07.24.10

What Liberal Bloggers Can Teach the Right

JournoList was less a conspiracy than an attempt to build a progressive community. Reihan Salam on what its critics don't understand about the Web—and why there’s no counterpart on the right.

Has a shadowy gang of left-wing journalists and intellectuals been plotting to manipulate the news cycle, and to engage in character assassination against conservative politicians like Sarah Palin and pundits like Fred Barnes? In a series of articles, Jonathan Strong of The Daily Caller has been publishing incendiary excerpts from JournoList, a now-defunct D.C.-centric listserv for a select group of liberal wonks. In the excerpts, well-known bloggers talk trash about the GOP's vice presidential nominee and muse about how the left should respond to conservatives raising questions about Barack Obama's relationship with Jeremiah Wright. Strong's stories have inflamed conservatives with a persecution complex and JournoList alums who argue that the series is a sloppy and unethical hatchet job.

As a wonky conservative, I often envied the intellectual firepower of JournoList's small army of economists and political scientists, which would hard if not impossible to replicate on the right.

To understand the controversy surrounding the private email list, it helps to understand power laws.

In 2003, Clay Shirky, the noted NYU new media theorist and author of the excellent Here Comes Everybody and Cognitive Surplus, wrote a landmark essay—a landmark essay for us nerds, that is—on " Power Laws, Weblogs, and Inequality." Rather than usher in an egalitarian era in which the power of the media establishment had been shattered for good, the rise of blogging had created new hierarchies and new elites. And as Shirky explains, there was no conspiracy at work. The stratification of the blogosphere was an inevitable consequence of freedom of choice.

"In systems where many people are free to choose between many options," Shirky writes, "a small subset of the whole will get a disproportionate amount of traffic (or attention, or income), even if no members of the system actively work towards such an outcome." A positive feedback mechanism is at work, in which the widely read tend to become more widely read over time. And a widely read blog will have a rich, diverse array of commenters, which attracts more eyeballs still.

As for why one blog becomes more popular than another in the first place, it's almost impossible to say. Some people adore LOLcats, while others, masochists like myself, enjoy punishingly dry musings on federal irrigation policy. But the mere fact that all of our friends are reading about LOLcats gives us a reason to check in. Just as you're more inclined to join Facebook or convert to Hinduism if all of your close friends are Facebook users or Hindus respectively, the simple desire to be included in the water-cooler conversation will incline people to read the same blogs your friends read. Social scientists call this a "solidarity good." As if by magic, this dynamic creates blockbuster traffic for a handful of blogs and websites, like the one you're reading now.

Because blogging was a new and unfamiliar technology in the early half of this decade, the people who embraced it tended to be young or idiosyncratic or both. Andrew Sullivan, a good friend and mentor despite our many disagreements, was a pioneering political blogger at the turn of the century. There were, of course, many proto-blogs or "linkalists" stretching back to the early 1990s, but political blogging during the 2000 presidential campaign is where the medium really mushroomed. A few enterprising college students, myself included, were inspired by Andrew's indefatigable pace and his success. Here was someone inventing a genre on the fly, with an anti-authoritarian spirit that was profoundly appealing to a certain kind of opinionated autodidact.

Among this generation of youthful bloggers were feisty liberals who built audiences by offering an alternative to a slew of 9/11-inspired "warbloggers," who for a brief time were the dominant voice of the blogosphere. As the first Bush term unfolded, as the Howard Dean campaign came and went, a handful of these talented left-of-center bloggers began their "long march through the institutions." Having started as independent bloggers, relying on free platforms like Blogspot, a handful took junior gigs at lefty opinion magazines, struggling to stay relevant in an age of declining circulation and, more galling still, declining cultural relevance. Matt Yglesias, a Daily Beast contributor, was just one of them.

