On the team: The stunning hypocrisy of Journolist's critics

They speak at GOP banquets. They meet to plot in Grover Norquist's office. Yet the wingers find a listserv shocking

Published July 26, 2010 9:27PM (EDT)

Fred Barnes and John Fund
Fred Barnes and John Fund

Nothing much can be learned from the manufactured media uproar over Journolist, except as a case study of how the right-wing propaganda machine still dominates America's daily narrative -- and how conservative journalists remain astonishingly exempt from the standards they are pretending to uphold.

Look no further than the outrage feigned by two of the nation's most prominent right-wing journalists, Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard (and Fox News) and John Fund of the Wall Street Journal, both of whom could barely contain their indignation over the revelation that a few hundred progressive writers and academics engaged in political discussion via e-mail. Having read a single Journolist e-mail that suggested tarring him as a "racist," Barnes suddenly detects a departure from "traditional standards" :

When I'm talking to people from outside Washington, one question inevitably comes up: Why is the media so liberal? The question often reflects a suspicion that members of the press get together and decide on a story line that favors liberals and Democrats and denigrates conservatives and Republicans.

My response has usually been to say, yes, there's liberal bias in the media, but there's no conspiracy. The liberal tilt is an accident of nature. The media disproportionately attracts people from a liberal arts background who tend, quite innocently, to be politically liberal ... Now, after learning I'd been targeted for a smear attack by a member of an online clique of liberal journalists, I'm inclined to amend my response. Not to say there's a media conspiracy, but at least to note that hundreds of journalists have gotten together, on an online listserv called JournoList, to promote liberalism and liberal politicians at the expense of traditional journalism.

My guess is that this and other revelations about JournoList will deepen the distrust of the national press.

Then Barnes explains why he thinks the liberal listserv represents an ominous watershed in Washington journalism:

Until JournoList came along, liberal journalists were rarely part of a team. Neither are conservative journalists today, so far as I know. If there's a team, no one has asked me to join. As a conservative, I normally write more favorably about Republicans than Democrats and I routinely treat conservative ideas as superior to liberal ones. But I've never been part of a discussion with conservative writers about how we could most help the Republican or the conservative team.

My experience with other conservative journalists is that they are loners. One of the most famous conservative columnists of the past half-century, the late Robert Novak, is a good example. I knew him well for 35 years. He didn't tell me what stories he was working on nor ask what I was planning to write. He never mentioned how we might promote Republicans or aid the conservative cause, nor did I.

But it isn't so difficult to identify the "team" that Barnes signed up with long ago. It's called the Republican Party. A Google search of his name with the terms "featured speaker" and "Republican" instantly turns up numerous examples of his speaking engagements at GOP fundraising events across the country, from Palm Beach, Fla., to Eugene, Ore. (The Lake County Young Republicans even posted a few photos of a tanned, well-fed Barnes with their president and other dignitaries.)

As a Fox News star, Barnes commands fat speaking fees from trade associations and lobbying groups -- and presumably from Republicans as well. Is he on the payroll, or just cheerleading for free? That is for him to answer, but either way he is clearly on the GOP "team." Yet he flatters himself as an independent loner, while chastising the Journolisters.

Like Barnes, Fund poses as an ethical purist while fulminating about Journolist:

From 2007 until last month, some 300 liberal journalists and policy wonks exchanged ideas and commentary on a secret, off-the-record Internet email group called JournoList. It was shut down after portions leaked, leading to the resignation of Washington Post writer David Weigel last month over his intemperate criticism of conservatives he was covering.

But someone who belonged to JournoList continues to leak information from its archives, providing a fascinating glimpse into how some liberal journalists coordinate their story lines to protect their favorite politicians and ideas ...

Some of the comments will no doubt revive conservative allegations of a liberal news media conspiracy ... Apparently, many on JournoList had an agenda that had little to do with covering legitimate news stories, but instead were concerned with protecting their friends and trying to ensure they had "control of the country."

Here, again like Barnes, Fund is grossly exaggerating the meaning of the leaked Journolist posts in order to highlight a pose of injured innocence. And he, too -- along with many other right-wing journalists and media figures -- is a featured speaker at Republican gatherings across the country, from  Hoboken to Oberlin to the San Francisco Bay. He covers the Tea Party movement while accepting speaking gigs sponsored by Americans for Prosperity, the corporate-backed nonprofit that is behind much Tea Party propaganda. But of course Fund is deeply shocked to learn that liberal writers would compromise their commitment to "covering legitimate news stories" by joining Journolist.

Most absurdly, Fund and Barnes, along with many other conservatives who have promoted paranoid nonsense about Journolist, seem to be suggesting that conservative journalists never, ever coordinate their messages with Republican politicians, lobbyists, policy experts and academics.

That is, to coin a phrase, a very big lie.

Specific, orderly, disciplined, ideological coordination -- and not the freewheeling blather to be found on Journolist -- has been proceeding every week for nearly two decades at the "Wednesday meetings" convened by lobbyist Grover Norquist in the Washington offices of Americans for Tax Reform.

