JournoList: Conspiracy, Scandal, Or Locker Room Trash Talk ?

JournoList's archives have been making headlines at The Daily Caller, but there doesn't seem to be any substance to the allegations of scandal.

For the past several days Tucker Carlson’s Daily Caller has been running excerpts of e-mail exchanges between participants in Ezra Klein’s now-defunct JournoList listserv. The first story, published Tuesday, focused on email exchanges between members of the list in April 2008 discussing the then just beginning Jeremiah Wright story:

It was the moment of greatest peril for then-Sen. Barack Obama’s political career. In the heat of the presidential campaign, videos surfaced of Obama’s pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, angrily denouncing whites, the U.S. government and America itself. Obama had once bragged of his closeness to Wright. Now the black nationalist preacher’s rhetoric was threatening to torpedo Obama’s campaign.

The crisis reached a howling pitch in mid-April, 2008, at an ABC News debate moderated by Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos. Gibson asked Obama why it had taken him so long – nearly a year since Wright’s remarks became public – to dissociate himself from them. Stephanopoulos asked, “Do you think Reverend Wright loves America as much as you do?”

Watching this all at home were members of Journolist, a listserv comprised of several hundred liberal journalists, as well as like-minded professors and activists. The tough questioning from the ABC anchors left many of them outraged. “George [Stephanopoulos],” fumed Richard Kim of the Nation, is “being a disgusting little rat snake.”

Others went further. According to records obtained by The Daily Caller, at several points during the 2008 presidential campaign a group of liberal journalists took radical steps to protect their favored candidate. Employees of news organizations including Time, Politico, the Huffington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Guardian, Salon and the New Republic participated in outpourings of anger over how Obama had been treated in the media, and in some cases plotted to fix the damage.

In one instance, Spencer Ackerman of the Washington Independent urged his colleagues to deflect attention from Obama’s relationship with Wright by changing the subject. Pick one of Obama’s conservative critics, Ackerman wrote, “Fred Barnes, Karl Rove, who cares — and call them racists.”

Michael Tomasky, a writer for the Guardian, also tried to rally his fellow members of Journolist: “Listen folks-in my opinion, we all have to do what we can to kill ABC and this idiocy in whatever venues we have. This isn’t about defending Obama. This is about how the [mainstream media] kills any chance of discourse that actually serves the people.”

It certainly seems juicy, but the truth of the matter is that these mostly young JournoListers were completely unable to stop the Wright story from coming out, or from preventing journalists like Stephanpoulos and Gibson from focusing on it a debate. For several weeks during April, while Obama was battling Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania, the Rev. Wright story was front and center. Obama had tried to put the story behind him with a speech in Philadelphia in March, but Wright continued to give media interviews where he seemed to be on his own mission to embarrass Obama, which required Obama to speak yet again and formally repudiate his former Pastor. So, if the JournoListers were really intent on spiking the Rev. Wright story, they failed, and they failed miserably.

At the same time, though, the suggestion that the best way to distract from the Wright story was to randomly call some conservative pundit racist is rather disturbing, as Ed Morrissey notes:

Let’s put this in its proper perspective.  Ackerman wasn’t talking about a strategy to expose real racists, in the media or anywhere else.  The Washington Independent reporter wanted to conduct a campaign against any figure on the Right, including journalists like Fred Barnes, to smear him as a racist for the political purposes of electing a Democrat to the White House.  Notice that Ackerman doesn’t even bother to ask people to look for actual evidence of racism, but just suggests to pick a conservative name out of a hat.  Tellingly, the pushback from members of Journolist had less to do with the outrageous idea of smearing an innocent person of racism to frighten people away from the story than with whether it would work.  Mark Schmitt, now at American Prospect, warned that it “wouldn’t further the argument” for Obama, and Kevin Drum objected because playing racial politics would “probably hurt the Obama brand pretty strongly.”

It certainly puts efforts by the Left to paint the Tea Party as racist in an entirely new light.  It also calls into question the ethics and judgment of anyone who participated in that Ackerman thread.

Indeed, but as Morrissey goes on to note, the people involved in this exchange were all opinion writers of one kind or another, not reporters or editors. So, none of this is really evidence of an effort to keep facts out of the newspaper, or off the air.

The Wright piece seems to have been the high watermark of the Daily Caller series, though.

Yesterday, The Daily Caller was out with new excerpts from JournoList breaking that not-so-shocking news that liberals don’t like Fox News and Rush Limbaugh:

If you were in the presence of a man having a heart attack, how would you respond? As he clutched his chest in desperation and pain, would you call 911? Would you try to save him from dying? Of course you would.

But if that man was Rush Limbaugh, and you were Sarah Spitz, a producer for National Public Radio (update: Spitz was a producer for NPR affiliate KCRW for the show Left, Right & Center), that isn’t what you’d do at all.

In a post to the list-serv Journolist, an online meeting place for liberal journalists, Spitz wrote that she would “Laugh loudly like a maniac and watch his eyes bug out” as Limbaugh writhed in torment.

In boasting that she would gleefully watch a man die in front of her eyes, Spitz seemed to shock even herself. “I never knew I had this much hate in me,” she wrote. “But he deserves it.”

Spitz’s hatred for Limbaugh seems intemperate, even imbalanced. On Journolist, where conservatives are regarded not as opponents but as enemies, it barely raised an eyebrow.

Over the top and insensitive ? Yea, but hardly the stuff of a media conspiracy. Quite honestly, I’m no more surprised to see that a liberal was saying stuff like this about Rush Limbaugh than I would be to hear something similar coming from the right about Keith Olbermann (and the suggestion that such rhetoric is never used, even in private, about KO is absurd, so don’t say it).

