Inside inside the echo echo chamber

by Michael Bérubé on March 19, 2009

Exclusive to Crooked Timber but also cross-posted here.

My extensive online research has uncovered the existence of a secret Internet cabal of reporters, journalists, bloggers, writers, and reporters.  Apparently, their self-assigned mission is to ignore major news stories, pass silently over rampant corruption in American government and business, and ridicule wonks and elected officials who take “issues” seriously.  Instead, they seek—often by fawningly citing each other’s work—to inundate American media with inane, trivial bullshit and deliberate stupidity.

The group is called “Twit,” and it is allegedly responsible for innumerable stories and op-eds about Michelle Obama’s biceps, Hillary Clinton’s cleavage, Al Gore’s wardrobe, and Barack Obama’s flag pin.

But beyond these specific examples, it’s hard to trace Twit’s influence in the media, because so few Twits are willing to talk on the record about it.

One byproduct of that secrecy: For all its high-profile membership—which includes Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Maureen Dowd, Mike Allen of POLITICO, Camille Paglia of Salon, Mickey Kaus of Slate, Richard Cohen of the Washington Post, and Caitlin Flanagan of the Atlantic—Twit itself has received almost no attention from the media.

A LexisNexis search for Twit reveals exactly nothing. Brad DeLong, a nonmember, may be the only academic blogger to have referred to it “in print” more than once—albeit dismissively, as “a bunch of twits.”

While members may talk freely about Twit at, say, a Georgetown dinner party, there’s a “Fight Club”-style code of silence when it comes to discussing it for publication.

Kaus, however, did agree to speak on the record, acknowledging that the idea of journalists and writers forming email discussion groups “seems contrary to the spirit of the Web.”

{ 29 comments }

1

mpowell 03.19.09 at 11:39 am

I think the outrage is pretty silly, but I can see how some people would be frustrated with this. Bloggers are used to everything being out in the open. If people are discussing things behind closed doors, reaching consensus and then presenting their opinions to the outside world as if a bunch of independent minds happened to come to the same conclusions, that is not a fair representation of what is going on.

There is obviously nothing wrong with a blogger soliciting the opinion of an expert who doesn’t wish to ‘go on record’, but when you move that solicitation to a listserv group, it does change the dynamic somewhat. Even if you are not consciously coming up with talking points, you are going to be reaching far more consensus than you would have otherwise and people are right to point out that this type of consensus does not have as much weight behind it as if those opinions had been formed absent the listserv group.

2

Marc 03.19.09 at 12:06 pm

The complaints come from a party which enforces rigid message discipline and orthodoxy to a Stalinist degree. Wingnuts doubtless assume that leftists really operate in the same fashion – this is called projection. The idea that bloggers talk to each other should not be surprising – and the fact that the liberal bloggers don’t in fact appear to agree on a lot of things should clue people into this.

3

Michael Bérubé 03.19.09 at 12:13 pm

Bloggers are used to everything being out in the open.

But we’ve been here before: see the Great Townhouse Scandal of 2006.

If people are discussing things behind closed doors, reaching consensus and then presenting their opinions to the outside world as if a bunch of independent minds happened to come to the same conclusions, that is not a fair representation of what is going on.

On what, precisely, have the Journolists reached consensus? I need to know, since I’ve been named as a member of the list even though I’d never heard of it until this week.

And I have to say I just don’t understand how a loose network of writers reaches more consensus when they solicit expert opinions via listservs rather than by phone or by talking to colleagues down the hall or at dinner parties. Especially since you can get more than one expert opinion at a time via listservs. If it’s consensus you’re looking for, you can’t do better than the Army of Davids (see the antepenultimate paragraph for the group’s exclusive membership list).

4

mpowell 03.19.09 at 1:13 pm


On what, precisely, have the Journolists reached consensus? I need to know, since I’ve been named as a member of the list even though I’d never heard of it until this week.

Well, that’s part of the issue, isn’t it? If you’re not a member of the list, you don’t know. If a bunch of A-list liberal bloggers get together and have a private discussion about an issue, reach some consensus, and then blog about it the next week, I’d prefer to know about the private discussion. What these people have to say influences my views a lot because I respect many of them. But there is a difference between everyone I read having the same opinion on an issue and those people all getting together and issuing a joint statement. And there is a lot of ground in between.


And I have to say I just don’t understand how a loose network of writers reaches more consensus when they solicit expert opinions via listservs rather than by phone or by talking to colleagues down the hall or at dinner parties.

