About this Blog
Email Me

RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

« A Primer on the 2010 House Midterm | HorseRaceBlog Home Page | A Note on Gallup's Party Identification Map »

What's So Bad about the JournoList?

Tucker Carlson has this to say about the title question:

We're not contesting the right of anyone, journalist or not, to have political opinions. (I, for one, have made a pretty good living expressing mine.) What we object to is partisanship, which is by its nature dishonest, a species of intellectual corruption. 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.

I disagree with part of this. Partisanship is not "by its nature dishonest, a species of intellectual corruption." Partisanship for the sake of partisanship is indeed corrupt - e.g. Tammany-style patronage politics - but partisanship that comes about because of big, important differences on issues that matter is not. American democracy is unthinkable without the two political parties, so partisanship can't be all bad.

What it can be, however, is conspiratorial and secretive. Our system of government provides for an open process in which free-wheeling debate is encouraged. That's what happens when you combine freedom of speech with regularly scheduled elections. But certain partisan practices can take the most vital parts of the debate behind closed doors, as allies meet in secret to work out disagreements among themselves before they offer a public message to the country.

That's pretty much how the first party system developed in the 1790s. The country split over big issues like whether to align with France or Britain, the Bank of the United States, and the federal assumption of state debts. Political alliances formed that were quite unlike what the Framers of the Constitution had envisioned. They weren't a matter of the big states coordinating against the little ones, or representatives from a single state working together. Instead, alliances were trans-sectional and ideological in nature: the Pinckney's of South Carolina allied with Alexander Hamilton of New York, and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia in cahoots with Thomas McKean of Pennsylvania.

This is what gave birth to the party caucus - the closed-door meeting of like-minded partisans to work out differences without the public nosing in. On the presidential level, we can see its machinations as early as 1792, when the developing Republican party backed George Clinton of New York to replace John Adams as Vice-President. Clinton received 50 Electoral Votes, which was only possible if the electors coordinated with each other, in private, before they voted. The fact that the Clinton electors almost entirely came from four states - Georgia, New York, North Carolina, and Virginia - delineates further the nature of the "secret plot" to unseat Adams.

Secret caucuses turn Americans off. They long have. This is why the Democratic party in 1828 instituted the practice of the party convention, a broad, open public meeting of the party's members to work out differences in the light of day. Over time, the convention degenerated from an open and inclusive process into the "smoke filled" room that nominated Warren Harding. After the riots in Chicago in 1968, it was all but done away with. Today, the people, acting through primary elections, make the most important partisan decisions.

Ultimately, such secrecy is not good for discourse in an open society of free and equal citizens. While the issues between the Federalists and Republicans were pretty wonkish and technical - War with France or Britain? A federal debt? A national bank? - the accusations that they traded in public were extreme. Adams was portrayed as a monarchist who was secretly coordinating with his perfidious allies, Hamilton and the Arch-Federalists, to impose uniform religious practices upon the country and install a Federalist King, all backed by a standing army that had been justified by ginning up war fever. Jefferson, on the other hand, was tagged as an amoral atheist and Jacobin leveler whose radical ideas would bring the violence and anarchy of the French Revolution to the United States. And sure, both sides swore that their intentions were not so treacherous, but really how could anybody know? The parties were too much like secret societies back then. Nobody was really sure why they made the pronouncements they did.

All of this was nonsense, of course. Adams was a moderate, and Jefferson ended up retaining much of the Federalist program. They were friends before the political battles of the 1790s, and became friends once again in retirement. But there was something about the secret practice of party politics back then that transformed straightforward policy disagreements into something much more virulent, and turned dear friends into mortal enemies.

JournoList has too much in common with the old party caucus. First of all, it was secretive. Members only! "NO GIRLZ!" As Ezra Klein notes today, Carlson asked for admission, but was denied it by the list - much as John Adams would have been denied invitation to a meeting of the congressional Anti-Federalists. And, much like the party caucus, the reasons for the denial were ideological: he disagreed with them too much in public to have access to their private thoughts.

Was it used as a private forum to coordinate public activities? Klein and other JournoListers swear up one end and down the other that it was not, but the stories from the Daily Caller suggest that it was on occasion a place for ideologues to plan in secret. Honestly, we'll never know - and this is a chief problem with such a caucus. It inherently breeds suspicion, distrust, and ultimately conspiracy theories - thereby distorting and perverting the public discourse. JournoList was a years-long secret caucus that discussed...who knows what?...in private prior to public statements. Semi-knowledge of its existence and practices can only worsen ideological tensions, promote bad blood, and further sour an already acerbic public discourse.

Conservatives have long sensed that the mainstream media is tilted against them. Relatively few have suggested that it is a hard bias, i.e. an actual conspiracy by media types to present the news in a certain fashion. Instead, the inference has long been that political opinions reflect contested values - and our values are pervasive, influencing how we interpret and present the world to others in all sorts of subtle ways. And because journalists overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates, as a group they strongly favor one set of values, which means their reporting inescapably does as well.

Somehow, Ezra Klein has managed to drain a little more water out of the already shallow pool of media objectivity. He's introduced the notion that, in some instances, it may not have been a soft bias, but instead a hard one. That's exactly the kind of suspicion and mutual distrust that a party caucus breeds. And, unless the full JournoList is opened to the public, nobody will ever know for sure.

JournoList looks to me to be yet another mile-marker on this country's return to a partisan press. This does not upset me very much at all. I think American democracy is unthinkable without the political parties, so I do not think that a partisan press is all that bad. And it might finally stop journalists and academics from acquiring the inherently political authority that comes with monikers like "objective news" or "social science" when they are in fact promoting subjective values. That would be a good thing. All in all, a partisan press is, weirdly enough, a very honest one in that you know fully where everybody is coming from, and nobody can claim for him- or herself the epistemologically ridiculous "God's eye view."

-Jay Cost