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Heroes of Journolist: Dan Froomkin, James Surowiecki, Jeffrey Toobin, Michael Tomasky — and founder Ezra Klein

Posted By Jonathan Strong On 12:38 AM 07/27/2010 In Blog - Jonathan Strong | 60 Comments

The Daily Caller has highlighted some of Journolist’s worst moments — such as when liberal members of the media plotted to kill important stories about the presidential campaign.

But the 400-member listserv, like any community, was a complex arrangement comprised of many individual voices.

While some urged members to level indiscriminate charges of racism, other postings reflected admirable integrity or civility. Here are some examples:

Journolist hero: Dan Froomkin, Huffington Post

During the health-care debate, the Huffington Post ran a hard-hitting story about a deal struck between the pharmaceutical industry and the White House. The piece by Ryan Grim was later largely vindicated when Sen. Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, revealed legislative language that included almost all the industry giveaways of the backroom deal as reported by Grim.

When Grim and the Huffington Post first published the story, it was a matter of debate on Journolist. Although the discussion centered on rules of journalism regarding proper sourcing, there were suggestions that the Huffington Post might have been more careful because the story hurt Obama and the push for health-care reform.

Froomkin, who edited the story, stepped in to defend Grim.

“I’m awfully sorry this makes Obama look bad. Not my problem,” said Froomkin. Not my problem!

Journolist hero: James Surowiecki, the New Yorker

When Nidal Hasan murdered 13 people at Ft. Hood, Texas, shouting “Allahu Akbar!” before opening fire, members of Journolist debated whether the media should report on Hasan’s apparent ties to Islamic extremism.

Luke Mitchell, then of Harper’s magazine, said doing so “points the way to things that are actually alarmingly dangerous, such as the idea that there is a large conspiracy of Islamists at work in the United States, that we need to ‘do something’ about this conspiracy.”

Surowiecki replied to Mitchell and others that the truth was worth pursuing.

“I find it bizarre that anyone would argue that an accurate description of what happened is somehow pointless,” Surowiecki said. “That is, that it’s not useful to offer up an accurate picture of Hasan’s actions because nothing obvious follows from it. We want, as much as possible, to have a clear picture of what’s actually going on in the world. Describing Hasan as a violent Islamist terrorist is much closer to the truth than describing him as a disturbed individual.”

Journolist hero: Ezra Klein, Washington Post

Although he now denies that lots of informal — and some formal — coordination took place on Journolist, to his credit listserv founder Ezra Klein was a force for moderation. He stopped others from organizing a weekly message, stopped people from organizing open letters on Journolist (after they did so on one occasion), wouldn’t let those currently working in the government on the list, and seemed more reasonable than many in his remarks.

Journolist hero: Jeffrey Toobin, the New Yorker, CNN

Toobin is, as everyone knows, a liberal. But unlike many of the members of Journolist, he displayed a commendably open mind and a sense of civility.

For instance, when Sarah Spitz, a producer for NPR affiliate KCRW, fantasized aloud about watching Rush Limbaugh’s “eyes bug out” if he had a heart attack in front of her (Spitz apologized following TheDC’s reporting on the incident), Toobin defended Limbaugh.

“Rush cannot be replaced. What people miss about Rush is that he is just astonishingly good as a broadcaster.  He is compelling, funny, entertaining. I haven’t heard Thompson often, but he’s probably pretty lame. Ingraham is ok. I never listen to Hannity on the radio. But Rush is the man,” he said.

On another occasion, Toobin warned against likening Tea Partiers to Nazis: “For what it’s worth, I think it’s better to stay away from any use of the Nazis in discussions of contemporary politics. I know you weren’t saying conservatives-are-Nazis, but people just shut down when they hear that analogy drawn.”

There were other examples, and Toobin came across as one of the least caustic members of the list.

Honorable mention: Michael Tomasky, the Guardian

While Tomasky did play a role in some important instances of list coordination, at other times he showed a keen awareness of his role as an independent journalist. Further, he displayed an ability to empathize with those with whom he disagrees, an admirable quality.

When MoveOn.org infamously called General David Petraeus a traitor with its “General Betray Us?” advertisement, many members of Journolist were livid with MoveOn. In their view, the ad was a public relations disaster for their side.

As then-Mother Jones (and now-Politico) reporter Laura Rozen put it, quoting a friend, the ad “‘accomplishes nothing: it preaches to the converted, persuades no one, and only serves to piss off the other side and make all Dems look bad.”

“Enough aiding and abetting the enemy! as Cheney says,” she added.

Tomasky remarked that calling Petraeus a traitor was wrong in itself.

“Also: A conservative would have a field day with this thread noting that no one has yet plainly called the ad objectionable on the merits, or on moral grounds,” he said.

In another instance, he noted that while the editor of a liberal magazine he would correct interns, “and not always politely” when they referred to Democrats as “we.” Tomasky explained in an interview that journalists, even opinion journalists, “need to retain enough independence to criticize when criticism is called for.”

Another time, Tomasky recalled when a New York Times reporter he felt had been unfair to Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election said in a public speech she found Gore “annoying,” which Tomasky found inappropriate.

New York Times reporter “Kit Seelye actually said, at an event, in front of 70 or so people, many of them media insiders etc., words to the effect that she found Gore deeply annoying. I wish to God I’d written it down, because lacking the exact words I can’t ever write about this, but I just couldn’t believe that she would say this. I don’t know if Al (Franken) would remember but he and I looked at each other like, did she just admit in public (at the Shorenstein Center no less!) that her coverage, in the world’s most important newspaper, was driven by (or at the very least inseperable from) her personal annoyance with the candidate? And with a smirk on her face to boot,” Tomasky said.

WATCH: WHITE HOUSE DROPPING BALL ON BLACK PANTHER CASE


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