Well, if this is your view, then, yes, this is nothing going on here at all. But I think it would be natural to expect more consensus to emerge from a discussion between friends on a topic where everyone sees what everyone one says rather than a noisy process of multiple separate phone calls at different times and random conversations at dinner parties or in the hall. I don’t think its absurd to think that the listserv is fairly different in this respect, though clearly it depends on the specific listserv.

Now, you may feel this is only a difference in degree and not in kind, and I’m not necessarily going to disagree. To me, it’s just something interesting to note and hardly scandalous. But to pretend there is no difference at all doesn’t seem to help any. The conservative response is, of course, first projection as noted by Marc and secondly gamesmanship. That is all quite predictable, but I thought this would be an appropriate place to discuss whether there are any notable differences to this type of discourse.

5

David 03.19.09 at 1:18 pm

As I understand it they set it up this way to get experts to talk about policy freely so that the journalists and bloggers understand it better and do a better job. Sounds like a public good to me. Long live bloggers and journalists trying to educate themselves on the issues. Berube is right, is it a bigger problem that they have found a way to better understand the issues or that many journalists don’t care to understand them at all?

6

bianca steele 03.19.09 at 1:30 pm

I’m not going to say much about this pseudo “scandal,” in part because it would be unbecoming to appear to care (though I may feel different about this later in the day).

However: What pseudo “outrage” I’ve seen so far appears not to focus on the secrecy. It might be interesting to go back to some of what these j’s and bloggers wrote, to see how many times they were accused of ignoring some supposed “outrage” that their interlocutor, from lack of skill or obnoxiousness, unfortunately, underspecified, and question whether they might have responded inadequately because they thought they could guess what was being complained about. If that’s the case, they wasted their own and their readers’ time.

7

Bruce Baugh 03.19.09 at 1:48 pm

This flap is in the grand Republican tradition: set out to destroy a community or culture, and then complain about the consequences. The paradigmatic example is the “who lost China?” hunt, in which Nixon and his buddies fairly systematically purged the American foreign policy scene of people who knew what they were doing in China and Asia generally, then whined every time they stumbled into a mess the experts they’d driven away might have fixed and gloried in the occasional achievement they set up. There’d have been no big “Nixon going to China” deal if Nixon had left things the hell alone thirty years earlier, and taking a generation to realize that you really ought to wipe up the mess you made isn’t all that impressive. Most children learn about that in months or years, and without helping push the world toward global wars at that.

Same deal with the mass media environment’s hostility toward informed, correct judgments and useful contextual commentary from experts. As John Emerson always points out here, and entirely correctly, it is not at all an accident that we have this kind of media culture. People who learned both strategy and tactics from the Nixon mob and groups like it applied them to the media handling of experts, facts, and balance. Blaming experts and journalists interested in learning from them for resorting to a bit of privacy is rather like blaming women for learning anything about self-defense.

There would, I think, still be a lot of sensible, thoroughly appropriate place for private exchanges of the sort Journolist sounds like even if we didn’t have such of a toxic waste dump of a mass media culture. But we should start by putting as much blame as possible on the people who make these things necessary as well as useful: the people trying to make a scandal out of this now.

8

P O'Neill 03.19.09 at 1:52 pm

I for one yearn for the good old days of diverse and uncoordinated opinions in the Sunday Washington Post from George Will, Charles Krauthammer, David Ingatius, and David Broder.

9

Bruce Baugh 03.19.09 at 2:15 pm

Oh, great, P O’Neill does it in one sentence. Way to show me up. :)

10

bianca steele 03.19.09 at 2:35 pm

Does anybody with social science expertise have experience with the dynamics of situations where there are a number of newsgroups, listservs, blogs, and so forth, all discussing the same topic, with overlapping memberships, and diverse degrees of both knowledge and secrecy? I would love to see a qualified analysis of what happens.

