In 2008, when I was covering federal personnel policy for Government Executive magazine, Ezra Klein—then a writer for the progressive magazine the American Prospect—asked me if I wanted to be on an e-mail list.
What he really was including me in was a well-established community. He had started JournoList—inviting left-leaning friends, policy wonks, and journalists to join—in February 2007 after a hearty e-mail argument with Time’s Joe Klein.
The list was sort of an electronic twist on the 1960s National Press Club scene—a vigorous, sometimes acid, frequently funny running conversation that spanned everything from health-care reform to the possible racism of the movie Avatar, from the mechanics of financial regulatory reform to whether one member of the list counted as rich or not. In short, it was no different than what generations of power players have chewed over at the Gridiron and Alfalfa Club dinners.
There were occasional reminders that I’d ended up in company that was rarefied—and becoming more so. A member, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, won the Nobel Prize in economics in October 2008. Klein vaulted from the American Prospect to the Washington Post, where executive editor Marcus Brauchli called his combination of blogging and reporting a “new paradigm.” Libertarian David Weigel followed Klein to the Post to cover the conservative movement.
In retrospect, it’s amazing it took two years for someone to start poking around the list. Politico’s Michael Calderone revealed its existence in March 2009. His article, titled inside the echo chamber, assigned an institutional significance to the list that most of us hadn’t even considered. Suddenly, JournoList was supposed to have the clout of an organization such as conservative activist Grover Norquist’s Wednesday Meetings.
But it quickly became clear that our vision of the list as a tool to find sources, test ideas, self-promote, and shoot the breeze didn’t convince a lot of people who believed it was a conspiracy or a vicious in-crowd.
Shortly after Calderone’s story, someone leaked a nasty, puerile—and uncharacteristic—e-mail thread in which list members speculated about the sexual orientation of Martin Peretz, editor of the New Republic. The e-mails were forwarded to Slate blogger Mickey Kaus, who published them as a way to criticize Ezra Klein.
It was embarrassing, but even a subsequent leak of a number of Joe Klein’s policy-oriented e-mails to the list—which were published by Salon’s Glenn Greenwald last August—wasn’t enough to inspire an exodus. The community was too important as a meeting place for journalists both in and outside of Washington to abandon it over a momentary upset.
The problems got less momentary in June when someone compiled a dossier of Weigel’s e-mails to the list, in which he criticized conservative leaders he’d covered. A local media blog and Tucker Carlson’s news site, the Daily Caller, turned his comments into screaming headlines.
Within 24 hours, Weigel left the Post. The paper’s ombudsman blasted him, just weeks after Brauchli said he hoped to hire more writers like Weigel and Klein. With the candor and intimacy of JournoList turned into a weapon against its members, Klein closed it. Conservative Web publisher Andrew Breitbart offered $100,000 for the list’s complete archives. But he doesn’t need to pay to learn perhaps the most lasting lesson of the three-year rise and fall of JournoList: In a town like Washington, there’s no such thing as truly off the record.