It soon became clear that the kids "got it" while their superiors didn't, the "it" being the new media landscape. It was the intern-turned-assistant editor who was at the top of the power law distribution, not the baby-faced Ivy Leaguers who found themselves about five or fifteen years too old to fit in. So various editors-in-chief gave blogging and the spirit of blogging a steadily larger role, some of them very reluctantly. At the same time, many of the young bloggers found themselves embracing more of the methods, conventions, and worldviews of older and more established opinion journalists. The two tribes met somewhere in the middle, with weird hybrids emerging and entrenching themselves in little ecological niches. This is a very stylized story, of course, but I think it's a decent portrait of reality.

Older liberal journalists who had spent the better part of their careers talking potshots at brain-dead liberals found themselves outflanked by progressives who saw the Bush White House as a far more pressing problem than aging hippies. At first, the older journalists sneered. But then, faced with the growing influence of the tyros, many of them started to listen and learn. And it's from this rapprochment that JournoList was born. Founded by Ezra Klein, an indefatigable reporter and intellectual entrepreneur, JournoList was a marriage of young and old, built on the premise that everyone had something to learn and to teach. It was less a liberal conspiracy than a low-key effort to build a cognitive community.

JournoList was also a valuable reporting tool. Blogger X could ask about a failed Medicare reform from the 1980s, and within the next day or two a tenured eminence would offer thoughts or, at the very least, the name of an academic who could. To be sure, it was at least as common to have a tiresome shouting match over whether a reporter at Time or some other legacy media institution was getting rolled by Republicans. Yet the collective brainpower of the list made wading through tiresome flame wars worthwhile.

Andrew Sullivan has condemned the cliquishness of JournoList, and he has a decent point. JournoList did bring influential old journalists and influential young journalists into contact, and it may even have greased the wheels of professional advancement for at least some of its members. Despite spirited disagreements, it was premised on the notion that a common ideological bond united these disparate voices, and that's no small matter.

But JournoList hardly invented journalistic cliquishness. It just made it more vivid. The conversations that Jonathan Strong has highlighted in The Daily Caller—including charges that the JList crowd coordinated attacks against Sarah Palin—were very much the conversations that recent grads have been having at house parties for thousands of years, since the days when house parties were cave parties. A distinguished art critic told a friend of mine that the twenties are the age when you form your team. For the rest of your professional life, your team will be doing battle with other teams, whether you know it or not. The smart thing is to stay close to your friends, and build them up when you can. The building of teams can happen on the web, sort of. But the real building of teams happens in more intimate settings, where there is no email trail. Consider the networks of women and evangelical Christians and gay men that have emerged in countless industries to provide mutual support while climbing professional ladders. These networks are many things, including a safe space for venting. We can condemn the cliquishness of JournoList. But are we going to condemn the fact that like-minded people become friends and start to think even more alike and help each other out? If not, the time may have come to shut up about JournoList and move on.

One wonders if the right has anything to learn from the JournoList experience. As a wonky conservative, I often envied the intellectual firepower of JournoList's small army of economists and political scientists, which would hard if not impossible to replicate on the right. Among lefty academics at elite research universities, the leading liberal bloggers command attention and respect. The same doesn't hold for the far smaller number of righty academics at the same schools, not least because the activist right has tended to be less policy-focused. And if anything, one could argue that the problem with today's right isn't a lack of intellectual solidarity so much as an excess of it. That's not true of National Review, where there is a wide diversity of opinion that I find gratifying as a reader and contributor. But one can make the case that there is excessive lockstepness in the wider universe of the conservative media. A conservative JournoList would hardly be the cure for that malady, if we can call it that.

JournoList is dead. Yet the list was merely what Mark Zuckerberg has called a "social graph," a map of real-life friendships and working relationships that can't be deleted. The attacks on JournoList have, if anything, created a sense of outraged solidarity among people who feel unfairly targeted. Rest assured that the most popular liberal bloggers—the winners of the power law wars—will remain the most popular liberal bloggers for some time to come, and they'll continue linking to each other and learning from each other. Somehow the Earth will keep spinning on its axis.

Reihan Salam is a policy advisor at e21 and a fellow at the New America Foundation.