Journolist Proves That Old Is New Again

Almost exactly nine months ago, I offered an opinion which contained an element critical of conservative media after it appeared that the White House had chosen to disfavor Fox News.  (Conservative Readers, I hope, will note that I was more critical of the Obama Administration than I was of Fox News.)  Some of the thoughts I had about media then, which were apologetic for conservative-leaning media, apply with equal force to liberal-leaning media.  Specifically, I mean this passage:

I don’t want the news lying to me or deceiving me by excluding relevant facts, but at the same time I don’t want reporters turning their brains off or simply regurgitating the pablum fed to them by their sources. I want and expect journalists to ask difficult, critical questions of their sources because that’s where the real value of news reporting comes in to play. If it appears to me that a news agency is not using those kinds of critical thinking skills in an intelligent and worthwhile way, I lose respect for that agency and begin to think about satisfying my hunger for news elsewhere.

So while I may be critical of the unhinged and paranoid hysteria Glenn Beck sells on Fox, and while I may note things like tone of voice or editorial selection of subjects on Fox News bleeding between the pundits who are giving unabashed opinions and the allegedly “neutral” news readers, the fact of the matter is that I do not expect or even want any news agency to become so “neutral” that they either seek “opposing points of view” from fringe or unreliable sources, or that they stop critically sourcing and fact-checking the people in power. Right now, the Obama Administration is in power and Fox News — having a conservative slant, appealing to a generally conservative audience — is in a good position to ask hard questions of the people in the White House. I can take issue with the concept of “narrative” reporting arcs transcending multiple stories, but that’s something that both conservative and liberal journalists do. And it, too, is something that I simply have to take into account when I read the news.

I expect journalists covering the high levels of government to be smart, to not take things they are told at face value, and to ask hard questions. To do that, you have to form opinions about what you hear. That’s the only way your B.S. detectors are going to be working, the only way to know, “Hey, that politician just told a lie.”

Does anyone seriously disagree with those ideas?  If so, no one spoke up about it back in October, so now’s your second chance.

Now, consider the “Journolist” issue that’s been floating to the top of the Memeorandum aggregator for the past several days. Right-leaning new media entrepreneur Andrew Breitbart offered a hundred thousand dollars to anyone who would send him the archive of e-mails exchanged between the members of an avowedly liberal listserv and has been parceling out the results of that purchase for days, presumably hoping to drive enough traffic to his sites so as to make his hundred large back. 

The result has been a web media coup for Breitbart.  Nearly everything else on the net — actual news like the status of the oil spill in the Gulf, legal arguments about Arizona’s immigration law, and an economy that continues to decline — has been subsumed to it.  It’s had good, respectable, honest, and worthwhile authors falling all over themselves to explain away their having expressed opinions.  It appears to have wrongfully cost someone her job, and since it looks like the Jornolisters or the people sinking their teeth into the Jornolist archive or someone took the remarks of this woman out of context, it appears to have cost the White House some face in that it offered her a new and better job back in a tacit admission that she should not have been fired in the first place. 

From an business perspective, Breitbart needs to be sensationalistic about Jornolist.  After all, he sunk a significant amount of real money into the venture.  From a news perspective, though, is there really any substance behind all the sound and fury?  To buy in to the idea that the Journolist story is important is to allow oneself to be scandalized, shocked, and amazed that the very people who do the best work investigating facts — bringing the rest of us the data upon which we all unapologetically bloviate — that those people form opinions about them themselves and share those opinions with their friends and colleagues.

So it turns out not all the media are conservative.  There’s still a lot of people who are liberal, too.  Why should I care about that?  According to the conservative media, this is nothing new; the media has been biased to the left for generations (since, not coincidentally, Walter Cronkite began criticizing the Vietnam War).  I’m turning forty years old later this year, and I have never known a world without an element of conservatives complaining about liberal media bias; what is new in the past ten to fifteen years has been liberals whining about the conservative media, too.

That’s all the Journolist imbroglio is — evidence that there are liberal journalists who used the internet to share their opinions in a forum they thought was private to themselves.  Dial it back a generation, and Andrew Breitbart buying the Journolist e-mails becomes a Nixon operative buying a tape recording of conversation over cocktails at the Press Club.  This is the same old stuff we’ve been hearing for two generations now — it’s been updated and translated to a modern medium, and good for Andrew Breitbart for pulling off what appears to be a profitable internet media maneuver.  But the substance is older than me.  This is nothing more than conservatives whining about the liberal media.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.


  1. Sorry but no.This right here isn't just "people expressing opinions." It's outright coordination. The threads re: killing the Jeremiah Wright story were similar. Yes, I'm not as inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt. But the "benefit of the doubt", when they are actively trying to kill/bias stories. See comments like "non-official campaign" to refer to Journolist, "“Keep the ideas coming! Have to go on TV to talk about this in a few min and need all the help I can get", "If enough people – people on this list? – write that the pick is sexist, you’ll have the networks debating it for days. And that negates the SINGLE thing Palin brings to the ticket", and on and on.This goes far beyond what anyone could call reasonable, and buttresses strongly the real complaint that conservatives have had with the media for the longest time – not that individual journalists are biased, or that bias occasionally slips through, but that coordinated attacks are constructed by a large number of people across many papers and news outlets, deliberately working together while falsely claiming to be "objective" journalists.

  2. While I know Breitbart is behind both stories, is there some other connection between Journolist and the Sherrod firing? That doesn't seem to be described in your link.As for Journalist "story" itself – meh. It's just another example of the modern media's collective narcissism on both right and left. If that helps hastens the death of "neutral" journalism, then good, but otherwise who cares?

  3. Maxwell James, I thought that the Sherrod video was something uncovered in the Journolist archive in large part because both came from Brietbart at about the same time. It seems I was incorrect in that regard.

  4. Oddly enough, elsewhere in the supposedly "out of context" Sherrod video, she has a long rant about the son/daughter of a 93 year old farmer who sell their inheritance (and why they shouldn't, when neither is a farmer and they have their own lives/careers elsewhere). The kicker is the line "and they already got a white guy lined up."I'm sorry, but the totality of Sherrod's statements still says, to me, that she is an unabashed racist. She may personally claim to color it along more class-warfare lines, but it is there.

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