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The Secrets Of Journolist

Last week Ezra Klein closed up Journolist, an email exchange for liberal pundits, academics and think-talk types, along with some straight reporters who wanted to keep tabs on what we were thinking. There's always a fascination with things that are kept secret. If the identity of Deep Throat was revealed in 1974, within a few years nobody but Watergate junkies would have remembered his name. But because it was a secret, identifying Deep Throat became synonymous for decades with breaking the biggest story in journalism -- until he identified himself, at which point everybody immediately ceased caring. (You've probably forgotten already. It was Mark Felt.)

If I hadn't been on Journolist, I probably would have been fascinated with it as well. I'd probably be imputing great powers to it, like the fantastic description weaved by David Frum:

The idea that likeminded journalists would engage in formalized pre-discussions amongst ideologically like-minded people before publishing for the broad public is a formula for group-think. Genuinely private discussion via email is one thing. Coordination among colleagues: very different. Coordination seems to have been the purpose of JournoList from the start. It created “secret editors” to whom journalists privately reported, different from and undisclosed to their actual editors. That seems to me a genuinely sinister enterprise, a disservice to readers and corrupting of the participants in the list themselves.

Frum's description is a more lurid version of what Ross Douthat imagines. Let me disabuse everybody by revealing that Journolist was not created for people to work out some party line. The discussion was private not because the conversations were too explosive to be made public, but because they were too mundane. Conversations consisted of requests for references -- does anybody know an expert in such and such -- instantaneous reactions to events, joshing around, conversations about sports, and the like. Why did this have to be private? Because when you're a professional writer, even in the age of Twitter, you try to maintain some basic standard in your published work. I don't subject my readers to my thoughts on the Super Bowl as of halftime, or even (usually) the meaning of the Pennsylvania special election two minutes after polls close. You want the ability to share your thoughts with a group to which you may not have physical proximity.

Why was the group exclusively non-conservative? I wished it did have some right-wingers, but I went back and forth on this and I can understand the reason it didn't. You wanted to have some discussion of politics that didn't constantly require establishing first principles, so you could muse about a vote to extend unemployment benefits without having to refute the notion that Franklin Roosevelt deepened the Great Depression. It was the same reason that any community of interest exists. There was plenty to argue about. Eric Alterman and I both participated in Journolist -- that didn't keep us from maintaining a rather hostile public relationship. The same is true of many other members of the list. There was no explicit or implicit understanding that "we're all friends." It was like a bar you frequent, containing some friends, some total strangers, and some guys you get into brawls with.

The notion that the list existed to work out some party line, or to vet ideas before they became articles, is silly. Sometimes people used the list to gather liberal counterarguments to an idea before they wrote it. (You can try it with conservatives, too. I call this "research.") But the notion that Journolist was some kind of Comintern editing ideas before they were published bears no relation to reality, and flies in the face of the interests of those involved. The liberal writers on that list are my competitors. My goal is to publish original ideas before they do. Telling them my ideas in advance would be a criminally stupid act. So even when people did float a concept, which was rare, they naturally tended to be cagey about it. But, again, most of the things people discussed on Journolist were discussed because we didn't think our readers would care about them. Matthew Yglesias -- another member of Journolist who feels free to criticize me and of whom I feel likewise -- sums up the enterprise:

I’ve been looking back a bit at what’s archived in my inbox and what you see lately is an effort to organize a happy hour in Dave Weigel honor, many threads about World Cup matches, Wimbledon matches, NBA Finals games, etc., and mostly a lot of what amounts to self-promotion. People sending out links to articles they’ve published or talks they’ve given, sometimes followed by a reply or two. We had a thread in which people speculated as to where Peter Orszag will end up when he leaves the White House. This is the sort of thing that journalists like to talk about, but don’t like to write about in public, because it’s unprofessional to publish baseless speculation.

I'm sorry to spoil the excitement. It was a chat group.