Yesterday, Michael Calderone ignited a media brouhaha with his Politico piece, “JournoList: Inside the echo chamber.”

For the past two years, several hundred left-leaning bloggers, political reporters, magazine writers, policy wonks and academics have talked stories and compared notes in an off-the-record online meeting space called JournoList.

Lou Dobbs and Keith Olbermann talked about the email listserv on their TV programs yesterday.

On the right, bloggers had a field day talking about conspiracy theories and speculating about high profile members of JournoList. Red State’s Erick Erickson:

I’m told such luminaries as David Shuster at MSNBC, Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, a host of New York Times magazine writers, Frank Rich, and others all collaborate on this list….

And it’s not just them. There are writers from the Nation, Newsweek, Huffington Post, New Republic, and a host of other left wing media sites on the list. They would have us believe that it is innocent — a gathering of intellectuals for stimulating debate.

i’m told otherwise. I am told, quite reliably I might add, that left wing bloggers and policy guys use this site as an express train to get their ideas into the mainstream media. And with sympathetic reporters who take the presuppositions made as truth, then add to those some original reporting, you have not an objective media, but a left wing echo chamber dominating print journalism and mainstream television journalism.

List founder Ezra Klien, of “juice box mafia” fame says that none of the named journalists are on JournoList. Olbermann said on his program that neither he nor Rachel Maddow are listmembers.

Later in the day, on his blog, Calderone explained the motivation for his story:

JList seemed to be a more comprehensive gathering of left-of-center opinion writers, mainstream reporters, bloggers, policy people, and academics than other private lists. As someone writing on the intersection of media and politics, I hoped to provide a window into how ideas—-large and small—-can be discussed daily in an informal, OTR way before making their way into the public conversation through blogs and print publications.

Now that’s a topic that might spark interest here at the Duck.

Should academics mingle privately “with several hundred left-leaning bloggers, political reporters, magazine writers, [and] policy wonks” to sound out ideas and potentially insert their scholarship into media reporting and/or policy?

Hamilton Nolan of Gawker buys the intellectual argument for the list — though he focuses on the benefit to the media:

“JournoList is the adult diaper of the liberal media world, soaking up the bullshit before it reaches the outside world. Carry on!”

David Sirota likewise says the story is about “Elite Media On Elite Media Talking to Elite Media About Elite Media.”

JournoList critics — speculating wildly, I should note — make it sound as if the listserv is an “echo chamber,” where “left-leaning bloggers, political reporters, magazine writers, policy wonks and academics” get together to craft a singular message to serve to the unwitting masses. They see JournoList as simply a conduit for progressive “groupthink.”

Member Brad DeLong, however, disagrees vehemently:

It’s not an echo chamber. I have never seen a less echo chamber-like space in my life. The headline is simply wrong….Basically, Ezra Klein’s Journolist is the Juice-Box Mafia: it is the people whom Ezra thinks are smart enough, committed enough to discussion and learning and education, and good-hearted enough to be worth emailing regularly–and the rest of us free-ride on the virtual space that is Ezra’s network.

Klein also makes the list sound far more interesting:

As for sinister implications, is it “secret?” No. Is it off-the-record? Yes. The point is to create a space where experts feel comfortable offering informal analysis and testing out ideas. Is it an ornate temple where liberals get together to work out “talking points?” Of course not. Half the membership would instantly quit if anything like that emerged. There are no government or campaign employees on the list.

I don’t have a lot of first-hand “on the record” experience interacting with the “elite media,” but my limited direct encounters with particular journalists aren’t great. I was on MSNBC with anchor Chris Jansing off-and-on for a couple of hours in fall 2001 when Colin Powell visited Louisville to give a speech on the Middle East. Though we sat next to each other for several hours in a makeshift studio, we rarely spoke to one another when we weren’t on camera. We certainly did not have the kind of exchange that apparently occurs on JournoList.

On my blog, I have explained my somewhat frustrating experiences interacting with journalists who have sought out my take on U.S. foreign policy or international politics. Though I offered fairly nuanced explanations of some complex issues to a reporter who used to write for Cox News Service, she typically used brief pithy quotes and little else. I’m certain that others in academe have had this experience with reporters.

These exchanges do not seem to serve the function of making our democracy more deliberative. It usually seems better just to write something and seek publication.

Does the blogosphere fare better? Over the years, a few prominent bloggers have occasionally picked up tidbits I’ve posted — usually the spicier political ones that I do not post to the Duck. Of course, I’ve written hundreds of more substantive posts read by a much smaller audience. This blog, like my own, isn’t necessarily meant to influence policy, but I’ll acknowledge that it would be nice to think that Duck members are making valuable contributions to dialogue in the public sphere.

In my scholarship, I’m typically critical of institutions that make decisions secretly and without the input of broader audiences. If I thought JournoList was doing that, I’d be more critical of it. However, it seems to be a place for genuine discussion so that ideas can be tested and improved before they are fully formed and embraced. Individual reporters, bloggers, magazine writers, policy wonks, and yes, academics can then take the benefits of those discussions and present them publicly to be tested in a wider public sphere — even a classroom. The “off the record” policy serves to open discussion in a particular forum and would not seem to limit discussion in a broader forum.

Conceivably, JournoList might serve as a valuable “counterpublic sphere.”

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