By Their Game-Changing Ye Shall Know Them

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Aug. 8 2014 3:41 PM

By Their Game-Changing Ye Shall Know Them

If you don't read RedState or MediaTrackers, you've missed the news of an email list in which "CNN, HuffPo, Reuters contributors" and others coordinate the news. Actually, if you've read the stories on those sites, you'd still missed the news. As an accidental expert in the subject of secretive email lists that link journalists with sources, I struggle to see what Gamechanger Salon—yes, that's the gag-reflex name of the thing—has accomplished.

First, the backstory. MediaTrackers made an open-records request for the emails of a Wisconsin professor (MediaTrackers does a lot of work in Wisconsin) and discovered a "members-only Google group run by Billy Wimsatt for forward thinking and top-level political activists on the Left." Those who went to liberal arts colleges in the '90s and '00s may remember Wimsatt as "Upski," the graffiti artist and author of Bomb the Suburbs. In 2010 he mellowed and published Please Don't Bomb the Suburbs, sort of like how Leonard Nimoy followed I Am Not Spock with I Am Spock. Wimsatt has assembled cocentric circles of influence, and a spreadsheet obtained by MediaTrackers lists not just the GS members but who recommended them.

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MediaTrackers somehow missed that former Weather Underground member Mark Rudd did some of the recommending. Its story—theoretically a much better story—is about media coordination. Yet here's what's been proved.

- Ryan Grim and Amanda Terkel, both Huffington Post reporters, collaborated on a scoop about a "Draft Elizabeth Warren" campaign, sourced to Erica Sagrans—a member of the email list! (I wrote my own story about the effort by contacting Sagrans, whom I knew from covering the 2012 campaign. She worked for Obama-Biden.)

- Columnist and activist David Brodwin wrote a piece arguing for a minimum wage hike; the Obama administration cited Brodwin's employer (though not his column) in its minimum wage pitch.

- Pundit Sally Kohn repeatedly emailed the list to promote her TV/speaking appearances, and encourage people to tweet about them. (Kohn has also succeeded in getting the New York Times to profile her career as a progressive Fox News pundit, but it wasn't the only outlet that heard the pitch. She pitched that to Slate in 2012, no email list required.)

And ... that's sort of the lot. The salon doesn't look to be changing many games. A source on the list insists that it's boring—and a source would say that—but the lack of any concrete action spurred by these emails, like stories killed by the emails, explains why it's not breaking out on the right.

Contrast this with Groundswell, the conservative meeting and email list exposed by David Corn in 2013. Corn's story is rich with examples of Groundswell connecting congressional staffers to reporters, and getting stories out there; I'll just quote one.

In Groundswell's first months, one of the most active members in its Google group was Danielle Cutrona, chief counsel to Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions. She frequently placed information—speeches, articles, press releases—on Groundswell's Google group. In February, she posted opposition research material regarding a judicial appointment and asked members to distribute it: "Any help is much appreciated." In another message to Groundswell, she requested assistance in opposing the pro-immigration reform GOP establishment. "I'm going to need help pushing back,"  she wrote. 
On one occasion, Cutrona promoted a column from the conservative site RedState.com. Headlined "Who is Going to Put an End to the McCain/Graham Circus?" this RedState.com post excoriated Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham as "Benedict Arnolds" for retreating on their opposition to Chuck Hagel's nomination as defense secretary and for "their treachery on the issue of illegal immigration." Cutrona, who occasionally used her official Senate email to communicate with Groundswell members, was encouraging this band of conservatives to spread the word that two party colleagues of her boss were ideological traitors. A spokesman for Sessions says that this blog post did not reflect Cutrona's views and "was simply one of scores of diverse news and opinion pieces she emailed on immigration."

The old JournoList group, of which I was a member,* had a rule about government officials. You joined that team, you were off the list. In lots of scouring of the archives, investigative reporters only managed to find a few examples of people, in between government jobs, promoting something.

But maybe I'm missing the forest. JournoList exists in the conservative imagination not for concrete examples of journalists changing how the mainstream media covered stories. (The membership was avowedly liberal; the most famous coordination, of academics and reporters growing angry about coverage of the Jeremiah Wright scandal or media questions in the final Clinton-Obama debate, did not result in less coverage of those stories in the MSM.) It was proof that unconscious coordination and bias, which were obvious, jumped the circuit to conscious coordination, which had been obscured.

It should no longer surprise any awake person that journalists use many methods to befriend sources, and get scoops, and that email lists are among these methods. Absent some evidence of Gamechanger Salon blocking a story, or doing more than connecting a friendly reporter to a friendly source, it's hard to see the scandal.

*I am not a Gamechanger Salon member. Can't get past the name, anyway. Why not Disrupter's Saloon? Thinkfluencer's Tavern?

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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