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My Life on the J-List

I can’t say that I hold the Daily Caller in much esteem for making a business model out of publishing the contents of supposedly private e-mails from the list-serve Journalist. I have about 10,000 Journolist e-mails in my possession from the roughly 20 months that I was a member of the group. It goes without saying that an organization in possession of these e-mails, as Daily Caller is, would have nearly unlimited degrees of freedom to cut-and-paste evidence together with the aim of either perpetuating a certain narrative or trying to undermine the integrity of a particular journalist. The fact that their revelations seem to be getting more and more trivial perhaps tells you something.

I haven’t been a target of any of their criticism. I’d like to think this is because everyone thinks I’m super awesome and fair-minded, but it’s probably just because they have bigger fish to fry. Nevertheless, I’d rather approach this with as clear a conscience as possible, so as not to enable the person whom I happen to offend in the wrong way at the wrong time. Therefore, even though it’s not really anyone’s business, I’ve decided to review my own contributions to Journolist, which I was invited to join in September, 2008. If this happens to provide our audience with a more prosaic and realistic view of what Journolist was really like, that’s all for the better.

I made on the order of 150 posts to Journolist while I was member of the list-serv, most of which were on the short side. I rarely write long posts on discussion lists — and for that matter I rarely write long e-mails – because I figure if I have something coherent and substantive to say it should probably go on my blog. Most of the posts were banal. They might involve things like: asking for advice on book-writing, seeing if anyone had contact information for a person I was trying to reach for a story, or clarifying a point of Senate procedure. Other posts involved “off-topic” threads on subjects like food or sports.

A lot of the other comments involved discussions of Democratic or Republican political strategy. Almost always, I made exactly the points in these discussions that I made on FiveThirtyEight. Sometimes, I used the phrasing “we” when participating in these discussions, which I would not ordinarily use on the blog. I’ve disclosed from the first day of FiveThirtyEight’s existence that I’m usually a Democratic voter, and Journolist’s membership consisted of mostly Democrats, so this seemed fairly natural.

In general, I don’t do a lot of name-calling, even in private, and there was very little of that in my posts. I can be sarcastic and I certainly tweaked a few people here and there. But essentially without exception, they were people who I’ve also tweaked in public at FiveThirtyEight.

There were a handful of times when I engaged in discussions about the economics of online media. This is a topic about which I almost never write about publicly because it’s not my “beat” and I assume that my thoughts aren’t very interesting to people. Probably the most provocative thing I said, ironically, is that I thought Daily Caller had a questionable business model because it was poorly differentiated.

Finally, there were two passages out of my 150 or so posts that I’d probably cite if I were trying to create headaches for myself. Both concerned my disagreements vis-à-vis other Democrats, and both reflected positions that I had taken publicly.

In one post in July 2009, after a favorable employment report had come out, I wrote that “liberals are going to need to learn to be more willing to promote good economic news”. There “have been a lot of positive economic signals for the past 3-4 weeks”, I wrote, and commentary from the right “certainly isn’t going to do us a favor and talk about them on our behalves.”

The reference to liberals was intended rather broadly, i.e. to liberal politicians as well as liberal authors, and nobody much responded to the comment. This argument reflected one that I made in public on several occasions throughout 2009, such as here (“If An Economy Recovers and No One Cheers It, Does it Make a Sound?”), here, here, here and here. Nevertheless, it can imagine it being characterized as evidence by a person attempting to prove the existence of a cabal or conspiracy.

The other example is from December, 2009, and demonstrated a more explicit awareness of the role that blogs might have in shaping the media narrative. The post came after I had done a segment on Hardball with Darcy Burner, in which I took the position that the health care bill under discussion advanced liberal policy goals (in spite of lacking a public option, etc.) and she took the opposite stance. This was at a time when some liberal websites were seeking to “kill” the healthcare bill.

In the post, I reported that Darcy and I had a conversation after the segment, and that she had noted to me that it was probably a good sign that the lead segment on Hardball had featured two liberals fighting against one another – that is, it suggested that the Overton window had shifted, and it was no longer a matter of whether a health care bill would pass (this was before the Massachusetts special election) but what its contents might be. “Do you think she’s basically right?”, I wrote to Journolist. “What I know is that it’s very important for Ezra, Cohn, Krugman, myself et. al. to be pushing back against the claims of the kill-billers. What I don’t know is whether the kill-billers are making things better or worse.”

The post elicited a dozen or so responses on the list, the first couple of which concluded that Darcy’s position was incorrect and that the actions of the kill-billers were not helpful to Democrats. Then the thread drifted off into various unrelated tangents.

I doubt that this would be cited as a sign of a “vast left-wing conspiracy”, mostly for the obvious reason that it reflected a debate among different groups of liberals, rather than between liberals and conservatives. Still, it certainly reflects an awareness of the role that prominent commentators can have in shaping the media narrative.

But the fact is that I took an aggressive stance on the healthcare bill is no secret; quite to the contrary, I had written a deliberately provocative post entitled post entitled “Why Progressives Are Batshit Crazy to Oppose the Senate Bill” several days earlier, which motivated the Hardball segment. I also engaged in many public arguments with other Democrats over the merits of the health care bill over the course of 2009.

I’ve since debated with myself whether this was a wise thing to do. It was one of the very few circumstances in which (i) I took a rather explicit advocacy position and (ii) directed my arguments fairly explicitly toward a liberal rather than non-partisan audience. My feeling at the time was basically that it probably wasn’t optimal from a branding standpoint, but that this was a sacrifice I was willing to make because I’d thought very deeply about my position and thought it was too important an issue not to speak up about. I’m quite honestly not sure whether I’m happy about that decision in retrospect.

The bottom line is that there’s nothing in the posts I made to Journolist that would surprise regular readers of this blog — the positions I took in private were consistent with the positions that I took in public. For the most part, this is true of other Journolist members as well. People who branded themselves as opinion journalists tended to have strong opinions, consistent with the opinions they expressed publicly. People who branded themselves as straight reporters were quieter, mostly using the list as a means for professional networking.

Over the past several months, I’ve come to the position that I want this blog to speak more explicitly toward a broad and non-partisan — rather than liberal-leaning -– audience. Certainly, this was a precondition of my deciding to work for a major media organization and of their decision to hire me. This does not mean that I won’t have opinions, or that I won’t take positions on occasion. It does not mean that I won’t, personally, be a liberal. I don’t expect the blog to become sterile or dull. But I intend to be fairly explicit about disclosing where I’m coming from, and to make some effort to demarcate which of my conclusions are based more on objective evidence (such as our forecasting models), and where my biases and preconceived notions could potentially come more into play.

At the same time, I’m with Jay Rosen: this stuff is complicated, and one has to work hard at it. I certainly don’t always expect to get it right, and I’m sure that I’ll hear from my readers when I don’t. As a practical matter, one “strategy” this is likely to entail is that when the dominant political stories are partisan fights that aren’t suitable to objective analysis, I might concentrate somewhat more on areas outside of politics, such as sports, statistics, econometrics, or “culture”. Obviously, however, our focus will be overwhelmingly on the midterm elections between now until November, which should be a lot of fun.


p.s. This is pretty much my final “say” on this topic, so please don’t anticipate any follow-up, or any response to media requests, etc.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.