students. But to in an effort to spin gold out of straw, we did our best to make sure the story is dropped soon.

There's a lot of faux-intimacy on the Web. Readers like that intimacy, or at least some of them do. But it's dangerous. A newspaper column is public, and writers treat it as such. So too is a blog. But Twitter? It's public, but it feels, somehow, looser, safer. Facebook is less public than Twitter, and feels even more intimate. A private e-mail list is not public, but it is electronically archived text, and it is protected only by a password field and the good will of the members. It's easy to talk as if it's private without considering the possibility, unlikely as it is, that it will one day become public, and that some ambitious gossip reporters will dig through it for an exposure story. And because that possibility doesn't feel fully real, people still talk like it's private and then get burned if it goes public.

There will be a blood oath in order to get on the next list. And whoever leaks this list, their nuts will be on an anvil. Hence, the no girls rule again.

Broadly speaking, neither journalism nor the public has quite decided on how to handle this explosion of information about people we're interested in. A newspaper reporter opposing the Afghanistan war in a news story is doing something improper. A newspaper reporter telling his wife he opposes the war is being perfectly proper. If someone had been surreptitiously taping that reporter's conversations with his wife, there'd be no doubt that was a violation of privacy, and the gathered remarks and observations were illegitimate. If a batch of that reporter's e-mails were obtained and forwarded along? People are less sure what to do about it. So, for now, they use it. Facebook pictures get used too, though there's a bit of shame in it. If the trend continues as it is, people will become much more careful in those forums. For now, we're in an awful transition, where we haven't quite adjusted for the public sphere's ability to appropriate the freshly-enlarged private sphere.

We aren't the gatekeepers of information like we use to be. And more and more people are starting to hold us accountable for what we say and do.

It was ironic, in a way, that it would be the Daily Caller that published e-mails from Journolist. A few weeks ago, its editor, Tucker Carlson, asked if he could join the list. After asking other members, I said no, that the rules had worked so far to protect people, and the members weren't comfortable changing them. He tried to change my mind, and I offered, instead, to partner with Carlson to start a bipartisan list serv. That didn't interest him.

Neener, neener. Tucker couldn't join. Hindsight being what it is, maybe I should have let him joined.

In any case, Journolist is done now. I'll delete the group soon after this post goes live. That's not because Journolist was a bad idea, or anyone on it did anything wrong. It was a wonderful, chaotic, educational discussion. I'm proud of having started it, grateful to have participated in it, and I have no doubt that someone else will re-form it, with many of the same members, and keep it going. Hopefully, it will lose some of its mystique in the process, and be understood more for what it is: One of many e-mail lists where people talk about things they're interested in. But insofar as the current version of Journolist has seen its archives become a weapon, and insofar as people's careers are now at stake, it has to die.

And I've posted way too many racist jokes and Buffy fan/fiction stories on that list. I'm scared crapless if someone leaked that.

But did you think the Journolist is going away for good? Journolist 2.0 goes into effect later this evening. As soon as I figure out who leaked Dave's emails, they will be black-balled.

As for Dave, I'm heartbroken that he resigned from The Post. Dave is an extraordinary reporter, and a dear friend. When this is done, there will be a different name on his paychecks, but he will still be an extraordinary reporter, and a dear friend.

I said there were two rules to join the list. There was another set of rules after you were admitted. Weigel broke the first two of those rules. Never admit to being on the list.

People on the list can be outed because of a leak or two. That's acceptable to a certain level. But better the mystique of being on the list and not a member than saying you are a member and then outed as never being on it. At least, that's how I tried to portray it to potential recruits.

Anyhoo, by outing himself, Weigel tried to get in front of a breaking story about the Journolist but the internal rules are set in stone. Dave did the noble thing by throwing himself under the bus.

But don't cry for him. Media Matters is hiring and is looking for someone and I heard (through the Journolist, no less) that they like the cut of Weigel's jib.

*Yes, "Macacca" was before Journolist's time but not other email lists that were active.

1 comment:

  1. I have heard enough from him to smell weasel. I just read your stuff, ignoring his quotes, and, really, felt like I was reading his real statement as if he had an honest bone in his body. Nothing personal to him. Well, okay, it's both personal and derogatory. And, good on ya.