With Dave Weigel's departure from the Washington Post after the revelation of anti-conservative posts to the private Journolist listserv, the blogosphere has seen commentary from across the ideological spectrum (EzraMattAmbinderSullivanFrumSanchezDouthat).  Unlike most of the bloggers weighing in, I don't know Dave.  The most sensible take I've seen on the ethics involved comes from Amy Sullivan, for what it's worth.  But I was on Journolist for most of its first year-and-a-half, and my perspective on the listserv differs somewhat from what I've read by other participants.
First, though, let's dispense with the D.C.-centric question: who was the leaker?  Here are my top 3 guesses, based only on my knowledge of the dynamics of the list while I was on it and on a not-particularly-astute understanding of the politics of D.C. journalism:

1. An older member of the group with ties to old-school print journalism who leaked to mediabistro & Daily Caller in concert with 
WaPo reporters jealous of Dave, Ezra, and Greg Sargent.  That would explain the coincidence of Tucker Carlson's interest in joining the group soon before his site published the posts--the leaker would have been aware of his interest in a Journolist scandal from the group's debate over letting him join.  Think high-level but shadowy insider with a proclivity for behind-the-scenes intra-party distribution of dirt. And who has professional ties to the Post.

2. An older leftier member of the group opposed to Dave's libertarianism and offended by his colorful language (see, "ratfucker")

3. Someone at Politico (definitely not Ben Smith) who wanted to give the Post a black eye. [Just to clarify-- that's not sarcasm:

One important point, on which I strongly agree with other Journolisters, is that conservative fantasies about the list being used to enforce ideological conformity or as a shadow group-editing device are riotously off the mark.  Jim Geraghty of the National Review spins some particularly entertaining fantasies, contrasting Journolist to the conservative Rightblogs list, which he describes as follows:

I’m on a conservative mailing list called Rightblogs, and from what I have seen, it succeeds at hiding conservative disagreements about as effectively as BP controls oil spills. If Rightblogs was set up to ensure that conservatives settled differences among themselves away from the eyes of the public, I think we can declare it an epic catastrophic failure on par with picking Ryan Leaf with the second overall pick in the NFL draft. Of course, I think it was just set up as a way for conservative bloggers to talk to each other; the vast majority of messages seem to be variations of, “Hey, look what I wrote!”

This summary describes the exchanges on Journolist just as well.  People disagreed vigorously over A LOT on the list.  Economists from different think tanks fought about trade and living standards.  Political scientists, historians, and bloggers fought about the proper interpretation of polls.  Men and women fought about gender representation.  Everyone fought about political strategy.  You should have seen the exchanges between Obama and Clinton supporters during the 2008 primary, which were as acrimonious as most left-right debates I've encountered on the blogosphere.
The best summary I've seen of what Journolist entailed comes from Change to Win's Rich Yeselson, a name that is equally obscure as my own in comparison to the bigger-name Journolist members (and if you can think of a left-of-center writer, blogger, or pundit associated with opinion journalism or mainstream print journalism, they were probably on the list).  Rich and I disagreed strongly about a lot of things, and other times we fought alongside each other against other folks.  The great thing about Journolist was the diversity of backgrounds involved, and the leveling of status differences--if Paul Krugman couldn't defend a point about inequality, then he lost the argument, regardless of how well-known his interlocutor was.  It was to Ezra's great credit that he conceived of the list and had the relationships and reputation to assemble the group he put together.  And he was a hands-off manager of the list.  There was NO enforcement of a party line whatsoever.
That said, I think that in practice the list did end up reinforcing liberal perspectives on the issues of the day.  But the way that it did so was simply an extension of the way that the internet reinforces conventional perspectives in other ways.  Much of conventional wisdom on political and policy issues, I believe, can be understood by the simplifying assumptions that most people read sources that simply justify and reinforce their pre-existing views and that they are able to rationalize away facts that challenge those views.  Most left-of-center folks read liberal blogs, and vice versa for conservatives.  Few challenge their own views by reading blogs with which they are in philosophical disagreement, and those who do are often able to convince themselves that arguments causing cognitive disonance are wrong.  Drew Westen has gotten some mileage out of this insight for the past few years.  Interestingly, if you read Westen's research, it is based on a self-selecting sample of political partisans and ideologues (he advertised for subjects in places where he could nab true believers).

What this means in practice is that complicated viewpoints and worldviews that don't fit into liberal or conservative boxes neatly (and that are relatively scarce in the population of political and policy junkies) are marginalized.  That is true in the blogosphere (how many moderate-hosted blogs can you name versus liberal- or conservative-hosted ones?) and it was true on Journolist.  While I don't have hard evidence to back me up, I strongly suspect that the rise of the blogosphere has hardened political polarization through a dynamic along the following lines: ideologically neat bloggers and writers gain large audiences, those sources become authoritative ones for news and opinion, less ideologically neat bloggers and writers are influenced by the increasing prominence of ideologically neat views and the decreasing availability of ideologically messy views, those bloggers and writers become more ideologically neat.  That is a dynamic that I think Journolist reinforced, simply because most people (liberals included) are ideologically neat, and when ideologically messy members raised arguments with conventional views, few people ever really changed their minds (including the ideologically messy members!), and the ideologically neat people out-numbered the ideologically messy.

Because of my frustration with what I perceived to be these dynamics (and because I needed to write my dissertation rather than spend all my free time fighting with Journolisters!), I left the list in early 2008.  Other ideologically messy people left earlier, others never jumped into the fray to begin with once they joined.  And others, presumably, soldiered on after I left.
To be clear, none of this was Ezra's fault--the membership was at least as diverse as the left-of-center punditry in general--and none of this was the result of a centrally-enforced set of rules or of concerted and organized pressure from members.  It was just the natural result of putting a bunch of people with a strong attachment to their views together such that the composition resembled the wider left-of-center universe.  I'm sure Rightblogs has the same problem.



07/14/2010 6:53pm

I'm looking for it, but I thought there was a study bandied about a while back that showed that people who primarily consumed news on the Web tended to be <em>less</em> polarized and biased in terms of what they followed, as opposed to consumers of more traditional media.


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