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

5 years ago
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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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