After someone torpedoed Dave Weigel’s Washington Post gig by breaking the code of silence on the Journolist listserv, the race has been on to see who would sell the entire contents of the e-mail messages between the liberal members of the group — and who would get to buy them. We may never know who sold it, but Tucker Carlson and the Daily Caller wound up with the data, and they found a big story to lead off their exposés. In the first of a series on Journolist, Daily Caller reporter Jonathan Strong lays out a strategy plotted by Journolist members to kill the Jeremiah Wright story during the 2008 primaries — and to smear Barack Obama’s critics as racists:
It was the moment of greatest peril for then-Sen. Barack Obama’s political career. In the heat of the presidential campaign, videos surfaced of Obama’s pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, angrily denouncing whites, the U.S. government and America itself. Obama had once bragged of his closeness to Wright. Now the black nationalist preacher’s rhetoric was threatening to torpedo Obama’s campaign.
The crisis reached a howling pitch in mid-April, 2008, at an ABC News debate moderated by Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos. Gibson asked Obama why it had taken him so long – nearly a year since Wright’s remarks became public – to dissociate himself from them. Stephanopoulos asked, “Do you think Reverend Wright loves America as much as you do?”
Watching this all at home were members of Journolist, a listserv comprised of several hundred liberal journalists, as well as like-minded professors and activists. The tough questioning from the ABC anchors left many of them 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.
In one instance, Spencer Ackerman of the Washington Independent urged his colleagues to deflect attention from Obama’s relationship with Wright by changing the subject. Pick one of Obama’s conservative critics, Ackerman wrote, “Fred Barnes, Karl Rove, who cares — and call them racists.”
Gee, doesn’t that sound familiar?
One of their efforts was completely public. Journolist members collaborated on an open letter criticizing ABC’s Charlie Gibson for asking questions about Wright during ABC’s presidential debate between Obama and Hillary Clinton. The letter eventually appeared in the New York Times, and while it could be argued that a campaign by professional journalists to tell ABC not to ask tough questions about a candidate’s links to radicals is a rather strange idea, it isn’t any different than any other collaboration on an open letter. The Journolist listserv probably made the process a little more efficient, but the end result was public and obviously the result of a collaboration.
Ackerman’s attempt to rally his colleagues into another strategy entirely — the racist attack — was deliberately political:
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.
Let’s put this in its proper perspective. 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. It also calls into question the ethics and judgment of anyone who participated in that Ackerman thread. Finally, this first entry in the Journolist exposés — Tucker Carlson promises more to come — shows that far from being a benign place to have chats among colleagues, Journolist also served as a place for journalists to plot against their political opponents and strategize to twist the news and propose smear campaigns.
Update: But was the campaign effective? Ed Driscoll put together a video showing the correlation of this effort on Journolist and the declaration by CNN that it would be a “Wright-free zone.” Correlation isn’t causation, but this is a pretty interesting juxtaposition.
Update II: There is something to keep in mind in this particular story, which is that the people involved in the specific conversations regarding the smear are all opinion journalists, and not people filling roles in objective reporting. The Prospect, the (Washington) Independent, and the Nation are all publications with an explicit point of view, although the Independent offers a little more of a pretense of traditional reporting. That doesn’t relieve them of responsibility for proposing and/or considering an odious smear campaign, but it does make it difficult to tie this to other journalists filling a different role.
Of course, those journalists in different roles who participated in Journolist, assuming any did, didn’t exactly leap to expose this smear attempt, either. And we haven’t seen the last of the Daily Caller’s Journolist stories, either.