Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Journolist Scandal [?]

Jonathan Strong has a scoop on the Daily Caller about liberal journalists talking privately about joining forces to keep Obama’s twenty-year association with Jeremiah Wright out of the news. On its face, this looks a lot like ClimateGate. In each case, members of a guild of intellectual practitioners were conspiring to suppress the dissemination of information that they feared would excite resistance to their political preferences. I’ll grant you that, even if this is a scandal, it’s very small potatoes. But it’s still worth getting a fix on what, if anything, is scandalous about it.

There’s no scandal in journalists having political preferences that shape their work. Most of the people cited in Strong’s piece are perfectly open about their political allegiances.  And consumers of “objective” political reporting who are shocked to learn that it has a political slant need to get out more. Nor is there anything particularly scandalous about the political preferences that the journalists shared—they wanted to protect Obama from what, by all appearances, they sincerely believe was a McCarthyite tactic of insinuating guilt by association. Nor, finally, is there anything all that objectionable about journalists writing copy that serves their political agenda. The cliché that, as political weapons go, “the pen is mightier than the sword” owes its currency to the widespread conviction that promoting one’s values by generating rational deliberation in the citizen body is the highest form of politics.

The scandal lies in the definite appearance that liberal journalists were abusing their intellectual authority by pretending to intellectual standards in public that they disparaged in private.

A writer commands intellectual authority insofar as his readers think that what he writes is more likely to be true by virtue of his having written it. Sometimes that authority is institutional—a long-time subscriber to, say, the New Republic might presume that there’s something to what an unknown writer is saying in its pages just because the magazine published it. Sometimes the authority adheres to a particular person regardless of where his work appears; we all tend to credit what our favorite opinion journalists write because we think they’ve earned our trust.

In either case, a journalist’s exercising intellectual authority is perfectly compatible with his political partisanship because it’s largely a matter of having a reputation for intelligence and the intellectual integrity to apply standards of objectivity that are recognizable as such across ideological barriers. Not being a conservative doesn’t keep me from crediting something more than I otherwise would because it has been published in a reputable conservative journal or written by a conservative of intellectual stature. You can reasonably believe that something is more likely to be true because of someone’s saying it even if you hope and believe that it’s false.

What makes that reasonable is a well-formed belief that: first, the speaker has a commitment to truth which is logically and psychologically independent of his commitment to realizing his political objectives; and second, when the two commitments come into conflict, the first overrides the second. Absent that belief, it’s unreasonable to credit the political observations of the most reliable ideological comrade.

Consider one of the confidential emails Strong quotes:
“‘I do not endorse a Popular Front, nor do I think you need to. It’s not necessary to jump to Wright-qua-Wright’s defense. What is necessary is to raise the cost on the right of going after the left. In other words, find a rightwinger’s [sic] and smash it through a plate-glass window. Take 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.

“‘And I think this threads the needle. 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.’”
 Here’s a prominent liberal journalist counseling professional peers to use their journalistic platforms for bullshitting (in Harry Frankfurt’s sense of saying purportedly factual things for effect with indifference to their truth or falsity). In my eyes, being exposed as a bullshitter should disqualify someone from exercising any intellectual authority no matter who publishes him. That doesn’t mean, of course, that what he says may not be worthy of belief.  It just means that, if anything, his having said it makes it less believable than it would otherwise be.

I don’t want to over-react. Maybe the journalist was just having a bad day, and maybe most of the people who received the email were appalled, but too polite to say so. But you can’t help noticing that the email reads as if it never occurred to its sender that he was betraying important intellectual or journalistic norms, and that his proposal never elicited anything like an indignant response from his peers. It’s a telling observation that the weighty difference between being committed to truth and political commitment doesn’t seem to have left much of an impression on the mores of this community of liberal journalists. If it’s really true that most of them don’t know or care about the difference, that’s genuinely scandalous.

Update:  Jonathan Chait, a member of the Journolist, argues pretty convincingly that the Strong piece is misleading because it doesn't mention emails that pushed back against some of the ones quoted and that the silence of other members doesn't imply anything like assent.

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