Founded in February 2007 by Washington Post blogger/columnist Ezra Klein, JournoList was an online listserve composed of some 400 self-described liberals—mostly journalists, but also some professors and political activists. It functioned essentially as a secret society of email correspondents who shared information with one another, discussed their thoughts on current events, and coordinated the way they reported on certain stories—all off the record. Conservatives were barred from joining the group.
JournoList was shut down by Ezra Klein in late June of 2010, a few days after someone had leaked a number of offensive comments that one of its members—Washington Post political reporter David Weigel—had written on the listserve regarding conservatives. The most damaging leaks, published in The Daily Caller, were laced with obscenities and charged that conservatives were predominantly racists who sought, above all else, to protect their own “white privilege”—even as they used the media to “violently, angrily divide America.” In two of his JournoList posts, Weigel expressed his hope that broadcaster Rush Limbaugh and newsman Matt Drudge would both die.
Weigel was not alone among JournoList members in posting such emotionally charged messages. For instance, Sarah Spitz—a producer for the show Left, Right & Center which aired on the National Public Radio affiliate KCRW—wrote that if Rush Limbaugh were to suffer a heart attack in her presence, she would “laugh loudly like a maniac and watch his eyes bug out” because “he deserves it.”
In 2009, when Tea Party activists nationwide advocated for limited government and demanded fiscal responsibility from their elected representatives:
JournoList member Ryan Donmoyer of Bloomberg News saw “parallels here between the teabaggers [a vulgar term referring to a sexual practice] and their tactics and the rise of the Brownshirts” in Nazi Germany.
Liberal magazine writer Richard Yeselson attributed the Tea Partiers' dissatisfaction with government to the fact that “the president is a black guy named Barack Hussein Obama.” Conservative activists, said Yeselson dismissively, were merely a collection of “gun nuts,” “anti-tax nuts,” “religious nuts,” “homophobes,” “anti-feminists,” “anti-abortion lunatics,” “racist/confederate crackpots,” “anti-immigration whackos,” and “pathological government haters.”
Blogger Lindsay Beyerstein said of conservatives: “I’m not saying these guys are capital F-fascists, but they don’t want limited government. Their desired end looks more like a corporate state than a rugged individualist paradise. The rank and file wants a state that will reach into the intimate [sic] of citizens when it comes to sex, reproductive freedom, censorship, and rampant incarceration in the name of law and order.”
When the conservative author and historian Victor Davis Hanson wrote an article about immigration for National Review, JournoList member Ed Kilgore, a blogger, reflexively dismissed the piece (without reading it) as “the kind of Old White Guy cultural reaction that is at the heart of the Tea Party Movement.” “It’s very close in spirit,” Kilgore continued, “to the classic 1970s racist tome, The Camp of the Saints, where White Guys struggle to make up their minds whether to go out and murder brown people or just give up.” Another focal point of JournoList members' wrath was the Fox News Channel, for its alleged conservative bias. Guardian columnist Daniel Davies, for instance, wrote that he was “genuinely scared” of Fox because it “shows you that a genuinely shameless and unethical media organisation cannot be controlled by any form of peer pressure or self-regulation, and nor can it be successfully cold-shouldered or ostracised.”“In order to have even a semblance of control,” he added, “you need a tough legal framework.” Michael Scherer of Time magazine concurred with Davies' assessment, saying that Fox News president Roger Ailes “understands that his job is to build a tribal identity, not a news organization.” And UCLA law professor Jonathan Zasloff pondered, “I hate to open this can of worms, but is there any reason why the FCC couldn’t simply pull [Fox's] broadcasting permit once it expires?”
Perhaps the most significant revelation about JournoList came to light in July 2010 in The Daily Caller, which reported that when the racist, anti-American rantings of Barack Obama's longtime pastor Jeremiah Wright had become an issue during the heart of the 2008 presidential primaries, JournoList members actively conspired to discredit and bury the story.
