The Vast Conspiracy

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Feb. 4 2014 7:21 PM

The Vast Conspiracy

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Ezra Klein, a general in the Red Army.

Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for The New Yorker

Daily Caller media blogger Betsy Rothstein is up with a post that's probably inscrutable to people who don't remember the JournoList story. The gist of the post is that I'm "not sorry" for a bunch of emails I sent in 2009 and 2010 that disparaged conservatives, even though I'd said I was, because I wrote a post on Facebook praising aspects of JournoList late last night. 

I had just read Ben Wallace's profile of Ezra Klein, and had been contacted by a college student who was writing an ethics paper about my scandal. Klein's move to Vox puts me in an odd position, as he's hired away my colleague Matt Yglesias—they've turned down interviews with me re: Vox because of the staggering conflict of interest. This is why I wrote on Facebook, not Slate, but what's the harm in writing one catchall post about this?

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So: In 2009 and the first half of 2010, I was a member of the JournoList email group founded by Klein. I wrote some nasty things about people I covered. Three months into my stint at the Washington Post, a source gave Rothstein three recent emails, and one older one, from the trove. I apologized to readers and to my editors, and as was reported at the time, kept my job. But that night, The Daily Caller's excellent reporter Jonathan Strong (now at Breitbart.com) called me with a fuller trove of quotes. I called my boss and offered to resign; the resignation was accepted the next day. It was Strong, not Rothstein, who cost me a job, and Rothstein is (understandably!) irritated when this is pointed out. This probably explains the tone of the post.

As to the contents of it: Last night, on my public feed (sign up here), I wrote that Ben Wallace's piece gave JournoList short shrift. "The occasional weird ad hominem argument aside," I wrote, "JournoList was largely a way for academics and journalists to talk to each other. Young reporters could find out, very quickly, where to find, say, health care or election data. Old reporters could find young talent or new sources... you can draw a straight line from the JournoList idea to Ezra hiring a bunch of reporters to write competition-beating policy coverage, based (in part) on interviews with the right experts and academics and think-tankers."

That's not a take-back of my apology. I resigned from the Post because I'd written nasty things about some of the people I covered. The "JournoList scandal," which came a month later, was that the old listserv of several hundred journalists and academics and operatives occasionally indulged in threads about how a story (Jeremiah Wright, Palin's rise) would hurt Barack Obama and what should be done to fight back. 

The existence of the list and of those threads has become proof positive, for some, that if a narrative rising through the media is bad for conservatives, it was probably concocted by reporters at a Stone Cutters meeting. Search "JournoList" sometime—it's slowed in recent years, but it's still a running theme. The sudden focus on Chris Christie. The smothering of the Benghazi story. Etc., etc. In his book Red Army, columnist Aaron Klein even drew a chart to demonstrate how JournoList connected George Soros and the Democratic Socialists of America to the White House.

This is self-evidently silly, and I don't often write about it, but last night (at 1:30 a.m.!)  It made me think about how Wallace had sidestepped the whole JournoList story but missed why the list mattered.

The point was that it connected a bunch of people in divergent but related industries, all liberal or left-wing, and gave them space to talk about what they were/should have been working on. In the Facebook post, I refer to the "right" experts—what I meant was that a young reporter on the list might ask who the smartest person was to talk about, say, risk corridors, and an older person he/she only knew via the list would answer. As Paul Krugman argued when Klein left the Post, this was one of the reporting techniques that made Wonkblog successful: "Ezra and Sarah Kliff really understood health policy, and knew that if you needed to know more, you called Gruber or Cutler, not Senator Bomfog." Compare this with the political article you sometimes read in which a random political scientist is called on to explain that the polls show Candidate Bomfog is surging, or in which an anonymous source close to the White House is called on to explain nothing.

That's what I meant—I think it's actually pretty clear in the post, now that I look up at all the extra words I've written. The non-me JournoList stories that outraged conservatives in the summer were largely about reporters/thinkers at outwardly liberal organizations saying Something Should Be Done, and then in only one case doing it. (There did circulate a letter from lefties protesting the Jeremiah Wright angle in the final Clinton-Obama debate.) Here in 2014, most of that happens on Twitter. I'm being honest when I say the importance of the list was pretty prosaic, and the model really should be copied by the right/libertarians, but it's lost in all the sputtering. 

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.