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The Death of JournoList: Does Privacy End at the Edge of Your Thoughts?

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The life and death of a 3-year-old members-only online liberal bulletin board is a story that normally would offer all the searing drama of a public television pledge drive. But the sudden collapse of JournoList Friday afternoon -- after the private e-mails of Washington Post blogger Dave Weigel were maliciously leaked -- offers a cautionary tale about the dangers of candor in an age when everybody (and not just Big Brother) is watching.
Founded in early 2007 by the youthful Ezra Klein, now a columnist for The Washington Post, JournoList was a private bull session which brought together left-of-center think tankers, government-oriented academics and opinion-mongers to discuss and debate economics, health care reform, foreign policy and the day's headlines. As an informal conversation, with maybe 400 participants (including me), it was about as conspiratorial and aggressively partisan as the cafeteria chatter at the Brookings Institution.
Every entry on Google Groups, where JournoList resided, ended with the cautionary line, "And remember: All postings are off-the-record." But someone -- whose motivations were mysterious and whose lack of integrity was obvious -- collected all of Weigel's back e-mails and apparently sent the most intemperate comments (ripped out of context) to FishbowlDC, a media gossip website, and the Dally Caller, a new conservative online newspaper. Weigel, who had recently been hired by The Washington Post to write about the conservative movement, resigned from his new job Friday because of the furor.
I do not know Weigel (and actually do not remember most of his postings on JournoList), but I am outraged over what happened to him. It is one thing to castigate a reporter for the accuracy of his journalism or to deride a blogger for the rigor of his arguments. But it is morally repugnant to heist someone's e-mail comments -- and to leak them in a way designed to embarrass him with the people whom he is covering. The obvious and odious parallel would be to secretly place a tape recorder on a table at a dinner party and then to turn the most inflammatory sound bites into a podcast.
In another era, Secretary of State Henry Stimson closed the State Department's code-breaking office in 1929 because, as he quaintly explained, "Gentlemen do not read each other's mail." Translating that sentiment in modern and gender-neutral language: "Honorable people do not read each other people's e-mails without permission."
How laudable, how naive, how early 20th century. The zone of privacy these days stops at the edge of your thoughts. It is impossible for any group (and this means liberals, conservatives and middle-of-the-road vegans) to share off-the-record ideas online without running the risk that someone will breach the bonds of trust to score cheap political points. Every time someone like Weigel is humiliated because of quickly typed off-the-cuff comments, it moves us closer to a world where we all communicate in predictable homogenized phrases because who knows where they might end up.
Friday afternoon Ezra Klein announced on JournoList and his Washington Post blog that he would be shutting down the online conversation pit because of the security breach. As he put it, "Insofar as the current version of JournoList has seen its archives become a weapon, and insofar as people's careers are now at stake, it has to die." The last few hours of JournoList were devoted to its members (including me) expressing the hope that someone would reorganize the bulletin board with a different name and a renewed sense of collective trust. It is that final ingredient that will be hardest to replicate.
At 5:31 Friday afternoon, Klein closed down JournoList by typing, "With that I'm turning out the lights. It's been fun, folks." I will miss it.
Filed Under: Culture, Internet

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"Every time someone like Weigel is humiliated because of quickly typed off-the-cuff comments," perhaps it will encourage "journalists" not to quickly type off-the-cuff comments that reveal them as intemperate partisan hacks. (If these published comments by Weigel are merely "the most intemperate comments," I wonder what the less intemperate comments would reveal. And I await the elaboration of the "context" from which these "most intemperate comments" have been "ripped out of".) This incident merely highlighted that Weigel, assigned by the WaPo to blog the "conservative beat," was hostile to the people he was covering. This was never really a big secret, except perhaps(?) to the WaPo, but now that he's been fully exposed, his ability to pose as an objective reporter on things conservative is kaput, and it's hardly unreasonable for the WaPo to let him go, because he it's unlikely that many conservatives will speak candidly to him at this point. As for the idea that "Honorable people do not read each other people's e-mails without permission[,]" I can only commend Mr. Shapiro for his reference to the quote from Henry Stimson that is usually cited as an example of oblivious gentlemanly innocence. That said, I don't recall many left-leaning journalists thunderously denouncing the ungentlemanly fellow who hacked into Sarah Palin's e-mail, as ajrmanns points out. And I'm also not aware that it has been demonstrated that the person who disclosed Weigel's intemperate messages was not an authorized recipient of said messages, or what his or her motive was for disclosing them. I vaguely recall an incident from 1984 or so where the Reverend Jesse Jackson, in a private meeting with supposedly friendly journalists, referred to New York as "Hymietown." Was the reporter who broke that story wrong to do so?

June 27 2010 at 7:51 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

"And remember: All postings are off-the-record."

