July 25, 2010, 10:00 AM ET
Inside (or at Least, Uncomfortably Near) the Right-Wing Hate Machine
I never thought becoming an education policy analyst would lead to crazy people accusing me of treason. But that's what happened last week, as a result of the controversy over "Journolist."
For those of you who don't know what I'm talking about—well, let me offer my congratulations. You have a good filter for the absurd. The controversy is a kind of unholy combination of inside-the-Beltway myopia and journalistic solipsism. In short: a few years back some left-of-center bloggers, journalists, pundits, college professors, and think-tank wonks started a private, off-the-record email listserv called Journolist.
Over time, the group grew to about 400 people. I was one of them. It was basically a place to shoot the breeze about things such people find interesting—politics, policy, sports, music, themselves. You'd probably recognize a few of the participants like Paul Krugman, Katha Pollitt, Jeffrey Toobin, and Joe Klein, but most of them were pretty obscure, i.e. people like me. It was, more than anything, a fantastic way to avoid working during the day. Over time, Journolist grew into a kind of virtual community. You got to know certain voices, get tired of certain recurring petty disputes, etc.
Then, a few weeks back, Journolist founder and Washington Post blogger / reporter Ezra Klein got an email from Tucker Carlson, a man who has distinguished himself primarily by spectacular creativity in being humiliated on national television. Seriously, you have to give it up for someone who manages to get bullied out of a job by Jon Stewart and flame out on Dancing With the Stars. Most of us aren't so versatile. Carlson was writing to ask if he could join Journolist. Ezra was open to the idea, but after polling the members we decided it was best to limit the group to the center-to-left side of the ideological spectrum.
Not long after, Carlson's Web site, the Daily Caller, began publishing a series of articles based on excerpts from old Journolist emails. Apparently, someone on the list leaked the archives. The Caller articles, written by Jonathan Strong, were laughably sensationalist and wrong, alleging that Journolist was a secret left-wing conspiracy to control the media and put Barack Obama in office. For example, in the course of a long string of Journolist emails about Fox News, a law professor wondered whether the FCC could legally decide not to renew Fox's license. A journalist from Time responded by saying, in essence, "that would be a terrible idea." Nobody mentioned it again. Yet this exchange produced a gigantic 60-point Caller headline: "FOX HUNT: Liberal journalists suggest government shut down Fox News." It was an obvious lie: No journalist, much less journalists, plural, had suggested any such thing.
But that was more than enough to set the gears of the right-wing outrage machine in motion. Soon Daily Caller folks were being interviewed by Fox News' Megyn Kelly, a woman whose reporting technique consists primarily of modulating the degree to which her eyeballs bulge with rage and incredulity. Glenn Beck weighed in, and Rush Limbaugh, and the guy who posted that fake video that led to Tom Vilsack railroading an innocent woman out of her job at the USDA, and so on. Right-wing radio host Mark Levin published a McCarthyite list of known Journolist members on his Facebook page. It turns out that a lot of the people who like to post comments on Levin's Facebook page are either tremendously stupid ("Why aren't these people arrested and charged with conspiracy to influence an election!"), violent (Wouldn't you like to grab these elitist media types by the collar and knock a few teeth out?), or—surprise!—anti-semitic.
The long-run effect of the fake Journolist scandal will be another frayed thread of privacy and civil discourse. Kathleen Parker, no liberal she, explains this well in the Post today. One of the great things about Journolist (Klein has since shut it down) was that it was a place where media and policy people could talk to college professors. There were economists, historians, political scientists, sociologists, law professors, and others on the list, all lending their ideas and expertise. I remember one thread where a political reporter offhandedly said of a recent campaign best seller, "Political scientists aren’t going to like this book, because it portrays politics as it is actually lived by the candidates." The political scientists on the list promptly explained what a dumb comment this was. And the reporter agreed! Having a group of economists around was invaluable to interpreting the economic crises of the last few years. We even debated education policy from time to time.
People in academia are often accused of hiding in the ivory tower. These people were doing the opposite, engaging with people in other spheres and fields. For that, they've been branded as thugs, traitors, and other words I can't reprint here. All so the owners of various cable news outlets and Web sites can make money by lying to their audience and fanning the flames of resentment. We live in strange times.