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The Daily Caller is an eight-month-old Web site launched by Tucker Carlson, a former Crossfire host, and Neil Patel, a former adviser to Dick Cheney. Last month the Daily Caller launched a furious assault on the listserv JournoList, labeling it a place where lefty writers and academics cooked up coordinated actions against their ideological enemies.
The Daily Caller critique, which is the subject of my column in this week’s Reader, mattered to journalists. But what about everyone else? “The general public doesn’t care,” says Tracy Van Slyke, who belonged to JournoList and who runs the Chicago-Based Media Consortium. “There are small groups on the right and left who do care.”
But is she right? I asked myself — when the people get worked up, who are the first to know about it? Here’s my nominee as the nation’s most unsung earlier warning system: the unpaid and shamelessly exploited interns who work the phones for American’s congressmen.
I called my own congressman, Mike Quigley, and spoke to Sean O'Brien, the celebrated D.C. comedian who doubles as Quigley's chief of staff. O’Brien checked with his interns. “It’s been very quiet in terms of calls,” he reported. “When the phones ring around here sometimes it gets pretty nutty.”
O’Brien rolled his memory back five years, to the time when he was an intern working for Quigley’s predecessor, Rahm Emanuel, and Emanuel would appear on Carlslon’s Crossfire. “I’d be sitting at the front desk and I’d get calls from all over the place, and sometimes people rant and rave forever. You realize 20 minutes in they will not stop. Rahm would appear on Crossfire, and five minutes into the show the phone would ring and it was someone talking about how wrong he was and I’d miss the rest of the show.”
There might have been fireworks on Crossfire when Rahm Emanuel was guesting, but O’Brien considers Carlson a minor-league stirrer-upper. “Probably the only way he’d get people to call us,” he told me, “is if Fox news picked up one of his stories and ran with it 12 times a day.” On the right, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh are the real deals. There was the time last year when Quigley took a stand on the House Ethics Committee that the Wall Street Journal admired in print, inspiring Glenn Beck to give Quigley a mention on TV as someone so righteous Beck was willing to consider him for “refounder” of America status. “We suddenly started getting all these calls — ‘I think your boss is great, I’m calling from Oklahoma,’” says O’Brien. “’I’m calling from Louisiana.’ ‘I’m calling from Missouri.’ It took us a while to find out why they were calling us. I found the clip of Beck saying these really nice things about Mike Quigley. Beck said, ‘Call him and let him know.’ Hey, we’ll take praise from anywhere. There was a call I took from someone I think in South Carolina, and she wanted to tell Mike Quigley how great he was, and at that point Mike Quigley was literally on the floor giving a speech on providing immigrant rights to gay couples.”
Did you tell her that? I wondered. “I was tempted,” said O’Brien.
The only listserv I belong to is Mizzoumafia, which is made up of University of Missouri journalism students and graduates. Most of the traffic is about looking for work, but big issues do get kicked around, and there was a flurry of comment about JournoList.
Including this, from Mizzou senior Andrew Denney:
Other than the digital format, and the sheer amount of people who were allowed to join in on discussions, what exactly is the difference between Journolist and a group of journalists sitting over dinner and/or drinks and espousing their opinions about their sources and the stories they cover/hear about? Maybe I'm just naive, but I didn't see JournoList as anything more than widely-broadcast shop talk.
Here’s what’s different. The strongest part of the case against JournoList has to do with its exclusivity. Members were admitted because they shared the same politics more or less. When journalists in my experience gathered after work for drinks, all they shared were the same bottles. The Tribune sat down with the Sun-Times sat down with Business Week sat down with ABC and UPI. There were those who’d call it quits after two drinks at Riccardo’s, those who’d push on to O’Rourke’s, and the ones who wouldn’t go home until they’d closed the Old Town Ale House at 4 AM. These were important distinctions, and politics had nothing to do with it. Ideological differences could lead to someone getting busted in the nose by someone else somewhere along the line, but otherwise hardly mattered.