JournoList, lies, and the media's new Taliban

The Shirley Sherrod case wasn't a one-off, not by any means. A lot of conservative misinformation -- often generated though wishful thinking or other dubious non-reporting techniques -- starts with blogs, often more obscure than Andrew Breitbart's Big Government, but then churns quickly to the top of the right-wing media and sometimes, like the Sherrod story, even bubbles over to the mainstream. There's been a lot of play over the last two days over a purported “confirmed” list of journalists involved in the controversial (more on that later) email list and discussion known as JournoList. The list has been published on the widely read conservative site Free Republic and linked to by right-wing A-listers like Glenn “Instapundit” Reynolds.

You'll be shocked, shocked to learn that this virally spreading list is about as real as a $3 bill. since he found himself on the right-win “confirmed” list despite having nothing to do with it. I saw his article and -- based on the increasingly unhinged comments I've been getting on the JournoList lately -- thought I should check to see if I had been erroneously placed there as well. Of course, I was. It's 100 percent wrong. I was never on the now-defunct JournoList at any time during its history, nor was I ever asked to be on it. In fact, I was only vaguely aware of the JournoList -- thanks to one article I read about it, a while back.

It's flattering, in a strange way, that so many right-wingers assumed I was on the JournoList. Ironically, the reasons that in the real world I would be an unlikely candidate for the JournoList are pretty much related to the reasons that I did start writing this blog more than five years ago. I had a lot I wanted to say, but I also knew that I was well out of the main loop, thanks to being based here in Philadelphia and working for a newspaper that is wonderful and scrappy but also small and lacking a national staff or presence or clout. If I was going to have an impact at all, it would never have been through a private email list -- and why would I want that, anyway? When I have anything to say, I'll say it right here. In the open, For people to read and comment on and disagree with, as a persistent posse of readers seems inclined to do.

I do think I know why I've been mistakenly included as a “confirmed” member of the JournoList. It relates to something that happened in April 2008. I was here at the newspaper live-blogging an ABC News Democratic primary debate that was taking place right here in Philadelphia between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton -- and I was outraged. Not because someone was sending me an email telling me to be outraged -- but because of what I saw on a small TV screen with my own two eyes. Instead of asking the candidates about the issues that mattered -- three of the topics not covered, incredibly, were health care, climate change, and Afghanistan -- the ABC moderators Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos larded the debate, especially the first hour, with some of the most trivial dreck in the history of American journalism. Obama was pressed on his patriotism, on not wearing a flag pin and his reported association with 1960s-radical-turned-Chicago-constituent Bill Ayers, while Clinton was asked for the umpteenth time on what by then was a fading controversy over her trip to Bosnia. The one issue that seemed to animate millionaire Gibson was whether either candidate would raise capital gains taxes.

Then the debate ended, I stayed in the newsroom past 1 a.m. and wrote an angry, emotional screed of an open letter to Gibson and Stephanopoulos. My complaints were not partisan -- I believed that Clinton and Obama should have been asked tough or novel questions, which I personally tried to do when each appeared at the Daily News during the campaign. Notice that I wrote: “Question his policies, or question his leadership. because that is your job as a journalist. But don't insult our intelligence by questioning his patriotism..” Apparently, I was not alone in my disgust at ABC News. To this date, the letter remains by far the most widely read piece I have written over the five years of Attytood, and I received hundreds of emails as well, most in support.

A few days later -- it was 4:05 p.m. on April 18, 2005, to be exact, as I still have it -- I received an email from someone I've traded a few emails with over the years, a Columbia University professor, media critic and author named Todd Gitlin. (Now since I want to give the right-wing as much fodder as I possibly can, I should note that Todd is also...a 1960s radical...dah-da-da! He was president of the Students for a Democratic Society in 1964 and 1965 and organized the first protest against the Vietnam war; he also left SDS by the time a handful of loons proposed violent measures and in fact he's spoken out against violence his whole life, but I'm sure by tomorrow I'll be accused of paling around with a terrorist...but I digress).

