Debating the Netroots

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MAY 7, 2007

Debating the Netroots

[Editors Note: In the latest issue of TNR, Jonathan Chait took a long look at the rise of the netroots as a major force in American politics. Eric Alterman and Matthew Yglesias responded here, with a reply by Chait. Today, more bloggers push back and Chait provides a final rebuttal.]

Matt Stoller and Chris Bowers

Rick Perlstein

Ezra Klein

Jonathan Chait

 

Matt Stoller and Chris Bowers

One of the strategic problems confronting the Democratic Party is how to bridge the divide between centrist organizations and new progressive, Internet-based power centers. This relationship is characterized by mutual misunderstanding, jealousy, bad faith arguments, and confusion. It's as if we speak different languages, and, in a sense, we do. For example, in his recent piece, "The Left's New Machine," two clues that Jonathan Chait is inaccurately reading the "netroots" are that he incorrectly defines the term and then incorrectly traces its rise to the 2000 recount.

First, Chait writes, "The netroots are a subset of the liberal blogs, constituting those blogs that are directly involved in political activism, often urging their readers to volunteer for, or donate money to, Democratic candidates." Actually, the progressive blogosphere is a subset of the progressive netroots. The progressive netroots constitutes the entire universe of progressive, grassroots political action taken online. Most obviously, this includes not just the progressive, political blogosphere, but also large organizations like MoveOn.org, which boasts 3.2 million members. Even some social networking groups, such as One Million For Barack on Facebook.com--which has more than 320,000 members and originally emerged independent of the campaign--can be considered netroots.

Second, regardless of whether you are tracking the rise of the progressive blogosphere or the progressive netroots, Chait's date is wrong. MoveOn.org was founded in 1998 as a result of right-wing extremism and media complicity in Clinton's impeachment. Further, in terms of growth and maturity, while antecedents to the progressive blogosphere could be found in some early sites in 2000-02, the Iraq war was really the founding touchstone of the progressive blogosphere. After a somewhat slow start, in a true S-curve fashion, the progressive blogosphere grew roughly twenty-fold from 2003-05 before leveling off again with about three to four million daily readers at the end of 2005. The major catalyst for this growth was the public debate over Iraq (in which blogosphere and the public ultimately saw eye to eye).

 

Moving beyond definitions, Chait should be commended for reading a lot of liberal blogs, which is a lot more than journalists tend to do before writing about the blogosphere. But that's about it. His argument, as far as we understand it, is as follows. For the last 30 years, there has been a disciplined and effective right-wing movement that seeks to wield power, and there has been no counter to this force. "Liberal pundits" like Joe Klein didn't acknowledge this movement, which was a strategic error. The blogosphere arose in 2000 because bloggers saw how this movement operated and the failures of the Democratic Party elites in responding to it. To fight the New Right, bloggers adopted its tactics, including discipline, a contempt for ideas, and a willingness to act dishonestly when necessary. And it has worked--insofar as bloggers have been able to seize power and create a more pugilistic political party.

What's so odd about this argument is not that it's wrong (though it is), but how it ignores the dominant political characteristic of the 1998-2008 American political architecture: right-wing extremist governance aided by a complicit media structure. When historians look back upon this period, the war in Iraq will loom large, and that's for good reason. In addition to many other costs, several hundreds of thousands of people have died as a result. But the war will be seen on a continuum starting with the Clinton impeachment, the recount, the 2001 tax cuts, and September 11, then continuing with the collapse of civil liberties, torture, the response to Hurricane Katrina, and the looting of our government and corporate structures. Progressives have been betrayed, Democrats have been betrayed, the entire country has been betrayed. Our press, our government, and our leaders failed us, and we failed as citizens to stop all of this. This is not an argument accepted solely by progressive blogs; the public writ large hates Bush and hates everything he does.

Importantly, the netroots were not the only response to the political crisis brought on by the rise of conservative extremism and the failure of institutional elites to stop it. There have been presidential candidates echoing our criticisms, a substantial increase in activism (including small-dollar donations), door-knocking, and mass protests. An entire media reform movement grew up to challenge media oligarchs (protesting the Federal Communications Commission and becoming the net neutrality movement). The Bush administration also provoked intense debate within the single-issue community, leading to the influential essay "The Death of Environmentalism" by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus. All of this emerged because millions upon millions of Americans decided that they didn't like the direction of the country and the rampant disinformation perpetrated by the press. And it is not just the progressive blogosphere or even the netroots. The progressive blogosphere is one part of a larger movement, sometimes called the "netroots" or the "progressive movement," though it is more accurately called the "open left."

