On Today's Hot Media Stories: Sherrod, 'Journolist'

I go out of reach of internet-land for 48 hours, and the place blows up! Let me be the last person in the Official Media to weigh in on two topics:

1) Shirley Sherrod. I agree with my colleagues Coates, Sullivan, Green, Ambinder, plus most of the civilized world, in finding this episode nauseating. Silver lining: the possibility that for the Breitbart/Fox attack machine this could be the long-awaited "Have you no sense of decency?" moment. I disagree with my colleague Clive Crook that it's hard to tell whether the people who first aired and harped on the deceptive video (Breitbart/Fox), or the officials who responded in belief it was true (ie, Ag Secretary Vilsack), are the more culpable. As Marc Ambinder pointed out, it's easy: Vilsack's now-revoked decision to fire Sherrod "was a good faith [though rash] mistake based on the bad faith of others."

Note to the young: No, the picture below is not of Andrew Breitbart or Sean Hannity. It's of their mentor.

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2) Journo-list. I completely agree with my colleague Clive Crook, and disagree with my colleague Sullivan, on this one. This is the least scandalous scandal I've ever known about.

I have one question for people who are upset about an email list involving 400+ mainly-liberal journalists and academics: Have you ever been on a listserv? If you have, everything about the dreaded Journolist would be familiar to you. It had all of the virtues, and many of the faults, of the standard internet email list.

Virtues: at its best, it was a way of getting informed comment from people you wouldn't otherwise be in touch with. For me, this meant hearing from people: with experience in Afghanistan or Iraq; with expertise on financial regulation; with sharply diverging views about the importance of controlling the federal deficit; with informed views about what it would take to implement the new health care bill; with experience in reporting about intelligence agencies; with some knowledge of what is up with California state government; and so on.

Faults: Flame wars. The reality that some people took it way more seriously than others and spent all day composing inbox-clogging IM-style replies. With a wide variety of members, the inevitable reality was that most messages would not be of interest to any given member. And -- as with most of the other listservs I've been on over the years and am still on -- many people, especially the young ones, wrote with an innocent assumption that they were talking within a community, rather than for potential years-later out-of-context quotation. I am chagrined to note that virtually the only thing I ever contributed to this group was a sadder-but-wiser warning that nothing in digital form was ever "private," so people should write only what they were willing to stand behind in public.

The "informed" parts of the discussion were useful; for the rest, I just pushed DEL. It's the same with all the other listservs I've been on over the years -- and there are half a dozen I'm on now, about China, software development, aviation, Japan, writing topics,defense policy, green energy, you name it. Anthropologically they are all the same. Controversies rise and fall. You feel as if you know people through their online personas, but know them only in a way. Some people give more than they take; others, the reverse. But all participants think they're operating within some kind of community -- rather than speaking, politician style, as if any half-sentence could be used against them in its most damaging construction at any later time.

In the other listservs I know -- about China, software, aviation, defense, cybersecurity, etc -- some people's careers could be gravely damaged if their least judicious single sentences were used against them out of context years later. I really, really hate to see that done to young people now. "Have you no sense of decency?" is the right question for Andrew Breitbart. It's also the right question for the Daily Caller, whose editor (Tucker Carlson) asked for membership in the dreaded Journolist -- and was turned down -- just before it began seriatim publishing of damaging and out-of-context quotes against young writers.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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