Groundswell: Conservatives’ Lame Answer to JournoList
It seems conservatives have a JournoList all their own.
MoJo’s David Corn breaks the story in “Inside Groundswell: Read the Memos of the New Right-Wing Strategy Group Planning a ’30 Front War.’”
Believing they are losing the messaging war with progressives, a group of prominent conservatives in Washington—including the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and journalists from Breitbart News and the Washington Examiner—has been meeting privately since early this year to concoct talking points, coordinate messaging, and hatch plans for “a 30 front war seeking to fundamentally transform the nation,” according to documents obtained by Mother Jones.
Dubbed Groundswell, this coalition convenes weekly in the offices of Judicial Watch, the conservative legal watchdog group. During these hush-hush sessions and through a Google group, the members of Groundswell—including aides to congressional Republicans—cook up battle plans for their ongoing fights against the Obama administration, congressional Democrats, progressive outfits, and the Republican establishment and “clueless” GOP congressional leaders. They devise strategies for killing immigration reform, hyping the Benghazi controversy, and countering the impression that the GOP exploits racism. And the Groundswell gang is mounting a behind-the-scenes organized effort to eradicate the outsize influence of GOP über-strategist/pundit Karl Rove within Republican and conservative ranks. (For more on Groundswell’s “two front war” against Rove—a major clash on the right—click here.)
One of the influential conservatives guiding the group is Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, a columnist for the Daily Caller and a tea party consultant and lobbyist. Other Groundswell members include John Bolton, the former UN ambassador; Frank Gaffney, the president of the Center for Security Policy; Ken Blackwell and Jerry Boykin of the Family Research Council; Tom Fitton, the president of Judicial Watch; Gayle Trotter, a fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum; Catherine Engelbrecht and Anita MonCrief of True the Vote; Allen West, the former GOP House member; Sue Myrick, also a former House GOPer; Diana Banister of the influential Shirley and Banister PR firm; and Max Pappas, a top aide to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).
A collection of conservative activists meeting to devise messaging strategy is hardly news. It happens all the time across the political spectrum. Nor is it news that, while they appear from most vantage points to be firmly in control of the Republican Party, more radical conservatives fear that they’re losing the messaging war and losing control of the party to professional Republican politicos like Rove, who care more about winning than The Movement.
Nor is the activity itself particularly nefarious:
Groundswell has collaborated with conservative GOPers on Capitol Hill, including Sens. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Cruz and Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), a leading tea partier. At its weekly meetings, the group aims to strengthen the right’s messaging by crafting Twitter hashtags; plotting strategy on in-the-headlines issues such as voter ID, immigration reform, and the sequester; promoting politically useful scandals; and developing “action items.”
A certain amount of secrecy cloaks Groundswell’s efforts. Though members have been encouraged to zap out tweets with a #GSW hashtag, a message circulated to members of its Google group noted that the role of certain advocates should be kept “off of the Google group for OPSEC [operational security] reasons.” This “will avoid any potential for bad press for someone if a communication item is leaked,” the message explained. (The Groundswell documents were provided to Mother Jones by a source who had access to its Google group page and who has asked not to be identified.)
Indeed, Corn concedes as much:
Washington is full of coalitions that meet to coordinate messaging and strategy. For two decades, conservative strategist Grover Norquist, who heads Americans for Tax Reform, has held his now-famous Wednesday morning meetings for a broad spectrum of Republicans, including conservatives opposed to gay rights and abortion rights and those who favor them, as well as GOPers on different sides of the immigration reform debate. Groundswell, which meets at the same time as Norquist’s group, appears to be a more ideologically pure version of the Norquist confab, and its emergence—given the prominent role of Ginni Thomas and the participation of journalists—prompts several intriguing questions.
Critics have contended that Thomas’ work as a lobbyist opposing Obamacare posed a conflict of interest for her husband, who would rule on the constitutionality of the health care reform initiative. (Clarence Thomas joined the Supreme Court minority that favored striking down the law.) And Common Cause has maintained that Justice Thomas had a conflict of interest when he participated in the Citizens United case because his wife at the time was running a conservative nonprofit fighting the “tyranny” of President Barack Obama that would benefit from removing limits on such groups’ spending and fundraising. With her involvement in Groundswell—which zeroes in on contentious issues that come before the high court, including voting rights, abortion, and gay marriage—Ginni Thomas continues to be intricately associated with matters on which her husband may have to render a decision. Ginni Thomas did not respond to requests for comment.
I don’t like it, either. But we live in an era where federal judges, Members of Congress, presidents, high-powered regulators, and other key policymakers are married to people with careers of their own. We can’t expect them to recuse themselves every time there’s an overlap in interests. [UPDATE: We've written at length about this controversy before. See "New York Times Shocked That Clarence Thomas's Wife Has A Job," "Clarence Thomas Failed to Report Wife's Income," "Virginia Thomas Now Lobbying Members Of Congress, So What?" and "Chief Justice Roberts Defends Kagan, Thomas Recusal Decisions On Health Care Lawsuit" for a good sampling. It's worth noting that Thomas actually recuses himself quite often because of various financial and family conflicts.] And, surely, Thomas’ votes on the cases in question were in line with his longstanding judicial philosophy; there’s simply no reason to think he ruled as he did because of his wife’s activities.