 

The open left is a movement of active, frustrated citizens that don't like what happened in a series of political crises from the Clinton impeachment to the war in Iraq, brought on both by conservative extremism and a broken political and media system. Having seen what can go disastrously wrong, we care about ideas and about implementing them. Sure, we admire the ability of the conservative movement to wield power, just as we admire FDR's realignment strategy. But what the open left really wants is to create a new framework for politics and governance based on low barriers to civic entry, popular participation in both the press and the government, raucous debate, social justice, and a functioning economy so that the political crises of the last decade never happen again. And that's what we're building in the blogs--a sketch of one small part of this new America. The notion that we're some ruthless band of successful political opportunists ignores the critical fact that the public basically agrees with our attitudes and opinions. Even the open left is just one piece of a frustrated public tired of the nonsense peddled by our elites and their ineffective responses to conservative extremism.

And this frustration applies to people, like Chait, who--lathering his piece with constant accusations (with no supporting evidence)--thinks we are intellectually dishonest while "journalists" are disinterested and concerned with ideas. We don't think this is true, we don't accept his framework, and we consider this another example of bad faith from elitist journalists. For instance, here's how he describes our approach to politics:

What they consider treasonous is any criticism of any part of the Democratic Party or its activist base from the right. You can attack the Democratic leadership in Congress for failing to force a troop withdrawal from Iraq, but you cannot attack it for opposing a troop surge.

This is utterly unfair and unsupportable. We don't oppose the surge because the right is proposing it. We oppose the surge because it is a really horrible idea. We support a troop withdrawal because we think that constraining Bush's power will be a really good thing for the country and will lead to less death and mayhem. Also, let's just be clear on another critical point: The public is with us on the surge and troop withdrawals.

It's tragic to us that this kind of elitist attitude toward a changing America endures, because it means that it's going to take that much longer to implement policies supported by the majority of the country and to undo the damage from the American right. We cannot reverse hundreds of thousands of deaths caused by the Bush administration, but at least we can fight like hell to make sure that nothing like Bush ever happens again. Beyond partisanship, ideology, or strategy, we hope everyone on both the center and the left can understand that such a fight is just a basic question of morality.

 

Rick Perlstein

There's a lot to be said about Jonathan Chait's article, and a lot that has been said. Indeed, the remarkable volume of thoughtful discussion, pro and con, on the piece from both TNR Online and the blogs confirms one of Chait's conclusions (that blogs are now a central components of our common political life) and disproves another (that the netroots is possessed of a "party-line sensibility"). I only have one thing to add. Chait says the first "organic bond" shared by the netroots is "generational. Netroots activists tend to be in their thirties ... or younger." Did Chait mean to imply they know too little of the world to change it? But among my favorite activist-minded bloggers are a former intelligence official, a former film producer, a paralegal who once worked in the oil fields of Alaska, a former psychoanalyst who is now an organization consultant, a former Marine--and I could go on and on--who are all in their forties or (forgive me, favorite activist-minded bloggers) older. Indeed, one of the things that has attracted me to their circle is the depth and breadth of their wordly experience, as opposed (again, friends, forgive me) to the callowness--or if they are older, constricted--life experiences of many of the print opinion journalists I know.

 

Ezra Klein

As Matthew Yglesias did, I must start by correcting Jonathan Chait's vicious misrepresentation of the facts about me: Joe Klein is not my "namesake." I'm named after Project Ezra, a nonprofit on New York's Lower East Side that delivers food and social services to the elderly. This is just the sort of wanton disregard for the facts that drives blogger distaste for the MSM!

But we'll get to that in a moment. I should say, as disclaimer, that I enjoyed Chait's piece and found it laced with useful insights and his characteristically wonderful prose. I even enjoyed his impish fun with the birth of my name. What worried me more was his focus on the 2000 election as the birth of the blogosphere and the lessons he took from that creation story. Chait is either confusing or conflating the online left's birth with its maturation, and this muddling serves a larger purpose within his article: To decouple the netroots from its substantive critique of contemporary--and particularly pre-2004--politics.

The Florida recount, with all its attendant injustices and indignities, was certainly the starting pistol for the online left, as it marked the beginning of the Bush era. But Chait goes farther, saying the recount "was an apt birthing ground for the netroots. It perfectly fits their view of U.S. politics as an atavistic clash of partisan willpower." Almost too apt--I fear a purely partisan clash of wills perfectly fits Chait's view of the blogosphere as an atavistic expression of partisan rage better than it does the facts of the blogosphere's rise.

