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Political operatives on Journolist worked to shape news coverage

Posted By Jonathan Strong On 3:12 AM 07/29/2010 In Blog - Jonathan Strong | 122 Comments

Despite its name, membership in the liberal online community Journolist wasn’t limited to journalists. Present among the bloggers, reporters and editors were a number of professional political operatives, including top White House economic advisors, key Obama political appointees, and Democratic campaign veterans. Some left government to join Journolist. Others took the opposite route. A few contributed to Journolist from their perches in politics. At times, it became difficult to tell who was supposed to be covering policy and who was trying to make it.

Two of the administration’s chief economic advisors, Jared Bernstein, the vice president’s top economist, and Jason Furman, deputy director of the National Economic Council, were members of Journolist until they began working officially for Obama.

Ilan Goldenberg, now an advisor on Middle East policy at the Pentagon, was a member until he joined the administration. Moira Whelan left Journolist to work at the Department of Homeland Security. Anne-Marie Slaughter left to work at the State Department. Former Journolist member Ben Brandzel is now a top staffer at Organizing for America, the political arm of the Obama White House.

Josh Orton, a former spokesman for Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), became Obama’s deputy director of new media during the 2008 presidential campaign. After the election, he joined Journolist.

Journolist founder Ezra Klein, a staffer at the Washington Post, says he “tried to be very strict” in making sure no active political operatives joined Journolist. “It’s possible I missed someone,” he explained in an email.

In fact, he did. Jeff Hauser wrote scores of posts on Journolist during the time he was managing the New Jersey congressional campaign of Democrat Dennis Shulman. Hauser didn’t do much to hide his affiliation. Indeed, his posts on Journolist were signed, “Campaign Manager, Shulman for Congress,” followed by the campaign’s web address. After the election, Hauser took positions at a 527 group and a political action committee. He never left Journolist.

Jared Bernstein, meanwhile, worked as an unpaid surrogate for Barack Obama during much of the campaign. All the while, he remained a member of Journolist. Even after the campaign ended, and he had joined the Obama administration, Bernstein continued his contact with the group. In May of 2009, Bernstein contacted Ezra Klein to pass a message along to list members.

“Calling all Journos,” Bernstein wrote in a message relayed by Klein. “I thought we got too little love from progressive types re our tax changes targeted at businesses with overseas operations. We’re maybe going for another bite at the apple this Monday,” he wrote. Bernstein invited members of the list to join him on a conference call on the issue a few days later.

Not everyone was sold. A couple of members on the list, including Greg Anrig of the Century Foundation and Bloomberg’s Ryan Donmoyer, panned the administration’s plan to crack down on offshore tax havens as a misleading political stunt.

Dean Baker, at the time a blogger at the American Prospect, agreed the policy was dishonest, but defended it anyway. “Sure, some of the things they are saying are not true (the jobs story first and foremost),” he wrote, “but the industry groups have this town blanketed with lobbyists and own a large portion of Congress outright. … There has to be some counterforce to the industry groups and that is the populist rabble. It might not be pretty, but that’s Washington.”

In the end, 14 journalists expressed interest in the conference call with Bernstein, including Donmoyer and Washington Post reporter Alec MacGillis. The effort appeared to be wasted on Donmoyer, who in the coming weeks wrote a couple of stories for Bloomberg expressing skepticism about the idea.

Bernstein’s effort did appear to bear fruit elsewhere, however. “I’ve heard that there’s some disappointment in the administration that they haven’t gotten the level of progressive love they feel they deserve for their ambitious proposals to curb abusive corporate tax loopholes,” wrote influential liberal blogger Matt Yglesias the next day. Yglesias went on to attack opponents of the plan, noting “how absurd some of the abuses the administration is trying to curb are.”

Yglesias took some pains to couch his advocacy in the language of journalism. Jeff Hauser, a professional political operative, didn’t bother. During key moments in the presidential campaign, Hauser dropped the pretense entirely, becoming nakedly political. In the days before the first McCain-Obama debate, he straightforwardly asked working journalists on the list to skew their coverage in order to help the Democratic candidate:

The single biggest thing journolist can do is to lay the analytical framework within the media elite necessary for an actual Obama debate win to be viewed as such by a sufficient proportion of media elites that voters know it was a win.

Of course, this only works if Obama does as we expect (and McCain is a terrible debater, btw).

But even Gore’s uneven Debate 1 performance in 2000 was deemed a win initially by a viewership that was demographically to the right of the electorate (lower minority viewership in 2000 of debates, more male, more GOP, etc…)… but Bush was winning on several media narratives and thus got the benefit from the intense 72 hours of post-debate coverage.

Journolist’s greatest challenge is to make sure an actual win by Obama translates into winning the battle for political impact.

In the conversation that followed Hauser’s post, not one Journolister expressed surprise or disapproval. No one rebuked Hauser for telling journalists how to carry water for a politician. Despite the group’s supposedly “very strict” ban on political operatives and explicit partisan coordination, Hauser remained a member of Journolist for almost two more years.


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