Remembering Journolist and progressive media’s bag of tricks
A couple weeks ago I came across an old article about Journolist which I found striking. In particular, I was struck by the ways in which some of the debates taking place among left-leaning journalists back in 2008 still seem to encompass the ways the left-wing media operates today.
For those who don’t remember it, Journolist was just a listserv created by Ezra Klein. The list was invitation only and was mostly made up of progressive journalists. In theory, the list was a kind of digital water cooler where like-minded people could talk to others in the field. That may have been all it was much of the time, but when candidate Obama got in trouble in 2008, it also became a place for partisans to discuss a coordinated media strategy.
Author Jonathan Strong wrote this particular piece about the Journolist response to a crisis in the 2008 campaign. Rev. Jeremiah Wright, as you probably remember, was the pastor of the church Obama attended. He was the pastor who married Barack and Michelle and the person who inspired the title of Obama’s book: The Audacity of Hope. Wright was also a far-left crank who regularly denounced America. From ABC News, March 2008:
Obama would eventually denounce Wright and quit the church in June, but in the interim, it seemed possible the issue could seriously damage his campaign. Journolist members discussed various ways to respond to the Rev. Wright story. Michael Tomasky (now at the Daily Beast) wanted members of the list to “kill ABC” and thereby kill the story:
Michael Tomasky, a writer for the Guardian, also tried to rally his fellow members of Journolist: “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.”
“Richard Kim got this right above: ‘a horrible glimpse of general election press strategy.’ He’s dead on,” Tomasky continued. “We need to throw chairs now, try as hard as we can to get the call next time. Otherwise the questions in October will be exactly like this. This is just a disease.”
Chris Hayes, then at the Nation and now an MSNBC host, gave an impassioned plea (which sounded a bit like Rev. Wright) suggesting people in the mainstream media simply refuse to cover the story at all:
Hayes castigated his fellow liberals for criticizing Wright. “All this hand wringing about just how awful and odious Rev. Wright remarks are just keeps the hustle going.”
“Our country disappears people. It tortures people. It has the blood of as many as one million Iraqi civilians — men, women, children, the infirmed — on its hands. You’ll forgive me if I just can’t quite dredge up the requisite amount of outrage over Barack Obama’s pastor,” Hayes wrote.
Hayes urged his colleagues – especially the straight news reporters who were charged with covering the campaign in a neutral way – to bury the Wright scandal. “I’m not saying we should all rush en masse to defend Wright. 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 said.
Finally, Spencer Ackerman (also now at the Daily Beast) argued members of the list should put conservatives covering the Wright story on the defensive by calling them racist:
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.
When Kevin Drum (Mother Jones) argued that wasn’t the kind of campaign Obama wanted to run, Ackerman replied, “Kevin, I’m not saying OBAMA should do this. I’m saying WE should do this.” The particular charge, in this case, was racism because it was a defense of Obama, but more broadly this kind of strategic attack comes in several flavors including charges of sexism, anti-gay hate, Islamophobia, etc.
The Journolist discussion took place nearly a decade ago, but in retrospect, I’m struck by how these three basic approaches—kill it, ignore it, call them haters—seem like media archetypes now. You can probably think of your own examples but the ones that come immediately to mind are CBS News decision to sit on video showing President Obama had not called the Benghazi attack terrorism the day after the attack.
You may recall that Obama was widely considered the loser of the 1st presidential debate with Mitt Romney. He needed a comeback win. And the winning moment of the 2nd debate was his exchange with Romney on Benghazi. Obama claimed he had called the attack terrorism the next day. But an excerpt from 60 Minutes which remained on the cutting room floor showed that wasn’t true. CBS News knew it had the clip which would cut the legs out from Obama after the 2nd debate and it sat on until a couple days before the election when it quietly posted it online.
I also think of the media’s response to the Kermit Gosnell story. Gosnell, as you’ll recall, was convicted of murder for “snipping” the necks of infants born alive. He was eventually convicted of three counts of first-degree murder (and several other charges) but testimony in the case suggested he had been doing this for years if not decades. The total number of victims is unknown but it is likely that, if they were all accounted for, Gosnell would be the most prolific serial killer in United States history. The media’s response to this: Ignore it.
One progressive health reporter (now at Vox) infamously said she wasn’t covering it because it was a local crime story:
And do I really need to point out examples of the left-wing media calling people racist or sexist or Islamophobes? I don’t even know how to narrow this down. I’ll just point out that just last week many media outlets ran with the claim that House Speaker Paul Ryan was enforcing a new dress code aimed at making women cover themselves (shades of the Handmaid’s Tale). In fact, the dress code had been in place for many years, including under Nancy Pelosi, but the facts really were an afterthought. Speaker Ryan announced he would relax the dress code and Democratic women celebrated their right to bare arms as if it were a major victory. One progressive journalist pointed out that the fake attack had been effective (though he said he wasn’t endorsing fake media attacks).
To be clear, I’m not claiming that these three approaches are all the left-wing media does. The racism and sexism attacks have certainly become more common but these three approaches really go into high gear when something important is at stake, i.e. Obama’s election, abortion rights. In those cases, the left is not above using its numerical and influential dominance of the media for its own ends. This is why there’s really no alternative to seeking more ideological parity at major news outlets. Progressives in the media may be able to play it straight much of the time but if they’re going to cheat when it really counts, someone needs to be there in the room to call them on it.