The only situation I’m aware of is Shakespeare groups, where the popular membership Usenet newsgroup joined a field already occupied by the academic-tending but broad SHAKSPER listserv and the private Oxford Authorship listserv. The Usenet group and SHAKSPER are now defunct, the former having spawned a web-based authorship forum, iirc a private mailing list (publicly but a tiny bit vaguely mentioned), and a members-only but public google group (now a bit enervated), that I know of. Publicly known members of multiple groups, often, either acted as trolls on one group, or simply were active participants who through no obvious fault of their own ended up annoying a lot of other people. The reasons for people drifting away or becoming hostile are not immediately clear. The motivations behind some of the more bizarre trolls are not at all clear. The reasons for the last holdouts having held out are not clear either. (Wrt other lists, one hears rumors, but it’s nearly impossible to distinguish rumors, whining and paranoia from informed insinuations.) Shakespeare is a huge topic with a lot of interest to generally well educated people — probably more than to many academics in English departments (except those struggling to get through a requirement, I guess) — and it is really a shame that these forums simply disintegrated, over time, because they could have been very useful.

11

Scott McLemee 03.19.09 at 2:42 pm

Only in the last few days did I learn that I, too, belong to JournoList. That’s how top-secret it is. Even the members don’t know they are in it.

Henry has also been identified as belonging, though actually I think he’s in the Molly Maguires.

12

bianca steele 03.19.09 at 2:44 pm

Also, I think the term “Juice Box Mafia” is kind of cool.

13

JP Stormcrow 03.19.09 at 3:29 pm

Michael and Scott,
Jeez guys, what don’t you understand about maintaining plausible deniability? You were being kept in the dark for a reason.

14

Eli Rabett 03.19.09 at 3:32 pm

In keeping with the intellectual level of discourse, they don’t Twit, they Mumble and Grunt

15

alkali 03.19.09 at 3:42 pm

I agree with mpowell. The fact that the rightwingers advancing this criticism are doing so in bad faith — and the fact that Jason Zengerle once went nuts advancing a similar claim — doesn’t mean that there’s no reason to be even a little bit uncomfortable about this. At the very least the existence of the thing could be disclosed.

16

Pedro 03.19.09 at 4:04 pm

Also, I think the term “Juice Box Mafia” is kind of cool.

And I think the name Bianca Steele is kind of cool. Honestly!

mpowell
Well, that’s part of the issue, isn’t it? If you’re not a member of the list, you don’t know.

An easy way to figure out what the issue is is to do some research and see what they’re all discussing and see if they have a consensus. For example a lot of people are discussing AIG and the bonuses. See, it’s easy. What’s happening in my opinion is that you’re falling for Kaus’s Jedi mindtrick.

Coincidently, I’ve been doing some research on the 19th century anti-Catholic “Know-nothing” party and their crusade against Popery and Irish Catholic immigrants (see Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York). The movement started off as a semi-secret group. When a member was asked about its activities, he or she was supposed to reply, “I know nothing,” hence the name. Much like Fight Club.

Which makes me suspicious of all these people denying membership in the cabal!

17

dave 03.19.09 at 4:11 pm

And thus is the great and necessary distinction between ‘private’ and ‘secret’ eroded one step further. That people should be compelled to announce publicly their every correspondence…….. I thought you guys still had a thing for civil liberties?

18

Rich Puchalsky 03.19.09 at 4:27 pm

“I can see how some people would be frustrated with this. Bloggers are used to everything being out in the open.”

Oh, come on. This is just too silly. These are not elected officials! They’re journalists. They can Email whoever they want, singly or in groups. They can get together to chat, in person or in clubs or through Email lists. And no they don’t have to reveal every communication they have with everyone. They have freedom of association — oh, this is just too tiresome.

This country is sliding down the tubes ever faster, and taking right-wing propaganda like this even this seriously is just one of the signs that we’re not going to climb back up. Even snarking at it annoys me. No one should even have to think about it.

19

Michael Bérubé 03.19.09 at 4:47 pm

I think it would be natural to expect more consensus to emerge from a discussion between friends on a topic where everyone sees what everyone one says rather than a noisy process of multiple separate phone calls at different times and random conversations at dinner parties or in the hall.

Perhaps, but my point was that those conversations aren’t random. They’re self-selecting.

Now, you may feel this is only a difference in degree and not in kind, and I’m not necessarily going to disagree. To me, it’s just something interesting to note and hardly scandalous. But to pretend there is no difference at all doesn’t seem to help any. The conservative response is, of course, first projection as noted by Marc and secondly gamesmanship. That is all quite predictable, but I thought this would be an appropriate place to discuss whether there are any notable differences to this type of discourse.

