Thoughts on the ongoing JournoList story

— Contra some members of the defunct e-mail listserv, its contents aren’t boring and innocuous, though Jonathan Chait persuasively demonstrates that The Daily Caller is misleading in some of its characterizations (see the additional e-mails he posts).

— It’s telling that so far there haven’t been any journalists who claim to write with neutrality who’ve been caught in a lie. As yet, all the people urging different coverage on colleagues have been opinion folks. I think that it’s perfectly fine for openly opinionated journalists to argue that the merits of a situation demand different coverage, but objectionable to urge a certain kind of coverage for purely tactical reasons — stepping outside the world of “objective” reporting doesn’t absolve you of the journalistic imperative to put pursuit of truth and accurate renderings of reality above all else, no matter the ideological results. Leave information trickery to activists.

— Spencer Ackerman is a talented reporter whose work on the War on Terrorism and related issues I very much value and admire, even if I don’t much care for his least temperate outbursts.

It vexes and disappoints me that he wrote this:

I do not endorse a Popular Front, nor do I think you need to. It’s not necessary to jump to Wright-qua-Wright’s defense. What is necessary is to raise the cost on the right of going after the left. In other words, find a rightwinger’s [sic] and smash it through a plate-glass window. Take a snapshot of the bleeding mess and send it out in a Christmas card to let the right know that it needs to live in a state of constant fear. Obviously I mean this rhetorically.
And I think this threads the needle. If the right forces us all to either defend Wright or tear him down, no matter what we choose, we lose the game they’ve put upon us. Instead, take one of them — Fred Barnes, Karl Rove, who cares — and call them racists. Ask: why do they have such a deep-seated problem with a black politician who unites the country? What lurks behind those problems? This makes them sputter with rage, which in turn leads to overreaction and self-destruction.

There’s a lot to object to in there. Let’s zero in on the worst of it. It is inexcusable to advocate targeting someone as a racist not because there is truth to the charge, but because it might improve the left’s chances in ideological battle. It isn’t merely that cynically using race as a political cudgel weakens the charge so that there is skepticism even when racism is actually happening. The worst thing about this — and other things are very bad indeed — is that Mr. Ackerman’s strategy inevitably involves persuading minorities that more people bear racially motivated animosity toward them than is in fact the case.

— Insofar as I know, neither Mr. Ackerman nor anyone else on Journolist actually followed through with cynical race-baiting, which is to their credit. Ironically, their staunchest critic, Andrew Breitbart, is engaged in that kind of behavior right now.

— Readers might recall that the Jeremiah Wright story was rather well covered during Election 2008. In other words, the most activist inclined members of JournoList weren’t very influential in shaping coverage even given a private forum to lobby a bunch of their colleagues.

— Here is the entirety of Kevin Drum’s role on The Daily Caller’s story:

Kevin Drum, then of Washington Monthly, also disagreed with Ackerman’s strategy. “I think it’s worth keeping in mind that Obama is trying (or says he’s trying) to run a campaign that avoids precisely the kind of thing Spencer is talking about, and turning this into a gutter brawl would probably hurt the Obama brand pretty strongly. After all, why vote for him if it turns out he’s not going change the way politics works?”

Here is how Mark Levin characterizes Mr. Drum’s role: (drum roll) link.

— It’s also worth observing that the Spencer Ackerman approach to political discourse as articulated above (though not practiced in his published work that I’ve seen, which isn’t nearly all of it), and the Andrew Breitbart approach, contain a striking similarity: Does the truth or relevance of racism accusations matter? Actually, it’s just a propaganda tool to be used in the ideological battleground of public discourse, where my side is right, we must send the other guys a message, and the ends justify the means because this is war, blah blah blah.

But American journalism isn’t merely an arena where progressives and movement conservatives battle it out for rhetorical supremacy. And everyone who views it that way is part of the problem — they persuade themselves that any behavior is justified, because the other side started it. But that’s nonsense. This scorched earth, activist approach to public discourse began long before any of us were born, the guy who “started it” is a long forgotten member of an indeterminate side, and his approach hasn’t yet overwhelmed us only because most people who participate in America’s ongoing conversation aim higher.

— Finally, I can’t help but reflect that beyond being wrong, the race-baiting that Mr. Ackerman rants about once on a private list-serv, and that Mr. Breitbart ostentatiously engages in on public sites, is basically pointless even as political strategy. Why don’t more people realize this? Does it seem at all plausible that accusing Fred Barnes of racism would actually advance the long term prospects of progressivism? Is it really plausible that any insult Mr. Ackerman offers is going to leave hack conservatives “sputtering in fear”? Come on. Being attacked by strident progressives helps people like Karl Rove, just like a virulent, unfair attack by Karl Rove would be about the best thing that could happen to Spencer Ackerman.

Similarly, consider the output of Andrew Breitbart. Ultimately, is it a victory for conservatism to make the NAACP look bad, or to force ACORN to reorganize under a different name, or to force the resignation of Van Jones, or to target this poor woman at the USDA? Hardly. The short term tactical victory is a distraction that gives the feeling of victory without actually shrinking the size of government or accomplishing any other conservative end. As far as I can tell, this is how politics works in the United States.

And if conservatives want to actually improve the country, rather than satisfy a trumped up lust for inconsequential victories in the culture war’s most absurd corners, they’d do better to focus on stories like this one. As I’ve noted before, journalism is a profession overwhelmingly populated by liberals, so they can afford to have some of their talent spending energy targeting Fred Barnes and doing other inconsequential bullshit — meanwhile the New York Times still gets published every day and the New Yorker comes out every week. The right doesn’t have this luxury. Unfortunately, many folks on the right think that battling the most vitriolic folks on the left is productive, despite the absence of any evidence for that proposition. Now I am going to eat a delicious peach from Trader Joes.