Consider: The sites Chait identifies as driving the "blogosphere," like DailyKos and Atrios, didn't come into being until 2002--years after Bush's questionable ascension. MyDD--home of Jerome Armstrong, "the Blogfather"--didn't emerge until 2001 and didn't take off until 2002, when it matured into an outlet for political junkies seeking obsessive horserace coverage. This is not to downplay the anger stirred by the election's shenanigans, but the 2000 recount, frankly, didn't endure for long enough to nurture a movement. For that, you need to turn to Iraq.

 

You cannot understand the blogosphere without first comprehending the radicalizing effect the war in Iraq had on its participants. Chait's 8,000 word article, however, mentions Iraq only four times. That is a mistake. The march to war was a dark, lonesome period for those skeptical of the campaign's wisdom, not least because magazines like The New Republic enthusiastically abetted the invasion by ferociously marginalizing the antiwar left. Back when Howard Dean was little more than an asterisk, the major Democrats seeking the party's nomination included not one who had opposed the war (though three had co-sponsored either the resolution authorizing force or similar bills). Meanwhile, the media's collapse into fearful jingoism--part a reaction to September 11, part a rearguard maneuver against the success of Fox News--further choked off dissent and critical inquiry. It was this abandonment by both the Democratic Party and the press that drove so many to the Wild, Wild Left of the nascent blogosphere--a scramble that was both substantively motivated and accurate in its judgments.

Indeed, Chait's confusion over the centrality of Iraq is evident in his struggle to understand why The New Republic and The Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) have endured such lashings from the online left. Chait complains that "[w]hile both the DLC and TNR supported the Iraq war, both stridently opposed almost every other element of the Bush agenda. The overwhelming majority of DLC missives and TNR articles are perfectly congenial to mainstream liberalism and perfectly hostile to the Republican Party of George W. Bush. But these sorts of subtleties generally escape the Manichean analysis that pervades the netroots." None of this is subtle, nor has it escaped the netroots. (Ryan Lizza's wonderful exposés of George Allen's barely-concealed racism, for example, were well-linked and highly regarded.) But not all issues are created equal. In the opinion of the netroots, if you opposed eliminating dividend taxation and drilling in ANWR but enthusiastically supported the war in Iraq--and appear incapable of really repenting or learning from that error--you are not 66 percent liberal and thus an ally; you were and are wrong on the preeminent issue of our time. That may be Manichean, but it also demonstrates an important truth about the blogosphere: It is a realm of intense policy commitments, not merely a venue for atavistic expressions of partisan chest-pounding. Chait wants to accuse the blogosphere of savage tribalism, but he's really painting it as something more akin to single-issue voters. Yet, somehow, I don't think Sierra Club members would come in for quite the same treatment.

Chait attempts to resolve this tension by suggesting that the netroots' commitment to ideas--and thus, policies--is utterly subsumed beneath partisan bloodlust. "[T]he netroots," he writes,

have developed distinctive linguistic tics that hold special meaning to adherents, and these reveal something about the way the movement thinks. Among the most revealing is the netroots' incessant use of the words "meme" or "frame" to describe ideas. It is a formulation that assumes that establishing the truth about an idea matters less than phrasing the idea in the most politically effective way and repeating it as much as possible.

This is an astonishing inversion of the motivation behind the left's fascination with framing, which stems from a belief that the right has popularized lies through tactically brilliant linguistic warfare. As Jeffrey Feldman, the author of Framing the Debate, puts it, "To make rotten politics smell better by wrapping them in clean paper is the goal of 'spin,' or deception, not of framing. Indeed, we should be opposed to the increasing number of 'spin doctors' who use their skill at mass manipulation to pollute American politics. ... [F]ramers must do more than lift a set of phrases from a book and paste it into a political campaign: they must craft the best message to suit their framing needs based on the reality on the ground."

Nevertheless, Chait goes on to let this particular distortion define the mindset of the entire left. "In the netroots," he writes, "the measure of an idea is its rhetorical effectiveness, not its truth." Later on, he says the blogosphere is gripped by "a belief that political discourse ought to be judged solely by its real-world effects. The netroots consider the notion of pursuing truth for its own sake nonsensical."

Chait fails, sadly, to quote or link even one example of an untruth embraced by bloggers for its political potency. But his effort to set truth in opposition to agendas is clarifying. It is here that his glancing treatment of the war fouls his argument. What the run-up to Iraq proved to many bloggers was that capital-J Journalism's oft-professed fidelity to the "truth"--a commitment that came without any attendant concern for whether the audience ceases to exist the day it is informed--obscured more than it illuminated. By completely disavowing any agenda, the press managed to hide--or not notice--what amounted to nonstop cheerleading for the pro-war side.