That’s OK with me if you discuss it here, just as long as no one identifies me publicly as a member of Crooked Timber! Seriously, based on my limited experience of the Townhouse cabal, there’s no reason to expect consensus to emerge from a political listserv where everyone sees what everyone says. Quite the contrary: the more interlocutors, the more potential (and actual) disputes. There is indeed material for study here for sociologists Internet Studies scholars and communications theorists, but I think it would be wise not to start with the assumption that larger groups of wonks tend toward greater unanimity.

I acknowledge that such studies would annoy Rich, but I have to disagree with his notion that “taking right-wing propaganda like this even this seriously is just one of the signs that we’re not going to climb back up.” I think that the debacle at Treasury and the Obama administration’s unwillingness to wean itself from the Bush administration’s policies with regard the “state secrets” privilege and the detention of “enemy combatants” (though we’re retiring the phrase, apparently) are much, much more important signs that we’re not going to climb back up.

20

mpowell 03.19.09 at 4:58 pm


An easy way to figure out what the issue is is to do some research and see what they’re all discussing and see if they have a consensus. For example a lot of people are discussing AIG and the bonuses. See, it’s easy. What’s happening in my opinion is that you’re falling for Kaus’s Jedi mindtrick.

Well, taking a better example, what about the need for stimulus? A lot of progressive bloggers decided we needed a big stimulus. But if that’s really just coming from the opinion of a couple experts, say Krugman and Delong, that’s different than if a bunch of different people have reached that conclusion based on independent analysis. Not that I don’t trust Krugman and Delong, but it is nice to know where the consensus is emerging from.

19: Maybe the observation here is that these people are not as independent as they were 3 or 4 years ago. Whether they maintain a common listserv or not, a lot of these bloggers are probably communicating amongst themselves a lot more than they used to be. And of course they should! But when two people have a discussion privately, what you miss are sources of disagreement that a 3rd party might find interesting that never emerges. That’s the downside, I think.

21

Pedro 03.19.09 at 5:29 pm

mpowell:

Well, taking a better example, what about the need for stimulus? A lot of progressive bloggers decided we needed a big stimulus. But if that’s really just coming from the opinion of a couple experts, say Krugman and Delong, that’s different than if a bunch of different people have reached that conclusion based on independent analysis. Not that I don’t trust Krugman and Delong, but it is nice to know where the consensus is emerging from.

The thing for me is I don’t trust Mickey Kaus at all. His m.o. is to take some concern of liberals, like say transparency and openess, and try to turn it against liberals just to charge hypocrisy and annoy them.

I just disagree that it matters that much where the consensus is emerging from, because as others have pointed out and to take your example, fact checking and theorizing about the stimulus will be done out in the open.

Grover Norquist and a bunch of conservatives used to have a regular physical face-to-face meeting – maybe the still do – in DC. I didn’t think that was a big deal at the time either.

22

JP Stormcrow 03.19.09 at 6:09 pm

“as a field of study, Internet Studies analyzes the unequal distribution of power and resources by listserv.”

23

Michael Bérubé 03.19.09 at 6:14 pm

And is biased.

24

Pinko Punko 03.19.09 at 6:24 pm

I’d never want to be a member of club that either would or wouldn’t have me as a member, or Mickey Kaus for that matter.

25

Rich Puchalsky 03.19.09 at 6:35 pm

And Internet Studies must be leftist, of course.

The jokes write themselves at this point. Isn’t that a bad sign?

I agree that what Obama’s actually doing at this point is much more important. So as a gesture I wrote this. Amusingly (to me, anyways) it spent a day or so as the highest-rated “diary” on the DNC’s barely-creaking-along community blog.

26

Michael Drake 03.19.09 at 7:09 pm

Hence the saying, “Banality is the soul of Twit.”

27

bianca steele 03.19.09 at 11:01 pm

I just dislike paranoia at this point; the Internet breeds the lesser sort of paranoid the way it breeds well-meaning people who don’t know it breeds paranoids (and I say this as someone who’s worked with plenty of people who were 100% competent at their job, really nice people, but were perfectly able to rant if given the chance, and had access to the technology pretty early on). If you know something, say something or shut up about it. If you make insinuations, I have to assume your intention is to mock. Or maybe that you ought to find yourself a new research assistant, stop taking your crazy uncle so seriously, or God knows what.

28

Bruce Baugh 03.19.09 at 11:39 pm

Right on, Bianca. (I don’t mean that sarcastically; sorry if it comes across that way.)

29

bdbd 03.21.09 at 12:59 am

twits twrite twaddle.

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