July 21, 2010


The Death of JournoList: Does Privacy End at the Edge of Your Thoughts? (Walter Shapiro, 7/21/10, Politics Daily)

The life and death of a 3-year-old members-only online liberal bulletin board is a story that normally would offer all the searing drama of a public television pledge drive. But the sudden collapse of JournoList Friday afternoon -- after the private e-mails of Washington Post blogger Dave Weigel were maliciously leaked -- offers a cautionary tale about the dangers of candor in an age when everybody (and not just Big Brother) is watching.

Founded in early 2007 by the youthful Ezra Klein, now a columnist for The Washington Post, JournoList was a private bull session which brought together left-of-center think tankers, government-oriented academics and opinion-mongers to discuss and debate economics, health care reform, foreign policy and the day's headlines. As an informal conversation, with maybe 400 participants (including me), it was about as conspiratorial and aggressively partisan as the cafeteria chatter at the Brookings Institution.

Every entry on Google Groups, where JournoList resided, ended with the cautionary line, "And remember: All postings are off-the-record." But someone -- whose motivations were mysterious and whose lack of integrity was obvious -- collected all of Weigel's back e-mails and apparently sent the most intemperate comments (ripped out of context) to FishbowlDC, a media gossip website, and the Dally Caller, a new conservative online newspaper. Weigel, who had recently been hired by The Washington Post to write about the conservative movement, resigned from his new job Friday because of the furor.

Miller's Time: A biased salute to two brave friends. (Walter Shapiro, July 6, 2005, Slate)
The Bush White House has been the most locked-down in history for reporters. And future administrations, even Democratic ones, are likely to emulate this nearly impenetrable Karen Hughes-inspired, message-discipline approach, under which even innocuous unauthorized conversations with the press can be potential firing offenses. As a result, the only way that even a glimmer of truth can emerge from places like the White House, the Pentagon, and the CIA will be if government officials trust reporters to keep their identities secret. That means that reporters must stand their ground amid the predictable frenzy of leak investigations. It is not an appealing bargain if a reporter promises to protect a source ... as long as it is convenient.

There have been acrobatic efforts to distinguish between good leaks (say, the Pentagon Papers) and bad leaks (Plame's CIA position). But who is going to make these hair-splitting distinctions? And on what grounds? Those who scream "national security" or even (hysterically) "treason" over the flaming of Plame should recall that these very same arguments were brandished by the Nixon administration against the publication of the Pentagon Papers. Moreover, if so-called bad leaks are those motivated by personal malice or a political agenda, that standard would apply to a high percentage of Washington whistle-blowers. Where in the journalistic handbook does it say that reporters should only obtain confidential information from saintly figures? That would certainly have ruled out Deep Throat (aka Mark Felt), who had authorized unlawful FBI break-ins against the anti-war movement.

First, let me confess to not following this JournoList kerfuffle very closely. The tone of many of the missives these folks sent each other seems unfortunate--wishing death or harm to people with whom they have political differences--and the presence of some serious reporters on the list is disturbing, but, for the most part, if a bunch of liberal opinion writers want to bitch amongst themselves about how awful the Right is, the exercise is pretty harmless. If anything, the danger is to themselves, as they could begin to mistake their little bubble for reality. But, for instance, our friend Rick Perlstein was on the list and, in the meantime, he also had his own list of pet conservatives from whom he'd gather the opposing viewpoints. So there's nothing wrong with the list per se. Nor does this seem like a conspiracy to shape the news, no matter how much a few participants might have wished it to be one.

On the other hand, it's awfully hard to take seriously the indignation of the participants and their friends that the contents of the list leaked. One struggles to recall any of them expressing similar concerns when the press has been the recipient of leaks regarding conversations within government, business, the political parties etc. And it won't do to claim that they are private figures. We afford the Press certain special rights and privileges precisely because it serves a public or quasi-public function. Just as they often expose what people thought were private communications, because they believe there is a news value inherent to those communications, so too must they live with the fact that their own communications may be newsworthy. What's good for the goose is good for the gander, no?

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 21, 2010 3:04 PM
blog comments powered by Disqus