Rethinking The JournoList List

A friend emailed to ask me for my thoughts on the "JournoList," a question prompted by Michael Calderone's short but suggestive report in yesterday's Politico. Calderone's piece is for the most part a lament about the secrecy maintained by the members of the list, which is particularly impressive given that many of its core members are prolific bloggers who are inclined to share many, if not all, details of their intellectual life. (I know the feeling.) In my friend's view, the news about the JList was a "nothingburger," as these lists are pretty common. While the JList is definitely inside baseball -- or rather, inside inside baseball -- I disagree: the JournoList is a "somethingburger" full of interestingness.

After asking why the JList was kept off-the-record, founder Ezra Klein, a strategically savvy blogger who is deeply interested in how policy ideas emerge and spread, gave a straightforward and compelling answer.

In an e-mail, Klein said he understands that the JList's off-the-record rule "makes it seems secretive." But he insisted that JList discussions have to be off the record in order to "ensure that folks feel safe giving off-the-cuff analysis and instant reactions."

The idea of a safe space in which you can be confident that your words won't be manipulated by "the other side" for partisan advantage is straightforwardly attractive. And yet that raises the question of how to set the boundaries. As a minor-league policy wonk, I find the idea of taking part in off-the-record conversations with eminent historians, economists, and reporters very attractive -- yet I was told early on that I wasn't eligible, for the excellent and obvious reason that my sympathies aren't generally on the left. Though I could agree to the off-the-recordness of the JList, I'd inevitably discuss its contents with conservative friends and collaborators, like The Atlantic's own Ross Douthat.

This raises the question -- why is it that a number of journalists at so-called "mainstream" outlets, like Time, do pass muster? As Calderone asks, is the JList

Proof of a vast liberal media conspiracy?

The answer, in my view, is obviously no. But the JList does offer an interesting lens through which to view how the ideological landscape has changed in recent years. Granted, this is a small group. At the same time, the number of writers and thinkers who influence public debate is also very small, and JList represents a significant swathe of them.

A few years ago, I was at a party and my friend, then a producer for a television news program, was berated, mildly, by a friendly acquaintance for the fact that the producer's show rarely if ever had "outspoken progressives" on the program. Rather, the show would have journalists from Time and other mainstream outlets to represent a left-of-center position. In his view, this was a travesty: though these reporters might hold liberal views, they were not truly outspoken progressives, as they felt constrained by mainstream media conventions. He was particularly peeved because he had recently paid for media training. As it happens, the outspoken progressive was seriously considered for an appearance on the weekly program, but he hadn't made his way on the show just yet. That said, his conviction concerning the weaknesses of the media mainstream made a deep impression, and I wondered at the time if he might be right. Less than a month later, the outspoken progressive was hired by one of the country's major metropolitan dailies, where he is a star reporter.

To some extent, one's position in the media ecosystem -- mainstream or activist or partisan -- leads to a real change in worldview. On the JList, the movement activists will often sharply criticize the reporters, and the reporters fire back. Yet these arguments are heated precisely because there is an assumption that everyone is fundamentally on the same side, namely that of intelligence and decency. You might think that veterans of left-of-center outlets, like the aforementioned outspoken progressive, might share the activist sense of outrage against conventions of objectivity. Generally speaking, that's not true. Rather, the veterans take on the views of their older colleagues. Somewhere there is an interesting lesson in the power of institutions, and how they reproduce sensibilities.

This leads us to an important conceit -- one that, by the way, makes a lot of sense to me: that the conventions of objectivity undermine real objectivity, which requires weighing in on whether or not one side is telling the truth, or rather which side is coming closer to the mark. Over time, older reporters have come closer to the activist way of looking at things, though the two camps are still fairly far apart.

This hints at another valuable function of the JList: because of its multigenerational composition, it builds and deepens bonds between well-placed elder statesmen and stateswomen and young whippersnappers, thus facilitating reporting and traditional networking. Editors can find freelancers, writers find sources, younger writers find mentors. The right has tried to mimic this social ecology for years through well-funded internship programs, etc. The JList is far more organic, so much so that even its members often don't appreciate the value of its networking function.

I'm most interested in the extent to which JList serves a disciplining function, i.e., the extent to which it keeps self-identified members of the ideological left "in line." After talking to a number of friends, and after observing its workings from a distance, I've concluded that the JList has virtually no disciplining functon. It is a forum for robust debate, not a tool for forming a tightly-knit Leninist cadre. So what's not to like? I only wish right-of-center types could form something equally fun and stimulating and influential.