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Getting the message on Journolist's controversial postings

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 23, 2010; C01

To conservatives, it is a pulling back of the curtain to expose the media's mendacity.

To liberals, it is a selective sliming based on e-mails that were supposed to remain private.

But there is no getting around the fact that some of these messages, culled from the members-only discussion group Journolist, are embarrassing. They show liberal commentators appearing to cooperate in an effort to hammer out the shrewdest talking points against the Republicans -- including, in one case, a suggestion for accusing random conservatives of being racist.

Tucker Carlson's Daily Caller site, which has been dribbling out the e-mails, drew fresh reaction Thursday with a piece about Journolist members savaging Sarah Palin. The former Alaska governor responded with a slam at the media's "sick puppies," saying she was confronted during the 2008 campaign by "hordes of Obama's opposition researchers-slash-'reporters.' " But the people making the most stridently partisan comments in the invitation-only group weren't reporters at all -- they were out-of-the-closet liberals acting like, well, liberals.

"It really would have been laughable to imagine that me or Mike Allen or Joe Klein were taking message orders from bloggers," says Journolist founder Ezra Klein, referring to reporters for Politico and Time. Klein, now a liberal blogger for The Washington Post, says he understands "how it comes off as coordination. But the great frustration is that it wasn't."

* * *

Carlson, an unabashed conservative and Fox News contributor, says: "I don't think you can be a journalist and carry water for a politician, and that's what they were doing: 'Here's the line on Palin.' . . . These are political hacks, and I think they should stop calling themselves journalists. It discredits the rest of us."

The key question is whether the openly opinionated commentators among Journolist's 400 members were so swept away by ideology that they cared mainly about doing damage to the other side. The group consisted primarily of left-leaning commentators, bloggers and policy wonks, with some mainstream or centrist reporters as well. Conservatives -- Carlson himself asked to join earlier this year, and Klein turned him down -- were not accepted.

The first Daily Caller story this week featured e-mails after a 2008 campaign debate in which ABC's Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos pressed candidate Barack Obama with a series of confrontational questions, some of them about Jeremiah Wright.

"George is being a disgusting little rat snake," declared Richard Kim of the Nation.

Michael Tomasky, an opinion writer for the Guardian, wrote: "Listen folks -- in my opinion, we all have to do what we can to kill ABC and this idiocy in whatever venues we have. This isn't about defending Obama. This is about how the [mainstream media] kills any chance of discourse that actually serves the people."

Thomas Schaller, a Baltimore Sun columnist and political science professor, asked: "Why don't we use the power of this list to do something about the debate?" Schaller proposed a "smart statement expressing disgust" at the ABC anchors' questions, which was later published as an open letter signed by 48 members.

Chris Hayes, Washington bureau chief of the Nation, told his colleagues to ignore Wright: "All this hand wringing about just how awful and odious Rev. Wright remarks are just keeps the hustle going. . . . If you don't think he's worthy of defense, don't defend him! What I'm saying is that there is no earthly reason to use our various platforms to discuss what about Wright we find objectionable."

Hayes describes the Caller stories as a "ludicrous" attempt to generate traffic and gain attention for the site, cherry-picking among discussions that ranged from policy analysis to gossip to blowing off steam. "You don't need an e-mail list to coordinate a bunch of people into thinking that Barack Obama would be a better president than John McCain," he says. As for his advice about ignoring the Wright imbroglio, Hayes says: "I wrote that in print! There's no secret."

Spencer Ackerman, then with the Washington Independent and now at Wired.com, wrote: "If the right forces us all to either defend Wright or tear him down, no matter what we choose, we lose the game they've put upon us. Instead, take one of them -- Fred Barnes, Karl Rove, who cares -- and call them racists. Ask: why do they have such a deep-seated problem with a black politician who unites the country?"

Ackerman did not respond to a request for comment. Barnes, the Weekly Standard executive editor, noted in Thursday's Wall Street Journal that "no one on JournoList endorsed the Ackerman plan. But rather than object on ethical grounds, they voiced concern that the strategy would fail or possibly backfire. . . . It was sad to see what journalism, or at least a segment of it, had come to."

* * *

In the latest Daily Caller piece, Journolist members were shown objecting to John McCain picking Palin as his running mate.

Jeffrey Toobin of CNN and the New Yorker: "What a joke. I always thought that some part of McCain doesn't want to be president, and this choice proves my point. Welcome back, Admiral Stockdale."

The Nation's Hayes, who is also an MSNBC contributor, appeared to ask for more talking points: "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."

When Suzanne Nossel of Human Rights Watch said McCain's selection "can be spun as a profoundly sexist pick" because McCain valued gender over experience, Jonathan Stein of Mother Jones wrote: "That's excellent! 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."

Ezra Klein, then with American Prospect, demurred: "I see no reason to attack Palin. I think you accurately describe Palin and attack McCain."

Time's Joe Klein, whom even the Caller describes as an independent thinker, linked to his column on Palin, writing: "Here's my attempt to incorporate the accumulated wisdom of this august list-serve community."

Klein says he has belonged to similar groups over the years and pointed to a written defense he posted Thursday: "When seen through the lens of witless right-wing conspiracy mongering, this seems embarrassing. But there was no conspiracy afoot. I didn't need the folks on Journolist to figure out how to react to Sarah Palin. . . . I am offended that my private correspondence was leaked and published."

Post blogger David Weigel resigned last month after the Caller published some of his inflammatory Journolist messages.

The Caller found one example of a news staffer spewing bile. Sarah Spitz, a producer for "Left, Right & Center" on public radio station KCRW, wrote that if Rush Limbaugh were having a heart attack, she would "laugh loudly like a maniac and watch his eyes bug out. . . . I never knew I had this much hate in me. But he deserves it."

Spitz apologized in a statement, saying she "made poorly considered remarks about Rush Limbaugh" and regrets her "irresponsible behavior."

One Caller headline -- "Liberal journalists suggest government shut down Fox News" -- was misleading. The story cited only a UCLA law professor, Jonathan Zasloff, as suggesting that the Federal Communications Commission could pull Fox's broadcasting license. Time reporter Michael Scherer disagreed, saying the government shouldn't be making such decisions.

* * *

Ezra Klein, who recently abolished the group, says members were "loose with their language" because they were having what amounted to an off-the-record bull session. "The Daily Caller has been rankly dishonest. . . . It's an attempt to rip quotes out of context and make it look like a conspiracy." Klein says there is no evidence that members collectively carried out the strategies being debated: "What would be disturbing is if people came to a conclusion together, and you looked the next day and it appeared in everyone's blog or everyone's column."

Carlson, who says he has withheld many "catty" personal comments, calls the out-of-context charge "a red herring designed to draw attention away from the fact that they were coordinating on behalf of Barack Obama."

None of this quite adds up to a Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy, and there is no reason to believe that some conservative commentators don't have similar discussions. But there is no escaping the fact that some of the list's liberal literati come off sounding like cagey political operatives.

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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