By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 23, 2010; 9:24 AM
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."
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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."
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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.
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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.
Salon Editor Joan Walsh largely dismisses the notion of lockstep liberalism:
"A handful of liberal opinion writers for openly liberal publications used the so-called Journolist to draft an open letter to ABC News, complaining about its moderation of an April 2008 debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. . . . Later on that same list, the Daily Caller 'reveals,' after Wright ran amok at the National Press Club and an NAACP event (and Obama had to denounce him), some of the same liberals argued that liberal media outlets should ignore the controversy and attack conservatives who raised it. Other liberals disagreed with them. End of story. . . .
"Beyond the bounds of the Journolist, the Caller strives mightily to make the case that there was a generalized liberal media conspiracy to ignore the Wright issue -- but I can tell you from personal experience, there was none. Just check the archives of Salon. . . .
"The Obama-worship of progressives like Hayes and many others on the Journolist, as commemorated by the Caller, set them up for a big fall, so that now they're often unrealistically critical of the president."
New Republic columnist Jonathan Chait also scoffs:
"The letter was hardly an example of secret message coordination. It resulted in an open letter. Everybody who agreed with the sentiment signed their name to it and published it. It was a completely transparent action. The Daily Caller breathlessly describes it like so: 'a group of liberal journalists took radical steps to protect their favored candidate.' But opinion journalists organizing a petitition is not a radical step. Now, it's true that some members of the list who don't engage in political activism, like me among many others, felt a little uncomfortable with the email list being used to organize a political activity. Soon thereafter Ezra Klein, the list organizer, instructed people not to use the list to organize petitions."
But Andrew Sullivan finds the e-mails troubling:
"What's depressing is the way in which liberal journalists are not responding to events in order to find out the truth, but playing strategic games to cover or not cover events and controversies in order to win a media/political war.
"The far right is right on this: this collusion is corruption. It is no less corrupt than the comically propagandistic Fox News and the lock-step orthodoxy on the partisan right in journalism - but it is nonetheless corrupt. . . .
"I understand this is Spencer [Ackerman] getting excited in a private context in the face of a baldly racist propaganda campaign by the FNC-RNC machine to use Wright to tar Obama. And I know that Spencer is a good person, dedicated to real investigative journalism and with more balls and capacity for hard work than most of his peers. But the attitude in this email is still not, to my mind, the attitude of a journalist. It is the attitude of a political activist."
Hot Air's Ed Morrissey zeroes in on the racism charge:
"Ackerman wasn't talking about a strategy to expose real racists, in the media or anywhere else. The Washington Independent reporter wanted to conduct a campaign against any figure on the Right, including journalists like Fred Barnes, to smear him as a racist for the political purposes of electing a Democrat to the White House. Notice that Ackerman doesn't even bother to ask people to look for actual evidence of racism, but just suggests to pick a conservative name out of a hat. Tellingly, the pushback from members of Journolist had less to do with the outrageous idea of smearing an innocent person of racism to frighten people away from the story than with whether it would work. Mark Schmitt, now at American Prospect, warned that it 'wouldn't further the argument' for Obama, and Kevin Drum objected because playing racial politics would 'probably hurt the Obama brand pretty strongly.'
"It certainly puts efforts by the Left to paint the Tea Party as racist in an entirely new light. . . . Hayes' argument fell almost completely flat, and there's no evidence that anybody decided to stop writing about Wright."
As for Ackerman, a Wired spokeswoman tells Politico: "We hired Spencer Ackerman for his well-informed national security reporting and fully support it. Anyone with access to Google can discover his political leanings, as well as his long track record of top-notch opinion journalism from Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantanamo Bay and the Pentagon."Sherrod fallout
Robert Gibbs tells the WP's Greg Sargent: "Just as the Department of Agriculture and this administration will review its actions, I also hope this starts a conversation in the media about how it operates."
I don't see much of that happening. Instead, I see plenty of the usual finger-pointing.
Obama weighs in on "Good Morning America," faulting Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack for firing Shirley Sherrod: "He jumped the gun, partly because we now live in this media culture where something goes up on YouTube or a blog and everybody scrambles."
"That, however, is unlikely to be the end of it for Mr. Obama, who has struggled since the beginning of his presidency with whether, when and how to deal with volatile matters of race," the NYT says. "No matter how hard his White House tries to keep the issue from defining his presidency, it keeps popping back up, fueled in part by high expectations from the left for the first black president, and in part by tactical opposition politics on the right."
Salon's Justin Elliott challenges a prominent journalist's take on the affair:
"Politico executive editor Jim VandeiHei said on the radio that the lesson of the Shirley Sherrod mess is that the 'media-activist industrial complex' such as 'Breitbart on the right or Huffington Post on the left' has 'a huge incentive . . . to engage in real tough combat, and to overreact.'
"That sounded a lot to us like VandeHei was equating Andrew Breitbart -- who posted an incendiary edited video, without having even seen the original and any due diligence or attempt at reporting it out -- and Huffington Post, which employs actual reporters who hew to journalistic standards. Yes, Huffington Post's stories sometimes flow from liberal premises and its reporters tend to be open about their ideological leanings. But HuffPo is fundamentally different from Breitbart, a hyper-partisan flamethrower who, as far as we can tell, does not employ any actual reporters. For example, he posted the deceptively edited Sherrod clip under the headline, 'Video Proof: The NAACP Awards Racism--2010.' (And he has refused to issue a correction since the full video was released.)
"Asked about this, VandeHei told Salon in an e-mail: 'As you can see from my remark, my point was clear: partisan media outlets are growing, some at very rapid rates. I am not equating the two other than to say both are ideological and both are growing at impressive clips. Huffington Post clearly leans left, Breitbart clearly leans right. I am not saying this is good or bad -- just a fact.' "
Speaking of Huffpo, Gawker reports that Arianna is moving to New York. Huffington tells me she's keeping her Brentwood mansion in L.A. and will be spending more time in New York and D.C. now that both her daughters are attending a certain school in New Haven.
Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."