Cult of exposure



I proudly consider myself to be the only Fourth Estate denizen who has yet to weigh in on the brouhaha concerning JournoList, the now-defunct listserv where roughly 400 liberal pundits, reporters, bloggers, and academics communed with each other online. This has become a big issue lately, at least in the usual overheated right-wing precincts, thanks to Tucker Carlson’s Daily Call website, which has alleged that JournoList was proof of a vast left-wing conspiracy to control public discourse – an hilarious concept, given the fact that (and I'm speaking from experience) a quartet of journalists standing in a hotel lobby generally can’t even agree on where to go for dinner.

Was I a card-carrying JournoLister, a foot soldier in the alleged cabal organized by Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein? Not a chance. Even if I had been invited to join (which I wasn’t), I would have declined. I instinctively value my independence; when a journalist joins a group, over time he or she risks being exposed to group think.

A second problem was the format itself. In this era of digital transparency, there was zero chance that the email traffic would remain private. It’s astounding that 400 people in and around the news business would somehow assume that their ideas (both full-baked and half-baked), gossip, and various harrumphings could remain off the record. The cult of exposure does not permit that kind of naivete. I agree with Bill Maher, who remarked not long ago that it’s nuts to say anything in an email that you wouldn’t want to see quoted on the front page of The New York Times.

Foolish as the JournoListers were on that issue, I can still understand, in theory, the impulse to create it. In the old media world, journalists enjoyed physical proximity to their colleagues; ideas and gossip were swapped at the cubicles and the coffee machine. The new media world is a lot more atomized; scribes often work alone, often craving the stimulation of absent peers. From this perspective, the list serv idea made sense – as a virtual newsroom were people share their thoughts and kick around ideas. Which is what list servs always do anyway.

Member discipline was impossible, however. It was inevitable that some of the most fervent (and, by all accounts, the youngest) JournoListers would write some insipid stuff - like suggesting that everybody should try to defend Barack Obama by accusing all conservatives of racism, like saying what a laugh it would be to watch Rush Limbaugh drop dead. And it was inevitable that such suggestions and remarks would be outed and cherry-picked by conservatives as evidence of a unified conspiracy – even though, in reality, most JournoListers probably deleted the stupidest messages as a matter of routine, along with the penis-enhancement emails and the rest of the daily dross.

Of course, it shouldn’t be a surprise that a group of 400 people would include some outliers – just as any meeting of 400 people (community confab, city council chamber, whatever) is often dominated by those who are the loudest. None of this strikes me as evidence of a lock-step mentality. Even the Daily Caller’s recent scoop - about how JournoListers authored a pro-Obama statement during campaign ’08 – is seriously overblown, given the fact that only 10 percent of all list members (41 of 400) signed on to the statement. This strikes me as a sign of the list’s diversity, not the smoking gun of a conspiracy.

JournoList, nevertheless, was a wrong-headed experiment. Everyone in the far-flung punditocracy – on both the left and the right - needs to be able to air the first rough draft of their thoughts, to have casual conversation about stuff that isn’t fit for publication, to engage or reject the nuttiest ideas on the table. But none of this can be done online, not when ideologues on the other side are anxious to overplay snippets out of context. The telephone is still a fine substitute for digital chatter. So is face time at the bar. In  any event, I’m glad I was not asked to join up. I take seriously the old Groucho Marx joke about not wanting to belong to any club that would have me as a member.

But wait! If you string together the first words of each of the preceding paragraphs, in descending order, you wind up with a sentence. Could it be...gasp...a secret confession? Conspiracy paranoids, arise! Take out your codebooks! And have a nice weekend.