Faith in Team Journolist, again

When cultural and religious conservatives talk about the whole Journolist media mini-storm, here is the kind of quotation from The Daily Caller coverage that has them hot and bothered. This particular burst of rhetoric comes from the DC story about members of the Journolist -- or JournoList -- sharing their feelings about the conservative feminist that they already loved to hate, only moments after she entered national politics -- Sarah Palin.

Daniel Levy of the Century Foundation noted that Obama's "non-official campaign" would need to work hard to discredit Palin. "This seems to me like an occasion when the non-official campaign has a big role to play in defining Palin, shaping the terms of the conversation and saying things that the official [Obama] campaign shouldn't say -- very hard-hitting stuff, including some of the things that people have been noting here -- scare people about having this woefully inexperienced, no foreign policy/national security/right-wing christia wing-nut a heartbeat away ...... bang away at McCain's age making this unusually significant .... I think people should be replicating some of the not-so-pleasant viral email campaigns that were used against [Obama]."

I think that it's safe to say that "christia" is a typo or Internet speak for "Christian."

If that one doesn't appeal to you, then there is this one on which to chew, from the DC story about Journolist chatter about finding ways to use government clout to shut down or severely restrict Fox News. This hot quote came from Richard Yeselson, a labor-union organizer who also writes for liberal magazines:

"They want a deficit driven militarist/heterosexist/herrenvolk state. ... This is core of the Bush/Cheney base transmorgrified into an even more explicitly racialized/anti-cosmopolitan constituency. Why? Um, because the president is a black guy named Barack Hussein Obama. But it's all the same old nuts in the same old bins with some new labels: the gun nuts, the anti tax nuts, the religious nuts, the homophobes, the anti-feminists, the anti-abortion lunatics, the racist/confederate crackpots, the anti-immigration whackos (who feel Bush betrayed them) the pathological government haters (which subsumes some of the othercategories, like the gun nuts and the anti-tax nuts)."

There seem to be a few subjects in there that are relevant to mainstream coverage of religion news. You think?

The problem for the people who want to turn this into a simple, open-and-shut "journalism scandal" is that neither of these writers are "journalists," strictly defined. This leads to the crucial fact that the Journolist crowd contains at least five distinct groups of people. Let's count them off.

(1) Mainstream reporters and editors in publications that are supposed to be engaged in neutral, balanced, accurate coverage.

(2) Mainstream reporters and editors who are actually columnists/bloggers, which means they are in jobs in which stating their opinion is fair game. But they are still clearly journalists.

(3) Reporters and editors with advocacy publications and websites that, in the style of "European" journalism, openly state their biases. Once again, however, these professionals are supposed to be journalists.

(4) Run-of-the-mill outspoken professors, often with backgrounds in politics and/or journalism (as professionals in one or more of the first three camps).

(5) Activists working in non-profit groups, professional associations and "think tanks" that openly advocate positions on hot-button political issues, even if they are supposed to be doing so in a non-partisan manner. Many of these activists are former journalists and may even write editorials and essays for mainstream or advocacy publications.

Right now, there are people who are angry about the Journolist stories who seem to be claiming that most of the people in the list are mainstream journalists in my first camp. That is not accurate.

Then again, there are also people who are trying to spin the Journolist story as a tempest in a teapot, claiming that the listserv contained few, if any, real journalists. Thus, there nothing to worry about. Here is what that looks like in practice. Read carefully the top of this column by the very, very influential Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post:

To conservatives, it is a pulling back of the curtain to expose the media's mendacity.

To liberals, it is a selective sliming based on e-mails that were supposed to remain private.

But there is no getting around the fact that some of these messages, culled from the members-only discussion group Journolist, are embarrassing. They show liberal commentators appearing to cooperate in an effort to hammer out the shrewdest talking points against the Republicans -- including, in one case, a suggestion for accusing random conservatives of being racist.

Did you catch it? Who was in the secret Journolist club? They were "commentators," not journalists. There's no story here. Move along.