Anyway, Todd asked me if I'd sign an open letter from journalists expressing outrage to ABC News. I said yes, because a) frankly, the letter was tamer than what I'd already written in the blog and b) I believe that committed journalists have an obligation to fight like hell every day for a better news media, and I felt it was important for ABC to know that other professionals -- and not just regular folks -- were among those angry over that performance. It was only last week that I learned that the letter that Todd forwarded to me arose from discussions on this JournoList that I did not even know existed in April 2008. But this is probably why I've been linked to the pseudo-scandal, while conservatives have used the open letter episode as an excuse to condemn media ethics.

Really? To this date, the only unethical conduct that can truthfully be linked back to that debate is on the part of...ABC News. For one thing, the moderators ran a video of a seeming average Pennsylvania woman-on-the-street posing a question to Obama about wearing a flag pin. They never disclosed on the air they went to great lengths to track down this specific woman because she's made a comment about Obama and the flag pin to the New York Times -- but the episode left viewers with the misimpression that this was a burning issue in the Keystone State. Likewise, the question that Stephanapoulos asked Obama about '60s radical William Ayers was suggested to him almost verbatim by conservative radio host Sean Hannity, and Stephanopoulos jumped on this with little regard over whether it was an important issue. (Hint: It wasn't.)

Yet now,. in some quarters, it is this JournoList, where reporters -- most, but not all, working for publications like the Nation with an openly liberal orientation, as well as academics and a few advocates -- discussed and debated issues and occasionally traded information, that has become at least in some quarters the major journalism scandal of the 21st Century. That's total baloney. I wasn't asked to be on JournoList, and generally I think list-servs can be something of a big time-waster, but I have no problem with JournoList and I would not have been ashamed or regretful if I had taken part of it.

This may come across as shocking, but there's a place right now where journalists and even some activists trade ideas right now, and I do take part in it. It's called Twitter, and for God sakes don't tell Tucker Carlson before he shuts that down, too. And here's the real irony -- long before there was a JournoList, there was a place where journalists got together and intentionally or not, conspired to create little political narratives, that Gary Hart was a bit of a phony or George W. Bush could relate to regular guys, and those places were the hotel bars of New Hampshire and Iowa. I'm not defending that, necessarily ...but journalists are human, and they communicate with each other. The only difference is there wasn't a creep in the Des Moines Holiday Inn with a mini-recorder sending cassettes of private comments back to Rush Limbaugh.

Were there things that some indivdiduals said on JournoList that were stupid or in a few cases hateful? Yes, but from what I've read the dumbest comments were either ignored or pushed back -- as you might expect. It was just free speech -- sometimes brilliant, sometimes dumb, often messy -- and the worst example of partisanship related to JournoList is what's happening now on the right, as some conservatives are twisting words and the facts to try and yet again bully the mainstream media into covering bogus scandals of the right, like the New Black Panther Party, or just to be afraid of actual tough journalism.

Because this is not an isolated incident. The totally contrived JournoList scandal is the latest in a very alarming trend -- one that reminds me of what we've seen happen in parts of the Middle East in recent decades, that rather than deal with the difficulties of modernity -- in the case of journalism, that would be the Internet and the rise of a class of smart, edgy and passionate young writers -- there has been a disturbing plunge into a warped brand of radical fundamentalism. Inside the mosques of that old-time journalist religion -- the Washington Post springs to mind -- there is a kind of Taliban in charge this days, encouraging journalists to wear opinion burqas and a follow a kind of newsroom Sharia law in which reporters must be pure in their words, their opinions and even their associations, and there is an angry mob of right-wingers in the city square, urging on this unholy purity crusade and the ritual stoning of any infidels.

The new Taliban ignores the unalienable fact that journalists should largely judged in one simple way, by the character of their content. A writer can hold strong opinions or even make an occasional intemperate remark and still be a great journalist whose work is hard-hitting, fair and, dare I say it, accurate. In recent weeks, we've seen successful careers ended over one comment, like Octavia Nasr of CNN, and a journalism icon like Helen Thomas destroyed by one (admittedly pretty dumb) remark, and a promising young journalist like Dave Weigel leaving the Washington Post not because of his work -- which is outstanding -- but because of a few comments he tossed out on Twitter and the dreaded JournoList (Weigel was hired today by Slate, a glimmer of hope). Now, JournoList is becoming the place where the Taliban discovers the joys of McCarthyism.

If you want to judge journalists, it's not hard to do. Don't look at whether they're on some obscure list. Just look at what they write.