That “marketing strategy” might include this March’s publication of James O’Keefe’s undercover video showing an NPR fundraiser deriding Republicans and bragging that the network could survive without government funds. The blow was undercut when The Blaze—yes, Glenn Beck’s website—watched the raw tapes and proved the video the Caller posted was misleadingly edited. Was Carlson endorsing deceptive reporting? The Caller did not produce the video, only reported on it, he says. And allowing for the fact that the site was the first media outlet to disseminate the video—and was richly rewarded for its efforts with web traffic—this is technically true. Carlson also insists the editing did not change the video’s substance. “Having been around a lot of stories, packages, and documentaries as they’re being made, I can tell you it was a very brave thing of O’Keefe to release the entire video. When was the last time you saw Dateline NBC do that?”
But for marketing buzz—and ethical conundrums—it’s hard to go past the Caller’s Journolist series. The nominally off-the-record Google Groups forum featured over four hundred left-leaning journalists, wonks, and academics, talking everything from caucuses to basketball brackets, and had been the subject of whispers since Ezra Klein, then blogging for The American Prospect, started it in early 2007. It was perhaps inevitable that it would leak and, last June, media gossip site FishbowlDC published e-mails from Weigel, then a Washington Post blogger, to the listserv. Among other things, the Post’s man on the conservative beat had called Ron Paul supporters “Paultard Tea Party people.” Weigel resigned from the Post; Klein disbanded the listserv.
Daily Caller reporter Jonathan Strong got hold of the archive around this time and began sorting through it. In July, The Caller published an enfilade of Journolist pieces claiming left-wing journalists had colluded to get Obama elected. Headlines included: “Documents show media plotting to kill stories about Rev. Jeremiah Wright” and “The Fix was in: Journolist e-mails reveal how the liberal media shaped the 2008 election.” A then-unprecedented 1.35 million unique visitors loaded the Caller that month.
At first glance, the Journolist stories fit precisely the mold Carlson had set at CPAC, a sharp right hook to the mainstream media thrown with reportorial heft. But as the series rolled out, it looked more like the Caller was swinging at air. Those on the exposed list cried foul; the series lacked any semblance of context, critics said, and omitted vital information. Sour grapes? Possibly. But the offended Journolisters had a point.
First, several of Strong’s pieces play what Klein, now at The Washington Post, calls a “shell-game,” with the most flagrant example being the story claiming the media plotted to “kill stories about Rev. Jeremiah Wright.” Ledes target the “media” and mainstream outlets, but go on to cite the more egregious comments of openly ideological writers from publications like The Nation. For the Wright story, Strong drew on comments made by Spencer Ackerman, then of the avowedly liberal Washington Independent, who suggested calling Obama’s critics racists in a listserv debate about the reverend.
Strong says via e-mail that when the Caller wrote reporters “participated in outpourings of anger”—as it did in the Wright story, naming Politico and Time—it was “because someone from that organization had chimed in during an outpouring of anger.” He does not define “chime in” though, and nowhere in the Wright story does he cite a specific Politico or Time reporter doing it. “When a reporter suggests leveling accusations of racism at random [people] to help a political candidate win an election,” Strong adds, “there is some guilt by association, even given the caveats of the listserv medium.” But consider that Weigel says that he sometimes has an inbox with 25,000 unread e-mails. Guilt by association with any of them would be difficult to prove.