As David Brock, who had attended those meetings, explained a few years ago in the Republican Noise Machine:

Every Wednesday morning in Norquist's Washington offices, the leaders of more than eighty conservative organizations -- including major right-wing media outlets and top Bush White House aides -- convene to set movement priorities, plan strategy, and adopt talking points. Norquist seems a cross between a Communist Party boss and a Mafia don as he presides over these strategy sessions ...

Conservative media turned out in full force for the weekly strategy meetings convened by right-wing activist Grover Norquist -- Peggy Noonan and John Fund of the Journal, representatives from National Review and the Washington Times, and a researcher for Bob Novak all checked in. The right-wing writers considered themselves part of the conservative movement "team," as Norquist put it ...

So what would Fund and Barnes say now about Norquist's famous meetings, which have included many, many right-wing journalists over the years?  Maybe Barnes skipped the Wednesday meetings, but he certainly knows dozens of the regulars -- including his late pal Novak, who dispatched a lackey to take notes.

As for Fund, his claims of innocence would be hard to sustain, considering the quote attributed to him in a New York Observer story on Manhattan's offshoot of the Norquist event, known as the Monday Meeting. Ben Smith, who now blogs at Politico, described the Monday Meeting in 2004 as one of New York's "newest, quietest and most powerful political institutions." 

Smith's report is worth quoting at length as evidence of the sheer fraudulence of the Journolist "scandal": 

An invitation-only, off-the-record gathering ... the monthly meeting has brought together the right wing of the city's financial and intellectual elite -- among the regulars are major Republican donors and members of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board ...

The Monday Meeting offers a clue to understanding the conservative movement's success and its continued vitality. Liberals talk endlessly of building coalitions -- Senator Hillary Clinton has suggested that the left needs a meeting on this model -- but infighting, inertia and a lack of discipline have kept them from pulling off this union of ideas, money and power. The right, meanwhile, often acts like the embattled minority that it was in the days of Barry Goldwater, protecting its own and keeping disputes in the family.

"The meeting serves the Grand Central Station function," said John Fund, a Monday Meeting regular who writes a column for The Wall Street Journal 's Web site. "This is where everyone meets; this is where people coordinate, get updates and gather support for projects." ...

The inspiration for the Monday Meeting comes from Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform. Mr. Norquist is an implacable anti-tax lobbyist and part-time provocateur who has won some notoriety recently by comparing the principle behind progressive taxation to the principle behind the Holocaust. His weekly Wednesday meetings of conservative activists in Washington, D.C., were an intellectual engine for the Republican takeover of the House in 1994.

Mr. Norquist, an occasional visitor to the Monday Meeting, has created a network of these gatherings around the country, most of them in state capitals. He pushed Mr. Higgins and Mr. Factor to start the New York branch.

Perhaps it is appropriate to give the last word to the American Spectator's John Tabin, who has written a striking dissent from the right-wing hysterics over Journolist:

Since 1993, Grover Norquist has held an off-the-record meeting every Wednesday where conservative activists, policy wonks, and government officials exchange ideas about policy and politics. Sometimes journalists attend. Depending on a particular journalist's ideological and partisan disposition -- which can vary quite a lot given the state of our media landscape, which includes both 'straight news' reporters (i.e. people who attempt to hide the almost-always-left-of-center opinions that shape their journalistic choices) and opinion journalists with various worldviews and temperaments -- journalists may be there to get ideas that will influence how they think about issues, or they may just be there to get perspective on how conservatives are thinking about the issues of the day.

The Wednesday Meeting has periodically been the source of breathless fear-mongering on the left about the all-powerful conservative conspiracy to control media narratives. This is, of course, absurd. Much of the hyperventilating over Journolist is equally absurd ...

Everyone who has been shown to have their work influenced by conversations on Journolist is, likewise, a commentator. That Chris Hayes tries to get perspective from other liberals before he goes on TV to opine on a topic, or that Joe Klein incorporates ideas from off-the-record exchanges into his blog posts, is not exactly earthshaking news. Commentators on the right do exactly the same thing -- it's just our emails don't get leaked because we're smart enough not to conduct these exchanges on listservs where we let the audience expand to include 400 people. This practice is a double-edged sword -- you get the benefit of idea-sharing, but you have to be careful not to get sucked into groupthink. Liberals seem more prone to the latter failing, but that's more a problem for them than for anyone else, and it's not much of a scandal ...

This brings us to the conduct of the Daily Caller itself ... [Editor Tucker] Carlson is being flat-out disingenuous when he puts the burden on Journolist members to release the context of the threads that Jonathan Strong has reported on with a gloss that the people quoted all say is misleading. Everyone on Journolist was party to an off-the-record agreement. As explained above, having people trust you to keep conversations off the record is an important part of practicing journalism. (It shouldn't be a surprise that my source, who was willing to break the agreement to the extent that he treated an off-the-record discussion as an on-background discussion, is an academic, not a journalist.) The Caller is in possession of the complete threads (I gave them too much credit when I assumed they must not be), and was not party to that agreement. If the Caller is witholding information from readers to sensationalize the narrative, as the people they're quoting all claim that they are, they are practicing tabloid journalism ...

 If Tucker Carlson wants to run his website like a tabloid, he's welcome to do so -- but he shouldn't be lecturing anyone about journalistic scruples.

By Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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