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Belmont Club

No Secret Place

June 27th, 2010 - 10:00 pm

Whether the 1959 movie, Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, really referred to the Communist infiltration of America is a subject of debate. But the fear of “Pod People”, aliens who take over earth by masquerading as humans, appeals to a primal fear of secret beings among us. And it is this atavism which is partly behind the reaction to the existence of the JournoList posting group, to which Dave Wiegel, the Washington Post reporter covering “conservatives” belonged. Weigel had one persona in public and another persona in the Journolist posting group. The question is: what’s wrong with that?  Politico described Journolist as a facility where “for the past two years, several hundred left-leaning bloggers, political reporters, magazine writers, policy wonks and academics have talked stories and compared notes in an off-the-record online meeting space.” Was it:

Proof of a vast liberal media conspiracy?

Not at all, says Ezra Klein, the 24-year-old American Prospect blogging wunderkind who formed JournoList in February 2007. “Basically,” he says, “it’s just a list where journalists and policy wonks can discuss issues freely.”

Walter Shapiro makes the case for a private place where people can ‘let their hair down’ and dare to be offensive. Without this freedom, people would be funneled too early into the consensus view. They would weigh their words prematurely at a time when every idea must remain on the table. Without this secret space there would be no forum for draft concepts, where arguments could be advanced without fear, taken to extremes and examined for absurdities.  Once upon a time, Shaprio says,  people understood that what counted was the formal utterance, not the confidential thought. “In another era,” he wrote, “Secretary of State Henry Stimson closed the State Department’s code-breaking office in 1929 because, as he quaintly explained, ‘Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.’” Alas, some blackguard has read Wiegel’s mail and told the world what was in it. Shapiro pined for a more genteel age.

How laudable, how naive, how early 20th century. The zone of privacy these days stops at the edge of your thoughts. It is impossible for any group (and this means liberals, conservatives and middle-of-the-road vegans) to share off-the-record ideas online without running the risk that someone will breach the bonds of trust to score cheap political points. Every time someone like Weigel is humiliated because of quickly typed off-the-cuff comments, it moves us closer to a world where we all communicate in predictable homogenized phrases because who knows where they might end up.

The weakness of Shapiro’s argument is that it lacks context. Not all privacies are equal.  In important public matters very little is excusable as personal.  Stimston’s bureaucratic heirs want to know the secrets of Julian Assange, the Founder of Wikileaks, not out of idle curiosity about Assange, but  to find out who gave him the trove of secret State Department cables which he has threatened to publish. Because  the Climate Research Unit‘s secret emails cooking up data to support Global Warming are bound up with public funding they are different in character from a private exchange between scientists trying out novel theories on each other. We should not be interested in people’s private opinions about public policy, but we have a vital interest in discovering private efforts to manipulate public facts.

The distinction turns on the subject of the secret communications and the nature of the parties involved. When secret forums can materially effect vital public interests or when they involve persons in positions of power they should be judged by a different standard than a debate between two friends over drinks. What makes the JournoList group different from any other Internet forum is precisely the claim that journalists are different. They assert a special role and enhanced First Amendment rights just as news organizations argue they have a unique role in society distinct from corporations or unions engaging in political speech.  These claims bring with them a corresponding burden of power.  The corresponding price of claiming public trust as a qualification is an obligation to live up to that claim. Whoever asserts an objective’ and ‘truthful’ viewpoint would be unwise to engage in conspiratorial behavior — at least not without embarassment. Spiderman understood the tradeoff perfectly:  “with great power comes great responsibility”.

