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Chummy Journolists [UPDATED]

July 22, 2010 | 12:27 pm

The controversy about Journolist -- the defunct e-mail list for left-of-center opinionaters, reporters and advocates -- strikes some of my colleagues as much ado about nothing. After all, it's not surprising that people who write liberal opinion pieces for blogs, magazines and newspapers would express liberal opinions in private. But I think that there's a gap on this issue between the general public and newspaper insiders who understand the difference between commentary and news.

From what I can tell as a nonmember, Journolist offered its members a way to get feedback from policy wonks about the topics they were covering, as well as to see what other members were interested in. That's typical of any number of e-mail lists, including ones dedicated to a subject (e.g., the environment) as well as others that hew to a particular point of view. Reporters are supposed to tap as many sources as possible, and e-mail lists (like news readers and Twitter feeds) can be an effective way to do that.

The excerpts published by the Daily Caller, however, show another feature of Journolist: opinion writers and bloggers analyzing news events together, joined in at least one case by Democratic strategist Ed Kilgore. Although I don't trust the Daily Caller to be an honest broker -- it's an outpost for conservative commentary, after all -- I don't like the group-think on display in these excerpts either.

It's important to keep in mind the ginormous difference between participating in a discussion and observing it, as Jonathan Chait pointed out this week. It's silly to hold the entire list responsible for the opinions expressed by a handful of its members. Ignoring a nutty message isn't tantamount to endorsing it. Only someone who's never been on an e-mail list would argue that.

Nevertheless, I'm puzzled why so many people who should have been competing with each other to be the first to publish a choice bit of analysis or commentary would have freely shared their thoughts. And I also wonder whether they ever stopped to consider what the public would think about a bunch of like-minded commentators from different outlets comparing notes. If there were many hard-news reporters on the list, they don't show up in the excerpts I've seen so far. So that's a saving grace. Still, even those of us in the opinion business ought to be fiercely competitive -- in private and in public.

Updated, 3:53 p.m.: For those who want to see the latest volleys in the dispute among inside-the-Beltway insiders, Ezra Klein (the founder of Journolist) offers a must-read critique of the Daily Caller's stories, which Daily Caller editor Tucker Carlson responds to (sort of). Klein ripostes with a revealing tidbit or three about Carlson's attempt to join Journolist (which Klein supported, but others on the list did not).

-- Jon Healey

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