�Call Them Racists�

The Wall Street Journal (Link) - James Taranto (July 20, 2010)

The �Journolist� scandal has deepened with new revelations that participants in the now-defunct email list for ideologically approved journalists--no conservatives allowed--engaged in efforts to suppress news damaging to then-candidate Barack Obama.

The Daily Caller reports ABC News�s �tough questioning� of Obama at a 2008 debate with Hillary Clinton �left many of [the Journolist participants] outraged:�

�George [Stephanopoulos],� fumed Richard Kim of the Nation, is �being a disgusting little rat snake.�
Others went further. According to records obtained by The Daily Caller, at several points during the 2008 presidential campaign a group of liberal journalists took radical steps to protect their favored candidate. Employees of news organizations including Time, Politico, the Huffington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Guardian, Salon and the New Republic participated in outpourings of anger over how Obama had been treated in the media, and in some cases plotted to fix the damage.

Most damning is a long quote from a Spencer Ackerman, who worked for something called the Washington Independent:

I do not endorse a Popular Front, nor do I think you need to. It�s not necessary to jump to Wright-qua-Wright�s defense. What is necessary is to raise the cost on the right of going after the left. In other words, find a rightwinger�s [sic] and smash it through a plate-glass window. Take a snapshot of the bleeding mess and send it out in a Christmas card to let the right know that it needs to live in a state of constant fear. Obviously I mean this rhetorically.
And I think this threads the needle. 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? What lurks behind those problems? This makes *them* sputter with rage, which in turn leads to overreaction and self-destruction.

Smashing somebody�s [sic] through a plate-glass window seems like an odd way to thread a needle, but atrocious prose is the least of the problems here. The problem here isn�t bias, either. Assuming Ackerman was an opinion writer rather than a straight-news reporter, he was entitled not only to hold his opinions but to express them.

But Ackerman was not engaging in a public debate; he was privately strategizing about how to suppress the news. And his fellow journolists, while disagreeing with him, did so �only on strategic grounds:�

�Spencer, you�re wrong,� wrote Mark Schmitt, now an editor at the American Prospect. �Calling Fred Barnes a racist doesn�t further the argument, and not just because Juan Williams is his new black friend, but because that makes it all about character. The goal is to get to the point where you can contrast some _thing_--Obama�s substantive agenda--with this crap.� . . .
Kevin Drum, then of Washington Monthly, also disagreed with Ackerman�s strategy. �I think it�s worth keeping in mind that Obama is trying (or says he�s trying) to run a campaign that avoids precisely the kind of thing Spencer is talking about, and turning this into a gutter brawl would probably hurt the Obama brand pretty strongly. After all, why vote for him if it turns out he�s not going [to] change the way politics works?�
But it was Ackerman who had the last word. �Kevin, I�m not saying OBAMA should do this. I�m saying WE should do this.�

If anybody on the list objected in principle to Ackerman�s idea of slandering people, including a fellow journalist, as racist, the Caller missed that part of the story. (We�ll be happy to report it if a Journolist member would care to supply us with the evidence.) What Ackerman proposed was to carry out a political dirty trick in order to suppress the news and thereby aid a candidate for public office. That�s about as unethical as journalism can get.

The final product of this debate was a pathetic �open letter,� which, as we noted at the time, was signed by 41 self-described �journalists and media analysts,� nearly all of whom were affiliated with universities, left-wing publications or left-wing think tanks. The letter does seem to have been more of a collaborative effort than we guessed back then: the Caller lists eight people who contributed to its drafting. Even so, what self-respecting journalist shares a byline with 40 other guys?

�The letter caused a brief splash and won the attention of the New York Times,� the Caller reports, but thereafter was deservedly forgotten until now. Obama weathered the Wright revelations, but it seems a stretch to give Journolist the credit (or, if you prefer, the blame) for that. On the other hand, are there other stories they did succeed in suppressing? We cannot know as long as the full Journolist archives are secret.

These revelations also belie Journolist founder (and now Washington Post commentator) Ezra Klein�s defense of the enterprise back in March 2009:

As for sinister implications, is it �secret?� No. Is it off-the-record? Yes. The point is to create a space where experts feel comfortable offering informal analysis and testing out ideas. Is it an ornate temple where liberals get together to work out �talking points?� Of course not. Half the membership would instantly quit if anything like that emerged.

This statement is true only if parsed as a denial that an email list is an ornate temple. Plainly the list was a forum where liberals got together to work out talking points, as evidenced by that �open letter.� Worse, it was a forum where people employed as journalists conspired to suppress the news--and, by doing so �off the record,� used journalistic ethics as cover.

In 2009 Klein wrote that Journolist�s policy of excluding conservatives was �not about fostering ideology but preventing a collapse into flame war. The emphasis is on empiricism, not ideology.�

�Call them racists.� That�s empiricism for you!