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But the more practical problem with crafting the narrative from a secret place is that the public begins wonder if places like the JournoList aren’t the forges of the sudden changes in contemporary stories that might called the ‘Turn’;  an alternation in narrative so sudden it provokes astonishment. There have been enough Turns of late to make the new audience start to look under the shells for the pea. Recently Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was ousted by his own party after they ‘discovered’ that he was a thoroughly unpleasant man. According to press reports the Labor party collectively realized in the space of 24 hours that ‘this was not the Kevin Rudd they used to know’ and decided to replace him with Julia Gillard who was conveniently available. How a politician in his 50s, long known to Party leaders and for so long in journalism’s gaze could remain an unknown quantity for so long beggars explanation.  But it is no more astounding than Peggy Noonan’s confession of her realization that the President, far from being a genius, might actually be incompetent. It is one among many reversals of story line. When Global Warming fades amid the worst winters in memory; when one discovers after many years that the uber-tolerant Helen Thomas actually wants the Jews to go back to Germany and given the repeated failure of the press to discover political scandals before the National Inquirer or the Drudge Report then it is natural for people to wonder whether things are all they are cracked up to be. The real problem with places like JournoList is that it very conveniently confirms the worst suspicions. And that bodes ill for the press.

The real challenge before the 21st century press is not to create private spaces in which to craft public facts but to create ways through which public facts may be privately confirmed.   The world needs fewer secret clubs and more ways for ordinary people to verify things for themselves. The Internet has accustomed millions to the possibility of unintermediated knowledge, raised the expectation that it shouldn’t require a privileged point of view for a fact to be believed. People are beginning to demand this. The power of open source knowledge (and of the scientific method for that matter) is that anybody can confirm the essentials of the claim for himself.

We believe in Google Maps because when we go to the direction indicated, we find the address there. We believe in Amazon.com because when we order a book from it it usually arrives in the mail after some days. We can do business on EBay because the trading cards we buy eventually show up at our doorstep. Whether it is code that claims to add two numbers or a formula which describes the acceleration of objects falling under gravity we could in principle reproduce it ourselves.  Stories whose truth relies upon the acceptance of a privileged point of view will be increasingly harder to sell as time goes by. People tended to stop believing in Robert Fisk — no matter how eminent he was — after his descriptions failed to square with the observed facts. Facts which come from a Black Box — whether the dictation of a supernatural being, or a birth certificate only the elect can see, or files of no known provenance dropped off wherever Julian Assange is– must overcome the modern requirement for direct inspection.  News from a Black Box will be increasingly regarded as doubtful even if it is true.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that news can’t start from a Black Box, but like a preached faith, the news requires eventual revalidation before it gains final acceptance.

For this reason the utility of closing secret Left Wing forums only to reopen them under other names may be of doubtful utility. Shapiro says that JournoList is closing because its archives have “become a weapon” against its members, though it will rise again in some presumably secret place, “with a different name and a renewed sense of collective trust.”

Friday afternoon Ezra Klein announced on JournoList and his Washington Post blog that he would be shutting down the online conversation pit because of the security breach. As he put it, “Insofar as the current version of JournoList has seen its archives become a weapon, and insofar as people’s careers are now at stake, it has to die.” The last few hours of JournoList were devoted to its members (including me) expressing the hope that someone would reorganize the bulletin board with a different name and a renewed sense of collective trust. It is that final ingredient that will be hardest to replicate.”

But what is the point of that? It is still a secret fountain from which the unwashed will be barred. Once upon a time it might have been useful as authority when trust was founded on secret knowledge. In the future trust will be built on expressing a set of verifiable facts that anyone can take the trouble to check. Edward Guest  expressed it perfectly a long time ago.

To have no secret place wherein
I stoop unseen to shame or sin;
To be the same when I’m alone
And when my every deed is known;
To live undaunted, unafraid
Of any step that I have made;
To be without pretense or shame
Exactly what men think I am.

To leave some simple mark behind
To keep my having lived in mind;
If enmity to aught I show.
To be an honest, generous foe,
To play my little part, nor whine
That greater honors are not mine.
This, I believe, is all I need
For my philosophy and creed.

That’s a better way to gain credibility  than calling people ratf***kers in private.


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