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Journolisters debate making coordination with Obama explicit

Posted By Chad Brady (admin) On 3:12 AM 07/26/2010 In | 92 Comments

Sarah Palin’s speech to the 2008 Republican convention impressed more than a few doubters, including even some members of Journolist, an online community for liberal journalists.

“This speech is gangbusters,” wrote Ari Melber of the Nation. “Her tone is pitch perfect.” Adele Stan of the Media Consortium agreed: “Palin is golden.”

The exuberance appeared to unnerve the Guardian’s Michael Tomasky. “People get a hold of yourselves!” Tomasky wrote to his fellow Journolisters. “It’s a very good speech with good lines. But there’s very little substance.”

Rebecca Traister of Salon wrote to say she was grateful for Tomasky’s message. (“This is a reassuring sentiment, since at the moment, I feel like we’re in End Times.”) But the rest of the country apparently didn’t agree. Polls a few days later showed Obama’s lead in the race had narrowed to virtually nothing.

Palin’s speech had been remarkably effective. This troubled members of Journolist. On Sept. 8, 2008, five days after Palin’s national debut, some members of the group discussed producing coordinated propaganda designed to wound Palin and boost Obama.

At an appearance in Colorado immediately following the convention, Palin had remarked that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac had “gotten too big and too expensive for the taxpayers,” a point that seems commonplace now, but that at the time struck some as controversial.

Ryan Avent, then a freelance blogger for the Economist, now an editor there, complained that Obama’s supporters were missing a chance to attack. “If we were the GOP, we’d be taking this opportunity to shout long and loud how unprepared Palin is—‘She doesn’t even know what Fannie and Freddie are…in the middle of a housing crisis!’….That’s the difference in the game as played by us and by them.”

Michael Tomasky responded: “So why aren’t Dems doing that? Just wundrin’.”

Luke Mitchell, then a senior editor at Harper’s magazine, asked Tomasky if his paper would be able to help: “Michael – Isn’t this something that can be fanned a bit by, say, the Guardian?”

Tomasky didn’t think it would work. “The Guardian? You’re kidding right? Remember the Clark County letters?” he wrote, referring to a failed attempt by the Guardian to elect John Kerry in 2004 by asking Britons to write letters to voters in a pivotal Ohio county.

Mitchell replied: “Fair enough! But it seems to me that a concerted effort on the part of the left partisan press could be useful. Why geld ourselves? A lot of the people on this list work for organizations that are far more influential than, say, the Washington Times.

“Open question: Would it be a good use of this list to co-ordinate a message of the week along the lines of the GOP? Or is that too loathsome? It certainly sounds loathsome. But so does losing!”

Ezra Klein of the Washington Post, the founder of Journolist, quickly jumped in: “Nope, no message coordination. I’m not even sure that would be legal. This is a discussion list, though, and I want it to retain that character,” he wrote.

Mitchell replied: “Fair enough, Ezra! The list is great at as it is and I didn’t mean to suggest anything out of bounds. I am still curious about the reluctance of the left media to organize, though. The message discipline on the right seems to be one of its key advantages.”

David Roberts of Grist seemed to scold Roberts for his idea: “Just read past messages on this list, Luke. Everyone here is a /journalist /or an /independent analyst/. Their job is to /say what they think/, not to support Obama. Suggest that they focus on more electorally helpful — and equally true — messages, and they will bridle.”

Yet almost immediately after writing these words, Roberts sounded somewhat less than independent himself, referring to the Obama campaign as “we”: “I’m not bashing,” he wrote. “I’m guilty too. I just despair. We’re going to lose again, for all the same damn reasons.”

Ed Kilgore of the Progressive Policy Institute, another supposedly “independent analyst,” did the same, even outlining specific talking points: “It requires no particular strategic genius or ‘message coordination’ to recognize that we and the Obama campaign have the next two months to demonstrate that McCain and Palin represent the status quo party, the status quo ideology, and status quo policies,” he wrote.

While other members of the group debated whether to coordinate a pro-Obama message – or, more precisely, whether to concede that such a message was being coordinated — Todd Gitlin of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism had already made up his mind. Gitlin, whose job is to train the next generation of America’s most elite journalists, wrote this impassioned plea on behalf of the Obama campaign:

“On the question of liberals coordinating, what the hell’s wrong with some critical mass of liberal bloggers & journalists saying the following among themselves:

“McCain lies about his maverick status. Routinely, cavalierly, cynically. Palin lies about her maverick status. Ditto, ditto, ditto. McCain has a wretched temperament. McCain is a warmonger. Palin belongs to a crackpot church and feels warmly about a crackpot party that trashes America.

“Repeat after me:

“McCain lies about his maverick status. Routinely, cavalierly, cynically. Palin lies about her maverick status. Ditto, ditto, ditto. McCain has a wretched temperament. McCain is a warmonger. Palin belongs to a crackpot church and feels warmly about a crackpot party that trashes America.

“These people are cynical. These people are taking you for a ride. These people are fakes. These people love Bush.

“Again. And again. Vary the details. There are plenty. Somebody on the ‘list posted a strong list of McCain lies earlier today. Hammer it. Philosophize, as Nietzsche said, with a hammer.

“I don’t know about any of you, but I’m not waiting for any coordination. Get on with it!”

In an interview, Gitlin conceded he was noting the “features of McCain and Palin most worthy of highlighting towards the end of defeating them.” He said he had never advocated “bending facts” to get Obama elected.


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