The problem is that this stance is not accurate, either. It also does not take into account the role that members of these five groups play here inside the Beltway when it comes to putting new ideas into play (and shouting down other new ideas). As the old saying goes, Washington, D.C., is the world's most powerful high school. It's all about who you know, who you can influence and who you have worked with in the past and might want to work with again in the future. These teams, cliques and and lunch-table cells are important.

Naturally, one of the many questions swirling around right now in the heated, humid DC air is whether or not there is a right-wing Journolist out there somewhere, holding the same kind of closed-door talks about partisan political strategies. Thus, there is this commentary from Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard, which was featured in The Wall Street Journal:

I think JournoList is -- or was -- fundamentally different. ... As best I can tell, those involved in JournoList considered themselves part of a team. And their goal was to make sure the team won. In 2008, this was Mr. Obama's team. More recently, the goal seems to have been to defeat the conservative team.

Until JournoList came along, liberal journalists were rarely part of a team. Neither are conservative journalists today, so far as I know. If there's a team, no one has asked me to join. As a conservative, I normally write more favorably about Republicans than Democrats and I routinely treat conservative ideas as superior to liberal ones. But I've never been part of a discussion with conservative writers about how we could most help the Republican or the conservative team.

The crucial thing, to me, is that a "conservative" Journolist would have to include powerful members of all five of the camps that were found in the real Journolist. It would have to include, in particular, journalists from my first three camps, listed above.

The closest thing I have seen to such a group was a Washington Times luncheon that I attended (see this previous Journolist-related post on that) on the future of blogging and conservative causes. This was not a secret meeting. In fact, a partial transcript is still on the newspaper's website.

As I mentioned in that previous post, the crucial moment for me was when a moderator asked the participants -- almost all of whom were full-time political activists on the right -- what constituted a "good day" for their weblog, which is kind of like asking someone to describe the actual purpose of his or her work (like this). Here's a flashback to that post:

When it came my turn, I said that a really good day at GetReligion.org was when we published a post that led to a correction in the New York Times. That's right, a correction in the Times. Like this one.

It was an honest answer and it drew a good laugh. The bloggers laughed at me and at GetReligion. You see, everyone else at the table, other than a (Washington) Times editor or two, considered themselves, first and foremost, GOP activists. A good day at their blogs was when they did something that helped the GOP. So they laughed at GetReligion and our journalistic goals.

My response? I told them that there seemed to have been a misunderstanding. I thought I have been invited to a lunch to discuss blogging and online media. Clearly, there weren't many ordinary journalists -- let alone conservative Democrats -- in the room. Two strikes against me.

So, in a way, you now know my take on the JournoList firestorm.

Since writing that post, I was able to dig back into my Gmail files and find the URL for the partial transcript of that event. Thus, here is part of the actual exchange:

Brian Phillips, aide to Rep. Steve Pearce, New Mexico Republican: That sort of goes toward the question: What is your metric of success for conservative blogging? ...

Mr. Mattingly: A good day at my blog is when we force the New York Times to issue a correction. A good day at my blog is when we're quoted in the London Times. ... Ours is not a partisan blog or a political blog at all. We're very open about our loyalties on social issues. But that gets me back to what I was saying awhile ago. The reason so many culturally conservative bloggers don't want to be identified as Republicans is that they're not Republicans, period. They're Catholics. Or, they're not Republicans, they're charismatic Christians. They have higher loyalties. ...

Mr. Phillips: Can you imagine DailyKos sitting there saying, "A great day for us is getting quoted by the New York Times?" I mean, their metrics are actual success. ...

Notice, of course, that Phillips misquoted me. I named a concrete example of success -- a correction in the New York Times. I would agree that this is not a sign of political success. It is a sign of journalistic progress, if one cares about journalism.

Then again, the GetReligion team cares about journalism. This is a pro-journalism weblog.

This gets us back to the big Journolist question. What was the goal of that list? What constituted "success" for the journalists, academics and activists who contributed to that secret forum? Was the essential goal political or journalistic?

Just asking.

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