As we have learned with the Rolling Stone reporting on General McCrystal, there is no such thing as "off-the-record" anymore. "Off the record" has not been off the record since perhaps shortly after the Watergate scandal, when the fourth estate learned of the power it held.

It is unfortunate, because we need places that are off the record. I suspect, however, in the cut-throat competition between papers and reporters and news outlets, the all-mighty dollar has made the scoop far more valuable than preserving our private spaces, and even that private conversation between close friends over brandy can no longer be "off the record" when it is so easy to post to Twitter or Facebook the substance of that conversation.

June 27 2010 at 7:15 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

Quoth the Instapundit:

"And if these had been emails among conservative pundits and reporters (er, *if* you could find 400 of those), the leaker would be treated as a *hero*, not a person 'whose motivations were mysterious and whose lack of integrity was obvious.'"

Mr. Shapiro, THIS is why so many people hold your "profession" in such contempt, as well they ought to. And this is why the WaPo, the NYT, and the other propaganda organs of the Democratic Party are circling the drain, as well they should.

We in "flyover country" aren't as stupid as the bi-coastal elites think we are, and our memories are long. It will be a cold day in Hades before I buy a newspaper again-- the Internet has freed us from the monopoly of print, a monopoly your colleagues have so badly abused.

June 27 2010 at 7:00 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

Remember Earl Butz? Jimmy the Greek? Is Mr. Shapiro's outrage confined to those instances where leftists are taken down when their outrageous statements are publicized?

June 27 2010 at 6:29 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
Eye in the Sky

David Weigel "resigned" from the Post for all the right reasons. As any student of DC journalism is aware, the Post hired him to write website content about "conservative" bloggers. (Did the Post hire someone to write about "liberal" bloggers? No? Really? But, I digress.) The Post's effort to maintain the absurd fiction that they're actually an objective newspaper with no political axe to grind was not in any way harmed by the whistle-blower who merely revealed the fact that Weigel is, himself, an extreme leftist idealogue. But let's differentiate between "truth" and "fact" here. The truth is open to interpretation and, as a philosophical concept, exists only in the minds of human beings. The FACT of the matter is simple: Weigel was hired to do a job, and to do so with at least a modicum of objectivity. The further fact is that he revealed himself as being not only unable to do the job under the conditions he accepted, but gleefully unwilling to do anything but bash conservatives and to use his position on the Post's website as his fulcrum. Whistle-blowing is whistle-blowing; the left now bemoans the so-called "off-the-record" caveat as being inviolable when their ox is gored. Can we expect that same high dudgeon from Weigel's ideological fellow travelers the next time a secret BP gulf oil spill memo is leaked?

June 27 2010 at 12:33 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

Im sorry but the emails released show that in fact the list was used to try to try to shape the news for the benefit of leftist causes. Further it showed that the alledgedly libertarian Weigel was actually left of center (else he wouldnt have been on the list)and apparently obscuring this fact to his employers and readers. I wish our elite journalists would stop acting like spoiled children and accepted that they sought out these positions of great power, and that they do, as Uncle Ben would have it, come with great responsability. It is in fact a sign of health in our democracy that Weigel and JournoList are being held accountable by the people.

June 26 2010 at 5:41 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to schmid's comment

@cijanis -

Compare Weigel's exhortation to pump the story line that Martha Coakley was a lame candidate and that Scott Brown's election had nothing to do with Obamacare. Then compare that to his writing of the time. Perfect match. Most left of center pundits pushed this meme. How many were members of Journolist? You asked for an example - there it is.

June 27 2010 at 6:52 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

In as much as the far left has been quite open about having to have members infiltrate conservative groups and rot them from within, or to have them 'join' a tea party and try to create incidents, this is really quite fair. The left as a group has little respect for privacy unless it directly infringes upon them - no one really came out hard on the kid who hacked Sarah Palin's mail. So to me this is just a bunch of crocodile tears.

June 26 2010 at 3:43 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

Personal comments or not, Weigel was an inappropriate choice for his position.

Using the Post's logic, I'm sure there are plenty of athiests ready to report on the Vatican and lots of neo-Nazis eager to write about Jewish issues.

Privacy was breached, but there's a lot of blame going around and most of it falls on the practices of the Old Media, not the new...

June 26 2010 at 3:00 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

There is and never has been any such thing as privacy when you are speaking to others. Anything that you say may be repeated and attributed to you as any adult should know. So... pick your words wisely and don't whine when someone repeats them and hey, just a thought.... don't be a smug wiseacre if you don't want to be treated like one.

June 26 2010 at 1:45 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

Live by the sword die by the sword. He only got what he gave. Write from the middle and keep personal opions to yourself.

June 26 2010 at 1:21 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply

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