08/05/2010 08:39 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Journolist "Affair": Privacy, Transparency, and Credibility in the Internet Age

Jonathan Strong, the author (bio) of the Daily Caller's on-going series of articles based on excerpts from emails selected out of the private Journolist discussion list, has been making a name for himself and his upstart online news organization in recent weeks with provocative attacks on the integrity of many well-known writers and bloggers, and his fierce defense of a bright line between political journalism and political activism. Journolist was, of course, a private email-based discussion list for writers, academics, and others that was started by liberal writer Ezra Klein in the winter of 2007 and shuttered in June, after e-mails taken from the list led to the forced resignation from the Washington Post by writer Dave Weigel. In a piece for the New York Post last weekend, under the banner of "The Fix Was In," Strong explained that a close read of the private list's extensive archives revealed some of its participants engaging in "intentional liberal bias." His work has stirred all kinds of conspiracy thinking in what William F. Buckley once justly called the "fever swamps" of the Right, including dark mutterings about how many of the known members of Journolist are Jews.

I suppose I should mention here that, like my colleague Nancy Scola, I was a member of Journolist. I enjoyed the lively and snarky give-and-take of the list, though I was mostly a lurker. Like many of the other participants who have written about it since Strong's lurid series of reports, I know for a fact that it was not a partisan message-coordination-machine. I'm also pretty outraged by Strong's partial and selective quotation of various members' emails, and share their frustration at not being able to respond in detail without breaking the list's "off-the-record" rule. And yes, I'm Jewish, as if it should matter.

This whole episode brings up a set of old and complicated problems about memory, authenticity, credibility and transparency -- but charged by the new and complicated reality of life in the Internet Age, where Google never forgets and everybody is, either by design or default, living more and more of their lives in public -- especially the people who make the public sphere turn. (If something being online means it's de facto public, by the way, shouldn't everything that the government or private organizations are required by law to make public be made available online? But I digress.)

The Journolist affair, despite its flawed and obsessive focus on the liberal side of the networked public sphere, raises questions that everyone who lives in public these days must wrestle with: Can we talk in private on a private email list, or must we assume that anything we write might appear someday splashed on the front-page of some virtual rag? What about a dinner conversation? Do people need to start declaring to their friends that their chats are "not tweetable"? Should we all get a pass for whatever we said and did when we were young? When is your period of "youthful indiscretion" over?

Or is there some way to navigate the new and empowering transparency of the Internet Age, without expecting, unrealistically, that people--including public figures--have to always be perfect, "always on," never biased, never mistaken. I'd rather that we admit the obvious: we are all biased by our upbringing and our environment, and as lifelong learners, we are all (hopefully) deviating in positive ways from conformity. It's high time, especially, that everyone involved in committing acts of journalism -- professionals, bloggers, academics, civilians, etc -- accepted that there is no such thing as objectivity, and there never was. Rather, as David Weinberger famously said at PdF '09, "transparency is the new objectivity." Admit that you have subjective views, but also show your work. And when you make mistakes -- which we want to encourage, since mistakes are the product of trying new things, and trying new things is the only way we grow -- it's ok to admit them, in fact, it's encouraged. In the Internet Age, life ought to be lived as if it is always in beta. Speak honestly in your own voice, be transparent about your history and connections; readers are smart enough to judge for themselves.

But I'm not writing about this just because it's a moment for reflection about transparency in the Internet Age. I also want to ask a simple question of Strong. Can you fairly cover politics without admitting that you, too, have biases? Personally, I don't think strong personal beliefs should disqualify anyone from participating in the public arena. But I'd prefer that people own their words, and that we embrace personal transparency and personal complexity as facts of life. Unfortunately, unlike many of the writers Strong has been attacking, who publish on sites that are clearly marked as opinion journals and political blogs, Strong himself hasn't always made his own politics transparent.

A little Googling around reveals, for example, that Strong, who graduated from Illinois' Wheaton College in 2006, was during his college years the co-proprietor of a publication called Right Magazine. Right Magazine, the Internet Archives tells us, was a mix of college fare -- class hijinks, a campus Peeping Tom -- and conservative politics. The site was laced with discussions of Milton Friedman and critiques of things like the liberal position on abortion.

Based on what's available at the Internet Archive, Strong was clearly one of Right Magazine's leading contributors....To read the rest, click here