But the real point of yesterday’s article was the supposed “conspiracy” against Fox News:

The very existence of Fox News, meanwhile, sends Journolisters into paroxysms of rage. When Howell Raines charged that the network had a conservative bias, the members of Journolist discussed whether the federal government should shut the channel down.

“I am genuinely scared” of Fox, wrote Guardian columnist Daniel Davies, because it “shows you that a genuinely shameless and unethical media organisation *cannot* be controlled by any form of peer pressure or self-regulation, and nor can it be successfully cold-shouldered or ostracised. In order to have even a semblance of control, you need a tough legal framework.” Davies, a Brit, frequently argued the United States needed stricter libel laws.

“I agree,” said Michael Scherer of Time Magazine. Roger “Ailes understands that his job is to build a tribal identity, not a news organization. You can’t hurt Fox by saying it gets it wrong, if Ailes just uses the criticism to deepen the tribal identity.”

As Ann Althouse and Matt Welch both show at length, this part of the Daily Caller’s coverage is incredibly weak tea. It barely lives up to the headline, and certainly not evidence of a conspiracy:

Locker-room trash-talk can be fun to spy in on (in a train-wreck kind of way), but if there’s a real opinion-journalism scandal underneath any of this it will lie in attempts, concscious or unconscious, to foist political message discipline on disparate and unsuspecting audiences. This ain’t that.

Nor is the other Daily Caller story that came out yesterday, which consisted of revealing the shocking news that a few liberal opinion writers were happy that Barack Obama won the election in 2008. That’s about as shocking as revealing that most of the people who worked at the Sports Desk of The New York Times last October were happy the Yankees won the World Series.

Today, The Daily Caller is out with a story showing that these same liberal journalists, the vast majority of whom worked for publications like Mother Jones with a known and distinct political agenda, were critical of John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin. But, you know what ? So was I, so were many conservative pundits, and it turns out that the critics were mostly right about her.

Groupthink is always a danger whenever like minded people in the same profession start talking to each other, and it’s possible that’s what happened with JournoList at some point. For the most part, though, it seems like it was mostly a forum for chasing down leads and sources, and, as The Daily Caller has shown us, a locker room where members of the same team got together and talked trash about the other side. It happens everywhere, it just happened to be online this time.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Jay says:

    Doug, I think you’re going to easy on them with regard to them being “critical” of Sarah Palin or excusing their attempts to smear people as racists as no big deal simply because most of them were opinion writers.

    This is not a bunch of liberal writers on a message board sending messages to each other and being critical of Palin or seeking to mark somebody as a racist. What they were doing was attempting to take their influence and form a narrative. The only question was, “Which narrative about Palin is the best to go with?” and as Ed pointed out, the only reason they hesitated on going the racism route on the Wright issue was not because they were concerned about smearing somebody innocently but rather the line of attack might not work as the hoped.

    They knew they had influence and many times these days, all it takes is a piece, even if it is an opinion piece to make its way into the mainstream and from there it spreads.

  2. Cuffy Meigs says:

    “That’s excellent! If enough people – people on this list? – write that the pick is sexist, you’ll have the networks debating it for days.”

    Ummm, why did you ignore this prima facie evidence of active JournoList collusion?

  3. Vast Variety says:

    Journolist is no different than the conservative listservs that are out there as well.

  4. Phineas says:

    Okay, what’s the conservative private mailing list equivalent of Journolist?

  5. Steve Plunk says:

    It’s a conspiracy and a scandal. It also exposes the mindset of the young up and comers on the left side of journalism, the ends justify the means. Is that what we want or do we want journalists interested in providing us with truth and accuracy? You’re lowering the bar here Doug and for no good reason.

    Ask yourself if this were reversed and Bob Novak had conspired with Fred Barnes to make false accusations in concert with other journalists how would you react? How would the MSM react? This was a propaganda machine and they should all be ashamed for being a part of it.

  6. wr says:

    Steve Plunk sez: “Ask yourself if this were reversed and Bob Novak had conspired with Fred Barnes to make false accusations in concert with other journalists how would you react? ”

    So Steve — When Bob Novak actually conspired with members of the Bush administration to expose the identity of an undercover CIA agent because her husband was a political opponent, how exactly did you react?

    That was an act of treason. Jounolist was a bunch of lefties expressing leftie opinions.

    What a shock you only find the latter a problem.

  7. Dantheman says:

    “Bob Novak had conspired with Fred Barnes to make false accusations in concert with other journalists how would you react”

    I’d change the channel — the McLaughlin Group was never my cup of tea.

  8. Adrian says:

    “Journolist is no different than the conservative listservs that are out there as well.”

    There is no listserv of top conservative opinion writers and/or journalists. There are plenty composed of random citizens off the street, but that’s not the same thing and everyone with any intellectual honesty knows it.

    It’s really almost beside the point whether these were all “real journalists” or “mere opinionators.” These are the people that don’t just lead the national conversation; they largely create it. And now that it’s been proven that they are concerned with winning by any means necessary, instead of through honest argumentation, they need to start being pushed to the back benches and ignored.

  9. Steve Plunk says:


    It’s been proven Novak did nothing wrong and was no part of a conspiracy concerning Plame. That tired story is dead. So apparently my point is conceded.

  10. Vast Variety says:

    “There is no listserv of top conservative opinion writers and/or journalists. ”

    Wrong, There is at least one conservative listserv that includes not only conservative journalists but in contrast to Journolist which didn’t allow government officials, it also had elected members of the GOP as part of it’s ranks.

    “ick Schaper, Director of New Media in House Minority Leader John Boehner’s office, directed comments so personally insulting, as well as insulting to grassroots bloggers and the conservative movement as a whole, to me today on a private RNC-related listserv, I felt they were too insightful and newsworthy to not share openly.”

    And just like any mouse or rat where there is one listserv there are more.