A Note to All the Non-JList Reporters, and a Response from Henry Farrell

(Update:  Henry Farrell, GW professor and blogger at Crooked Timber, also someone who I respect a lot despite some disagreements, dropped me a note about this and gave me permission to post it.  I have put it up at the end of the post, and I would ask you not to comment unless you have read Henry’s response as well.  Also, Henry is my guest here, and although people can be tough with me, I will take it badly if people say mean things about/to him.)

Lots of people will have more interesting things to say about Journolist, and maybe I’ll try to post something else up as well, but for now.  When I was reading Peter Finn’s reporting on the Washington Post website on the CIA for my previous post, and despite this being a widely reported, straight-facts story, and despite my long-time, continuing, unstinting admiration for Peter Finn as a reporter on national security and related issues at the WaPo, I do admit that one of the first thoughts in my head was … is he a JournoLister?  And if he is, do I need to somehow discount his account as being part of a pre-conceived narrative?  And if so, by how much?

In this kind of story, where it really is just reporting facts, no issue.  But there are lots of other stories in this arena where that would not be my reaction.  If this were, say, a post-Obama administration in which the Journolist crowd had somehow decided it was time to throw targeted killing, the CIA, and drones under the bus – and I, of course, would not know that but would now have to wonder about it – the question of discounting the reporting to address the pre-conceived narrative issue would not be a hypothetical question at all.  We don’t know who is who – and the information asymmetry creates uncertainties that drive up social costs, as Ezra Klein might have said.

So:  To all you non-JournoLister reporters out there, please be aware that your credibility has just taken a big hit, because we, your faithful readers, don’t actually know who is or who isn’t.  You can thank JournoList for that, you can thank Ezra Klein, and you can thank the Washington Post, which has done its outstanding professionals absolutely no favors in any of this.

The most charitable thing that can be said for the WaPo as an institution in all this is that the ethics of reporting by bloggers is, at best, murky.  Many old-school “reporters” have warned that the term, and the very professional concept of “journalist,” rather than either plain old “reporter” or clearly “opinion columnist,” is an exploitable ambiguity.  The emergence of blogospheric superstars like Klein, grafted onto the institutional credibility and body and salary of a traditional paper like the WaPo, has shown that on steroids.  One wonders why the Post didn’t address this problem back when the list first emerged into public eye – all the questions, in fact, that Byron York addressed to the paper and which it has so far summarily refused to answer.

Let me channel one MSM journalist who prefers to remain nameless because, s/he says … the business model is not just topsy turvey, it is one which has empowered a group of writers with many opinions on many things, but little reporting experience, and little supervision.  That has been said alot; what this person adds is that it is really hard to question this inside the paper because these folks are regarded as the new thing in the business plan.  Questions make you not a team player in the new, quite unsettled business model with its equally unsettled professional ethics.  I suggested that perhaps the Post, and the Times, and others, needed to put some experienced journalists and editors in charge of the bloggers, and at the same time develop a much more serious set of ethics, transparency, and accountability guidelines.  After all, as James DeLong points out, in effect the Post, and other outlets, have been utilized by their erstwhile employees to partisan political ends that, whatever the sympathies of the editors and publishers, is highly unlikely to be seen by the principals as a legitimate activity for a newspaper.

The reaction to what I thought was an obvious way of dealing with traditional ethics of a newspaper applied to a new medium … well, the reaction was to say, you must be kidding, are you sure that Klein is not negotiating a higher salary out of this?  The Post is desperate to try and find a business model that works on the web; it is throwing anything against the wall and hoping it sticks.  I think I understand that, leaving aside the resentment of the traditional newspaper reporter toward newcomers who not just have not paid their dues – they seem to be rewarded for junking the whole model of reporting and objectivity.

But what is it, exactly, that Klein in particular is selling?  A year or so ago, I made what I thought was a mild reproach against Klein for what I regarded as a cheap shot at Greg Mankiw – agree or disagree with Mankiw, talking about his “unbearable lightness of being” does not seem any kind of accurate description; I added something akin to what I’ve said above about lack of reportorial experience or judgment.  I was amazed at the volume of abusive web and email I got for something quite mild.  The reaction in defense of a “policy analyst” was so ferocious, in fact, that so far as I can tell, his appeal is essentially celebrity.

That is no doubt unfair to him, because he is a smart guy who often writes interesting things, though as with all JListers, I now believe him entirely capable of suppressing facts in favor of his narrative – but it is, I think, quite accurate as to his followers.  They celebrate him like a movie star, and protect him ferociously against any perceived slights.  And while that is unfair to him and his analytic skills, celebrityhood is, I think, his market value to the Washington Post.  They seem to be pricing him according to his celebrity – I don’t precisely mean here his salary, though who knows, but rather the fact that they did not take action to address the ethics questions much earlier, and the use to which the Post was being put by its employees.  That too was a price they paid, to their benefit earlier, and, I trust, to their dismay today, although who knows since the Post has shut up on this topic tighter than, well, Dick Nixon.

But in that case, I too wonder if his market value has not just gone up – precisely as, I sorrow to say, every non-JList journalist’s value has now [thanks Factcheck!] gone down.  Peter Finn, I have long admired your reporting, and I admit it was an unfair gut check that made me wonder, are you JList and will it affect this story.  I apologize for the unworthy thought, and I am entirely serious in saying so.  But I am equally serious in saying that the JList compadres have made it (for you and everyone else, since I have no idea who was on the list) an uncheckable reflex just the same.  And to the WaPo and other media outlets, you could do something to restore your credibility by adding to every journalist’s byline for a year or two, “JournoList” or “Not JournolList.”

Note from Henry Farrell to me:

Dear Ken

Just to say that your post on journolist seems to me to be seriously  misconceived. As a former member of journolist, I can tell you quite honestly that there wasn’t any story coordination, or anything like it. Nor, if you read the Daily Caller article carefully, despite its deliberately misleading headline, do they have any proof of same. A couple of the hotter heads on the list may sometimes have wanted journolists not to report on topic x or topic y, but no-one took them seriously. I’m on many listservs, and journolist was much the usual fare – a lot of arguments between people who disagreed with each other, gossip on journalism and sports, a fair amount of political speculation (which may have influenced people indirectly – but no more than any other conversation would), and a fair amount of exchange between journalists and academics and wonks on topics of their expertise. You’re really barking up the wrong tree here. There weren’t any marching orders – and indeed there was a fair amount of effort to make sure that it didn’t become a means of political organization.  People with political appointments in the administration, Congress etc were banned from membership, and after the one more or less deliberate act of organizing (a letter of complaint to ABC news which was largely discussed in terms of concerns over journalistic standards – albeit it is probably fair that some people felt it more keenly because of their feelings over the candidate), Ezra banned people from any future such efforts.

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