This may be the most embarrassing thing I have ever written — and looking back on my writing, there is a lot of competition for that dubious distinction — but when I became a reporter, it was almost a holy calling.
We really believed we were doing good. We informed the public and helped make democracy work. We exposed wrongdoing wherever we found it. We reported without fear or favor. As a columnist, I tried to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
I warned you that this would be embarrassing.
We loved what we did, and we did it with passion. We were proud. We felt — I am just going to go ahead and say it — honorable.
There were wrongdoers. Fakers, plagiarists, those with private agendas who wished to slant the news. When found, they were often fired. Even when they were subjected to a lesser punishment, their sins were made clear as a lesson to the rest of us. (At a few papers, those who wished to slant the news were publishers or editors who wished to please their publishers. They were rarely fired. But their numbers were few.)
The lines were not muddy. You played it straight. Even if you were a columnist and allowed to publish your opinions, you were expected to be fair and accurate.
At the end of the day, you often went home feeling good. And when people asked what you did, you replied with pride, not shame.
It was, as I said, almost a holy calling. (And often accompanied by a vow of poverty.)
Somewhere along the way, things have gone terribly wrong. Journalism has become a toy, an electronic plaything. I do not blame technology. The giant megaphone of technology has been coupled with a new, angrier, more destructive age. (Yes, you can find extremely angry, extremely partisan times in our past, but I always thought the goal was to progress over the centuries, not regress.)
Until recently, there was a semisecret, off-the-record organization called Journolist. It was a listserv, which is a bunch of people who sign up (if allowed) and then get the same e-mails and can reply to everybody on the list.
Journolist was founded by Ezra Klein in early 2007, when he was 22 and working for the liberal publication The American Prospect. Klein continued running it when he went to The Washington Post in 2009. The Post is a mainstream publication, but Journolist was limited to those “from nonpartisan to liberal, center to left.”
Klein determined who would get on Journolist — political reporters, academics, think tank members, left-wing bloggers — and it grew from a manageable 30 members to a pretty unmanageable 400. There was no censorship, but if Klein felt you had gone too far, he would tell you to stop it. You could be threatened with expulsion, but nobody was ever expelled.
The first story revealing the existence of Journolist was printed by POLITICO in March 2009, but while the names of a few members (including three people at POLITICO) were revealed, and some talked about it, most would not. (I was never a member and learned about it when the public did.) No actual e-mails were printed.
Recently, however, the conservative website The Daily Caller, run by Tucker Carlson, got hold of many Journolist e-mails and printed the most provocative, which to some gave every appearance of a left-wing conspiracy to slant news coverage in favor of Barack Obama. Journolist posts by Washington Post blogger Dave Weigel, who was helping cover the conservative movement, that were critical of conservative icons, including Matt Drudge, prompted Weigel to resign.
The result was explosive, and Klein closed down Journolist, while denying there was anything evil about it. “If people had been getting together and deciding on a message and then publishing that message, that would have been clearly unethical, and I would not have allowed it, and it didn’t happen,” Klein told me Tuesday.
Tucker Carlson e-mailed me: “What they did discredits journalism in general, and honorable liberal journalists in particular. I know plenty of progressives who have a healthy skepticism even of candidates they voted for. Most of the members of Journolist didn’t.”
In any case, the hubbub is now virtually over. The buzz is done buzzing, and the media have moved on from Journolist to WikiLeaks.
And yet some are still troubled.
Chuck Todd, political director and chief White House correspondent for NBC News, who was not part of Journolist, told me this:
“I am sure Ezra had good intentions when he created it, but I am offended the right is using this as a sledgehammer against those of us who don’t practice activist journalism.
“Journolist was pretty offensive. Those of us who are mainstream journalists got mixed in with journalists with an agenda. Those folks who thought they were improving journalism are destroying the credibility of journalism.
“This has kept me up nights. I try to be fair. It’s very depressing.”
I know how he feels. Klein appears to be a very honorable guy, but I think he created a Frankenstein monster without meaning to do so. I vowed I would never pine for the Good Old Days — I believe the Good Old Days are ahead of us — but let me end with the words of Stanley Walker. He was a famous newspaper editor in the 1920s and ’30s and wrote the following, which I have edited for space. (And if he were writing today, I am reasonably sure he would have included women.)
“What makes a good newspaperman? The answer is easy. He knows everything. He is aware not only of what goes on in the world today, but his brain is a repository of the accumulated wisdom of the ages.
“He hates lies and meanness and sham, but keeps his temper. He is loyal to his paper and to what he looks upon as his profession; whether it is a profession or merely a craft, he resents attempts to debase it.
“When he dies, a lot of people are sorry, and some of them remember him for several days.”
Or at least for several news cycles.
Roger Simon is POLITICO’s chief political columnist.