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D. Brad Wright Headshot

Conspiracy? Much Ado About Journolist

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If I am ever asked the McCarthy-esque question "Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Journolist?" I will have to answer, "Yes." This is the short story of how that came to be and my experience on the list.

I am a doctoral student in the health policy department at UNC-Chapel Hill. Though not exactly a politico or a journalist, that didn't stop me from getting the idea to start this blog last summer as the health reform debate picked up steam. The idea was simple: Provide people with accurate information about health reform as a soon-to-be-credentialed expert on the topic and let them decide. I have said many times on this blog that there are sound arguments on both sides of the debate, and have featured the work of both conservative and liberal sources. Of course, I readily admit to having little patience with the likes of Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh (all of whom have something to say on this subject), and I have sought to spotlight the inaccuracies in their rhetoric from time to time. But I digress.

In my attempt to stay abreast of the rapid (often hourly) developments in health reform, I monitored a variety of sources -- one of which was the Washington Post's Ezra Klein. In fact, one day, I wrote a post only to see an eerily similar post show up on Ezra's blog an hour or so later. I sent him an email that began "Dude, Ezra..." and suggested that he at least link to my blog. (In retrospect, it was awfully presumptuous of me to think that the wunderkind would turn to me for material rather than the other way around -- and it turns out he had actually written the piece quite some time prior to its being posted online.) In the process of searching online for his email, however, I came across a story about the "Journolist." I was intrigued. The names of several "big time" people were on the list. If I could just observe their dialogues, I figured, I could learn a lot about the health reform details from those "in the know." So I sent another email to invite myself onto the list, and he let me join. That's how simple it was. I was a grad student with a brand new blog about health reform and now a member of Journolist.

After introducing myself to the list, I sat back and observed back-and-forths on everything from politics to food to baseball, and most recently the World Cup. I witnessed disagreement among liberals -- and some agreement -- but never anything that would even begin to hold up as a conspiracy to agenda set or deliver a unified message. I did witness some people say less than polite things about some other people, but if you haven't had that experience, you should get out more.

The high points for me were when I actually had people like Ezra, Jonathan Cohn, Paul Starr, and Harold Pollack send emails in response to something I had posted -- which was rare, but it happened. (Should I play Six-Degrees of Kevin Bacon in the future, I feel that I am much better equipped to win the game.) Sadly, Paul Krugman never replied to anything I wrote. I suppose my ideas aren't Nobel-worthy. I jest. Of course they are. They just don't give out a Nobel for health services research.

Fast forward to last month, when a leak from the list cost Dave Weigel his job, and Ezra shut the list down. That was painful -- both Dave's situation and the sudden marked decline in the volume of email clogging my inbox. I held out for about 10 days, waiting for a new list to appear. When it didn't, and I couldn't take it anymore, I used the email addresses I had to revive the group. Because I considered the exchange of ideas between us to be of vital importance, I named the group "Essentialist." Shortly thereafter, this small group merged with the larger efforts by a group of actual journalists to produce "Cabalist." That story is here.

What's the takeaway in all of this? Predominantly that the "whatever-you-want-to-call-it-list" is nothing more than a place to exchange ideas on any topic from A to Z. Yes, it's a group of liberals and some moderates. But how is that any different than hanging out with your like-minded friends at the pub? Short answer is, it's not. Now, to be fair, I wasn't on the list in 2008 when much of what's currently being reported took place, but since I joined in the summer of 2009, I can honestly say the content has been rather innocuous--often boring. In fact, I deleted far more Journolist emails than I actually read. Ezra sums it up nicely.

And yet, some of the more fanatical elements of the right want to paint this as a media cover-up, a conspiracy, and the end of the "lamestream media", but the truth is that similar lists exist on the right as well--in fact, the RNC has one of its own--as evidenced by this leak. At the end of the day, this is just another facet of politics and that means that both sides are fielding a team. It might become a little insular, and it might very well operate like an echo chamber at times, but to suggest--or moreover, to believe--that it represents a coordinated effort to attack particular individuals, destroy the right to free speech, or decide the outcome of an election is beyond ridiculous, or is it??????

Visit my blog, Wright on Health, for more of my posts -- and if you wanted to click on some ads or donate some money to a starving grad student, I'd be grateful!