Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Curious Case of Journolist

If you're not up to date on your scandals and media memes, the recent kerfluffle over Journolist, a message board set up to enable communications between left leaning media types, might have missed you. The list first came into national prominence when Dave Weigel, the man on the beat for the Wapo's coverage of the conservative movement, was outed as having said some relatively liberal things on this list. He shortly resigned from his position at the Washington Post, forced out presumably because of the oft-understood and regularly repeated mantra that we expect those people who produce our news to be objective.

Since Weigel's departure, conservatives have taken to this Journolist controversy more and more, pointing to it as evidence of how the media persists in perpetuating forms of liberal bias. At The Corner for example, Daniel Foster points to some leaks from Journolist taken from November 3rd and 4th, 2008, when Obama won the presidency. You can look at them here. (It should also be noted that Weigel's reporting on the Tea Party movement was top notch stuff).

Foster's comment sounds an interesting echo back to a previous topic taken up on this blog: the dispute over who are the true Jacobins on the contemporary American political scene, the progressive liberals who support Barack Obama or the Tea Partiers who want a limited state and lower taxes. Foster says that the revelations from the Journolist "make him feel sad" for the people, because they naively believe that what is occurring is something truly momentous rather than just another banal changing of the guard.

Of course, Foster's own sense of pity (how charitable of him!) only makes sense to an audience capable of refusing to identify with the comments from Journolist. What strikes me in Foster's comments (and indeed, much of the conservative reaction to the Journolist controversy) is that their sense of what journalists ought to be like approximates something like a demand that people in the media ought to function a robots, with a set of opinions and sense of judgments that are completely separate from whatever own personal viewpoints they have.

Imagine engaging in an imaginative reversal: what would the react have been on the right to a McCain victory? Do we imagine they would have shrugged their shoulders and gone "well, we've got another Republican president, but I am not very excited about the victory because it's just another president". I have a feeling that most would admit to, if not a euphoria, a sense of satisfaction and happiness that individuals whom they genuinely believe would make America worse off did not control the Presidency.

I contend that the most important rhetorical marker of the difference in the Right and Left responses is that the left responses reek of a kind of individualism that conservative responses to victory annhilate by couching the legitimacy of a conservative victory with recourse to the rhetoric of "the people". For example, in a 2004 NRO column Victor Davis Hansn celebrates the victory of George W. Bush because it represents the victory of the will of "real Americans" over a media and academic elite who tried to load the dice in the election. Conservative celebration of the win is allowed but only if it does so by suboordinating the importance of the victory to the role of "the people" in producing it, as in this passage, where he argues:

"The East and West Coasts and the big cities may reflect the sway of the universities, the media, Hollywood, and the arts, but the folks in between somehow ignore what the professors preach to their children, what they read in the major newspapers, and what they are told on TV. The Internet, right-wing radio, and cable news do not so much move Middle America as reflect its preexisting deep skepticism of our aristocracy and its engineered morality imposed from on high."

Hanson's comments track appropriately with the old right wing populist meme that "the people" should be championed because they know better than an elite and technocratic will which emerges from some higher power. This is the theory that drives Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism and has animated conservative political activism since Daniel Bell and Richard Hofstader were writing in the 50's. What is curious is that this positions that desire of "the people" to continue as they always have been as the sort of conservative break on the overreaches of progressivism (Goldberg's "Democracy of the Dead", reference in a previous post makes sense here). The central tension that informs the conservative desire to turn the comments found in the leaks from Journolist into comments that come from a liberal media elite rather than a series of thoughts that represent something "American" is that an implicit criteria for what are and are not acceptable political viewpoints must operate. So what really troubles me about Foster's comments are not that he opposes the presidency of Barack Obama (which is fine, democracies are full of disagreement) but the pity that he feels for those who believe in Barack Obama, especially given the content of some of these leaks.

Two examples:

"HENRY FARRELL, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: I had to close my office door yesterday because I was watching YouTube videos of elderly African Americans saying what this meant to them and tearing up."

