Excerpts published Tuesday by a conservative online news site suggest that a group of journalists from the mainstream media discussed ways to shield Barack Obama from criticism during the 2008 presidential election.
Among the strategies put forward: call conservative critics racists.
The excerpts, published by the Daily Caller, come at a sensitive time, with both he political left and right accusing each other of race-baiting.
The NAACP recently accused the “tea party” of sheltering racists in its midst. Shortly after, the National Tea Party Federation expelled Mark Williams, leader of the Tea Party Express, for writing a satirical letter about how “colored people” preferred slavery.
Now, conservative commentators are pointing to the JournoList excerpts as proof that the mainstream media collude to promote a liberal agenda, play the race card, and discredit conservative movements like the tea party.
"The [JournoList] is troubling," says Jim Campbell, a political science professor at the State University of New York (SUNY) in Buffalo. "At one level it could be thought of as just colleagues throwing ideas out to one another, but from another standpoint it almost looks like collusion … where virtual talking points are shared and solidified in a group.”
“That can't be healthy for the country – or for the media, for that matter," he says.
JournoList: What is it?
According to excerpts released, reporters quibbled endlessly among themselves, and it's far from clear if any of their collective kvetching ever drove an actual media narrative. But the excerpts pull back the curtain on how deeply the visceral and vindictive left-right split in American politics not only is reflected within the media, but can be amplified by them.
When conservatives were criticizing Mr. Obama for his connection to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright in 2008, some JournoList members discussed a counterstrategy.
The Daily Caller writes that Spencer Ackerman, then of the Washington Independent, "urged his colleagues to deflect attention from Obama's relationship with Wright by changing the subject. Pick one of Obama's conservative critics, Mr. Ackerman wrote, 'Fred Barnes, Karl Rove, who cares – and call them racists.' "
"The Daily Caller has an interesting story that gives us insight into the way some journalists talk to each other, but I also think that reporters have a right to think and talk and be frank with each other," says Mr. Hoyt. "At the same time, I think if they do it in a forum like this, they have to know some energetic reporter can report it, and that's exactly what happened."
To conservatives, a smoking gun
To some conservatives, however, the Daily Caller excerpts are a smoking gun, showing that the media is not a neutral arbiter in refereeing racial spitball fights like the one that has broken out between the NAACP and the tea party.
"What the Daily Caller has unearthed proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that most media organizations are either complicit by participation in the treachery that is JournoList, or are guilty of sitting back and watching...," writes conservative firebrand Andrew Breitbart.
Such criticisms are fair, says Professor Campbell at SUNY Buffalo.
"To some extent [some] media have been successful in [playing the race card]," he says. "You have people now talking about the tea party and others in terms of this race issue, and that in itself deflects from what the tea party people are really concerned about, which is out-of-control federal spending and excessive intrusion of government. To the extent that the press, even by suggesting that race is an issue, if it gets everybody talking about the tea party in those terms, they have been successful."
At the same time, Campbell says, the race card may have been so overplayed that it no longer has much of an effect on how Americans think or act.
"I think a lot of people don't take it very seriously anymore," he says.