It's True: Journalists and Policy Wonks Like To Talk to Each Other!

Many novelists employ trusted readers, a select group of friends, spouses, colleagues, competitors, and editors who read and comment on their work before it goes out to the world. I suspect this strikes no one as strange, not just because novelists can be anxiety-ridden wrecks nervous over what others might think of their work, but because novelists are, in fact, writing for others, and, as a result, need a sample of what (a few, trusted) others actually think of their writing.

The same, naturally, is true of bloggers and journalists, yet to judge from some of the reaction to Michael Calderone’s Politico story on JournoList (to which I am, unsurprisingly, not a member), you’d think the idea of a writer, journalist, wonk, or pundit having a private conversation was some sort of heresy. It’s true, of course, that the work of a journalist or pundit isn’t quite the same as a novelist, so rather than having others read completed drafts, the consultation process typically involves bouncing ideas off of those you admire and respect, as well as checking your thoughts against what experts know. But it’s essentially the same thing.

Indeed, aren’t journalists supposed to spend time talking to knowledgeable individuals before writing their stories? And aren’t they then supposed to spent time culling the most useful, accurate, informative material and presenting it to us, rather than simply dumping out every single word they speak and hear for readers to sort through? Even in the minute-to-minute world of the web, it strikes me that we want many journalists to be filters and summarizers, not info-dumpers.

Yet Mickey Kaus insists on calling the list inegalitarian and anti-democratic. Huh?

I always thought one of the big ideas of the Web was that, to the maximum extent possible, these deliberations and revisions and improvements could now take place in public, where everyone could follow along and maybe contribute. Doxophiliac argues that people should be able to “backtrack if someone makes a good argument in response”—but you can “backtrack” in public too. It’s been done. Even by Joe Klein!

We non-elite writers learn something just from watching the sausage get made. One thing we learn is it’s just sausage. Ezra Klein has taken a lot of what could be highly informative back and forth on the World Wide Web and privatized it, much as rich people in gated communities reclaim green space from the public sphere and wall it off behind guards and fences. It’s not an egalitarian or democratic impulse.

I’m all for transparency, but would the world of journalism and policy analysis really be better off if its members recorded and made available every conversation they had in any way relating to their work? What about when, as happens every night at a thousand DC watering holes, a handful of wonks and bloggers gather at a bar — should someone be required to take notes and blog the conversation afterward? How about dinner parties? Office conversations between two reporters on different beats who decide to share notes? Next time Kaus goes to lunch with a colleague or policy-smart friend and talks over the day’s news, can we expect a report on his blog? These conversations happen all the time in various non-electronic mediums, and they’re crucial to DC’s professional ecosystem because they create a safe space for people to toss around ideas and information — like practice for a sports team, they’re places where mistakes don’t count. As such, no one expects them to be publicized.

In fact, the whole thing sounds awfully like a feistier electronic version of Grover Norquist’s famous off-the-record Wednesday morning meeting. Like minded individuals like to get together and jabber about what they’re working on without pressure that their remarks might be put on record. The only thing at all new about this is the form, which allows the conversation to be ongoing and have a wider geographic reach than an in-person meeting — although email groups, really, are pretty old news. So it seems to me that there’s nothing anti-democratic, or elitist, or conspiratorial about the Journolist. It’s actually pretty normal, and probably raises the quality of blogging and writing for all involved.