"HAROLD POLLACK, UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO: I am awed by the responsibility we have taken on. Tomorrow a desperately ill African-American woman will present at my university hospital for care, and she will be turned away. She will expect us to live up to what we feel tonight. So we’ve got a lot to live up to."

What, exactly, is so sad about these comments? One possibility is that they Foster believes they are disingenuous--but of course, if Journolist is full of disingenuous comments then the media is less "left leaning" than most conservatives hold. Another possibility is that Foster finds it sad that people have channeled important civic feelings/sentiments through the figure of Barack Obama, rather than expressing them concretely in some other mechanism. Due respect to Foster, but the president plays a disproportionately important role in America's symbolic economy. George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan remain considerably more common targets for left leaning pols than say, the grim spectre of Trent Lott or Tom DeLay. Similarly, most Tea Party rallies focus on the ills of Obama rather than pursuing scathing critiques of Harry Reid or Russ Feingold. To imagine that people should not invest themselves in who the president is demands of citizens a way of thinking about politics that is almost alien, if not entirely foreign.

Additionally, many of the people presented in these dispatches are writers who never claim to be non-partisan. Ezra Klein is a progressive, Alyssa Rosenberg acknowledges that her private sentiments defer from her public performance, and even Spencer Ackerman's "YES WE DID!" presumes that journalists shouldn't be allowed to have a rooting interest in politics.

Essentially, I think Foster wants our journalistic community to be a bunch of robots. This robot media would reflect objectively upon politics, and would never take time to have a separate person that reflected or thought about politics. I understand that there is a separate argument, which is that Journolist was a forum where people intentionally speculated or strategized about how they could bend certain stories to the left. That is its own issue, and deserves a separate post. But you know, it shows a remarkably lack of faith in democracy to operate in an environment where you trust that people with viewpoints are incapable of bracketing those viewpoints when telling stories or presents issues. Democracy is, in fact, founded upon our ability to persuade others of our viewpoints by understanding that there is a difference in perspective that must somehow be bridged through persuasion or argument. Foster assumes that the beliefs of the reporters are a material and ideologically guaranteed barrier to the formulation of anything like a Perelmanian universal audience. Such a belief has the effect of calcifying political difference and making it function like a natural given rather than a constraint that a rhetor is capable of manipulating.

Many sports journalists comment that covering sports makes them incapable of having a rooting interest anymore--that their job and the demand for professionalism ultimately covers over any latent fandom they may be dealing with. In politics, of course, the stakes are not wins and losses but rather lives and security. We are, it seems, in danger of demanding of our reporters that they should do things that they cannot do. Foster is pitying these people for being human, for being invested in something that gives them meaning. That says something curious about the right's monopoly over reason/rationality in public political forums.


  1. I read Foster very differently. I think he's just being cynical about what politics can accomplish, and acknowledging that electing a new president is pretty much a transactional, rather than a transcendent experience.
    Yes, a new set of interest groups will get money, but we really won't make a huge leap in human progress merely by electing a new president, no matter how awesome he/she is. Instead, we should look to our own daily lives for meaning, not to national politics.
    Of course, National Review and Foster would be happier if McCain had won rather than Obama. But the point is that politics should not be an earth-shaking event in our lives.

  2. Yea I think you're right to argue that its "transactional". Certainly there is a disconnect between how we IMAGINE the president will function versus the actual structural and ideological barriers to very radical political action occurring.

    But I find Foster's "this is sad" argument extremely depressing in the context of the emergence of the country's first black president. Considering the country's history with regards to race and slavery, I not only believe that the Obama election really did hit people that deep, but that it did so should be perfectly intelligible to almost anyone. His "sadness" derives from people's investment in their identity and the identity of race. That sadness can only occur if you whitewash a lot of American history or at least temporarily forget about it so that a black president is ONLY business as usual. But its just not.