This occurred, for instance, after an April 2008 ABC News debate in which: (a) moderator Charlie Gibson asked Obama why it had taken him nearly a year to formally dissocate himself from Wright's remarks, and (b) co-moderator George Stephanopoulos asked Obama, “Do you think Reverend Wright loves America as much as you do?” JournoList members who watched the debate were outraged. Richard Kim of TheNation accused Stephanopoulos of “being a disgusting little rat snake.” The Guardian's Michael Tomasky wrote: “Listen folks—in my opinion, we all have to do what we can to kill ABC and this idiocy in whatever venues we have.... We need to throw chairs now, try as hard as we can to get the call next time. Otherwise the questions in October will be exactly like this. This is just a disease.”
Numerous other JournoList members likewise agreed that they should do whatever they could to thwart public dialogue about their favored candidate's relationship with Wright. A number of them soon began collaborating on an open letter defending Obama. Among them were: Jared Bernstein, who would go on to be an economic advisor to the 2008 Obama presidential campaign as well as Vice President Joe Biden’s top economist; Salon columnist Joe Conason; Columbia School of Journalism professor Todd Gitlin; Slate contributor David Greenberg; David Roberts of the website Grist; Baltimore Sun columnist Thomas Schaller; Mother Jones reporter Jonathan Stein (who suggested conferring with “our friends at Media Matters”); and Holly Yeager of the Washington Independent. In its final form, the letter characterized the debate over Obama's affiliation with Wright as “a revolting descent into tabloid journalism and a gross disservice to Americans concerned about the great issues facing the nation and the world.”
Within a week, Wright was back in the news after he: (a) accused Obama of having repudiated his (Wright's) comments for “political reasons,” and (b) asserted that the U.S. government had created the AIDS virus as a tool for the commission of genocide against African Americans. Once again, JournoList members rushed to Obama's defense:
Spencer Ackerman, then of the Washington Independent, noted that while “[p]art of me doesn’t like this [Wright] sh*t either,” he was even more distressed by the prospect of “being governed by [Republican] racists and warmongers and criminals” in the event that Obama should lose the election. To guard against this possibility, Ackerman exhorted his fellow JournoList members to “raise the cost on the right of going after the left.” To do this, he said, his colleagues should first “find a rightwinger's [sic] and smash it through a plate-glass window,” then “[t]ake 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,” added Ackerman, before elaborating on his recommended strategy: “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.”
Chris Hayes of The Nation exhorted his JournoList colleagues to simply ignore the Wright controversy, depicting it as a transparent attempt by “the right” to “maintain control of the country.” “Our country disappears people,” he wrote. “It tortures people. It has the blood of as many as one million Iraqi civilians—men, women, children, the infirmed—on its hands. You’ll forgive me if I just can’t quite dredge up the requisite amount of outrage over Barack Obama’s pastor.” “[T]here is no earthly reason to use our various platforms to discuss what about Wright we find objectionable,” Hayes added.
Andrew Breitbart, conservative founder of the website BigGovernment.com, stated that JournoList's behind-the-scenes maneuverings amounted to “collusion” designed to “shape narratives” by taking stories “that should be covered on a mass scale” and stopping them “in their tracks.” “What TheDaily Caller has unearthed,” added Breitbart, “proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that most media organizations are either complicit by participation in the treachery that is JournoList, or are guilty of sitting back and watching.”
After Obama won the 2008 presidential election, Spencer Ackerman wrote: “Let’s just throw [conservative historian and foreign-policy analyst Michael] Ledeen against a wall. Or … throw him through a plate glass window. I’ll bet a little spot of violence would shut him right the f*ck up, as with most bullies.” Fellow JournoList member Eric Alterman of TheNationportrayed conservative opponents of Obama as “F*cking Nascar retards.”
In July 2010, Tucker Carlson, editor-in-chief of the Daily Caller, said of his publication's recent investigation of JournoList: “Again and again, we discovered members of Journolist working to coordinate talking points on behalf of Democratic politicians, principally Barack Obama. That is not journalism, and those who engage in it are not journalists. They should stop pretending to be. The news organizations they work for should stop pretending, too.”