The participation of journalists in coordinating messaging with ideological advocates and political partisans raises another set of issues. Conservatives expressed outrage when news broke in 2009 about Journolist, a private email list where several hundred progressive-minded reporters, commentators, and academics exchanged ideas and sometimes bickered. (I was on Journolist, mainly as a lurker.) The late Andrew Breitbart once offered $100,000 for the full Journolist archives and denounced it as “the epitome of progressive and liberal collusion that conservatives, Tea Partiers, moderates and many independents have long suspected and feared exists at the heart of contemporary American political journalism.” The Groundswell documents show conservative journalists, including several with Breitbart News, colluding on high-level messaging with leading partisans of the conservative movement.
This strikes me as a more interesting question in theory but not in practice. The journalists in question:
Breitbart News reporters Matthew Boyle and Mike Flynn, Washington Examiner executive editor Mark Tapscott, and National Review contributor Michael James Barton.
These people write for unabashedly partisan outlets; they’re not masquerading as straight news reporters. And, yes, both Doug Mataconis and I made the same defense of JournoList and thought the “scandal” was wildly overblown for exactly that reason. While I thought Dave Weigel should have been fired from his WaPo beat “covering” conservatives after some of his embarrassing rants on JournoList came out, I also applauded the Washington Post Company’s hiring him back at Slate. Professional punditry and reporting are simply different animals.
The only name on the list I know is Mark Tapscott, who befriended me back when he was working for Heritage and for whom I wrote a few pieces after he became editorial page editor of The Examiner. His actions here strike me as beyond reproach:
In March, Mark Tapscott, the executive editor of the conservative Washington Examiner, sent his most recent column to group members. It focused on a theme that Groundswellers had resolved to hype: President Obama is a divider. And after a meeting that month, Tapscott wrote to the group, “Enjoyed hearing from all of you who spoke earlier today. It’s amazing how much we are accomplishing on so many fronts.” But Tapscott tells Mother Jones that after attending one or two meetings at the invitation of Ginni Thomas, he decided to stop participating: “The implication of attending is that you’re participating in their planning, and, as a journalist, I don’t think that’s appropriate. Other journalists may think differently.”
So, a guy who regularly writes political opinion columns for a conservative newspaper circulated some of his columns to some other conservatives to get some feedback? But, even though he makes no pretense of being other than a socially conservative Republican who advocates like positions for a living, he was nonetheless uncomfortable being part of strategy sessions and so stopped attending? Hardly a scandal there.
Groundswell has forged a particularly close relationship with Breitbart. Matthew Boyle, one of Breitbart‘s more prominent reporters, has attended Groundswell meetings, used the group as a source for tips and a mechanism to promote his stories, and joined in its efforts to whip up coordinated bullet points to be deployed by conservative advocacy shops. In February, he tried to enlist the group to push a story he had written the year before at the Daily Caller, in which he maintained the Justice Department was in cahoots with the liberal group Media Matters to smear conservative whistleblowers and journalists. In a long note addressed to all Groundswellers—written at a time when reporter Bob Woodward was making (what turned out to be inflated) claims about the Obama White House intimidating foes—Boyle said, “Figured this might be a good time to bring this story back up and see if there’s a way to drive it.”
Boyle said he was hoping to prompt congressional Republicans to launch an investigation. He contended he had only revealed the “tip of the iceberg” and shared his suspicion that many government agencies (State, the CIA, the Pentagon, the EPA, and more) were conspiring with “far left wing groups” to undermine conservatives in the media: “I think we can get at the heart of the Obama admin’s weaknesses here.” He explained: “Any evidence obtained would be more proof of collusion between the administration and the media and far left groups, while at the same time serving as evidence of whatever ridiculously moronic big government policies they’re pushing are.”
The following month, Boyle sent a message to Groundswell members seeking tips and offering to help shape stories Groundswellers wanted to disseminate: “I’m saying we can get pieces out fast on Breitbart. Whenever you have an idea, email or call me with a pitch and I’ll do my best to get the story out there. Keep us on offense, them on defense. Even if the idea isn’t perfect, I can help massage it to get there.”
I’ve made it clear in the past that I consider the Breitbart operation sleazy. They made their name with ambush “reporting” that, we soon learned, was mostly fabricated. They’ve run afoul of the law more than once in their absurd sting operations. And, for the most part, they seem to be a bunch of conspiracy nuts. So, I’m not sure how they could lose any journalistic credibility.
The interesting issue here is that they were apparently trying to get government officials to launch investigations into their enemies. But it reads as the wild schemes of amateurs, not something they had any chance of pulling off. Indeed, that seems to describe the entire Groundswell operation, at least as portrayed in Corn’s three pager.
UPDATE: The Center for American Progress’ Matt Duss points out via Twitter that Groundswell was “actually doing what they claimed JournoList was doing – coordinating coverage – and JournoList wasn’t.” That’s a fair point. While the association immediately jumped to mind because of passing similarities, they’re actually rather different enterprises. JournoList was a rather large group of left-leaning journalists, academics, and other thinkers exchanging information via an email listserv. To the extent any convergence of coverage was going on, it was incidental. Groundswell is first and foremost a political communications operation which includes some conservative opinion journalists as part of the messaging.