The world, after all, is full of truths. But the press reports only a few truths at any given time. One truth that was frequently reported was that Saddam Hussein had gassed Iraq's Kurds in the late-'80s. This was referenced over and over again. It was mentioned, repeatedly, in the pages of The New Republic. It was a truth meant to establish Hussein's menace and to clarify the pro-war case. Another truth, less often reported and rarely emphasized, was the traditional enmity between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, and Hussein's lack of involvement in September 11. That was a truth that might have disrupted the rush to war, and it was far more relevant to the case being made (was Saddam's regime an ongoing threat?) than atrocities committed more than a decade ago.

So Chait is right that the blogosphere takes an "instrumental" attitude toward the truth, but that point does not set the blogosphere apart in the way he thinks it does. To varying degrees, we all take instrumental attitudes toward the truth. The press does not report truths at random (you don't watch the 9 o'clock news to learn about how plants photosynthesize, whether turpentine sales are flat this year, and whether someone just named a baby girl "Mary"). The truths they tell exist in an uneasy tension between what they define as "newsworthy," what will attract the largest audience (white girl kidnapped in Aruba!), what will give them a relative advantage over their competitors, what will preserve their reputations for objectivity, what won't offend their advertisers, what won't get them hassled by Brent Bozell, and so on. Lefty bloggers, who believe their vision of the world--Iraq is going poorly, Social Security is not in crisis, Bush is very bad--is true, tend to offer the truths they find informational, which also happen to accord with their vision of the world. So the question is not who has a purer commitment to the truth, but whose guiding impulses are doing more to accurately inform their audiences. In other words, whose instrumentalism is better?

 

And here the points accrue rapidly for the netroots. By The New Republic's own admission, the left was right on the Iraq war, right on Social Security privatization and the phony crisis (the lefty blogosphere, unlike The New Republic, did not publish a misleading article touting Social Security privatization that Jonathan Chait had to personally smack down), right on the tax cuts, right on global warming, right on health care (unlike The New Republic, which has now apologized for its role in scotching Clinton's health reform plan), and so on. Indeed, Chait offers not one example of the blogosphere doing "violence to the truth" in pursuit of some larger ideological goal.

The point here is not to engage in endless blogospheric triumphalism. Like any medium, the blogs have their problems, their lazy and dishonest proprietors, their quirks and failings and limitations. The blogosphere, in fact, is a close cousin of something Chait knows very well: punditry. Just as The New Republic and The American Prospect publish magazines with a mix of articles chosen and edited with an eye toward an array of competing imperatives (newsworthiness, likely impact, ideology, impact on reputation, newsstand sales, et cetera), the bloggers publish blog posts under very similar constraints and with surprisingly similar incentives. If Chait had proven that the occasional differences actually harmed their accuracy, well, that would be one thing. But having sidestepped such claims, he's instead left setting them in opposition to something so fundamental as honesty, despite not establishing any history of lies. It's almost as if his article was affected by forces other than a pure, distilled concern for the truth.

 

Jonathan Chait

Matt Stoller, Chris Bowers, and (to a lesser extent) Ezra Klein devote a lot of space to disputing my decision to use the 2000 Florida recount as a frame for the beginning of the netroots. This is a trivial objection. Any historical analysis has to start someplace, and that place is often a point of contention. Historians debate whether modern liberalism can be traced to Herbert Croly, the German welfare state, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, nineteenth-century trade unionism, or countless other things.

In my article, I wrote that "You can find many such stories if you troll through the netroots. ... But the episode that seems to come up most often is the Florida recount." I chose that episode because, among other reasons, it's cited in the opening paragraph of a book by Jerome Armstrong (who's often called "the Blogfather") and Markos Moulitsas (who runs by far the largest netroots blog). I realize that others, including Stoller, Bowers, and Klein, would like to start the story earlier or later. But this is poor grounds to discredit my argument.

To refresh the readers, the central point of my article was that the netroots have changed American politics for the better, but they have lost sight of the difference between the role of a journalist or an intellectual, on the one hand, and the role of an activist or advocate on the other. Stoller and Bowers demonstrate again, in their reply, that this distinction is completely lost on them.

For instance, they write, "The notion that we're some ruthless band of successful political opportunists ignores the critical fact that the public basically agrees with our attitudes and opinions." What is the contradiction between being a political operative and the public agreeing with you?

They also quote this passage from my article:

What they consider treasonous is any criticism of any part of the Democratic Party or its activist base from the right. You can attack the Democratic leadership in Congress for failing to force a troop withdrawal from Iraq, but you cannot attack it for opposing a troop surge.

"This is utterly unfair and unsupportable," they reply. "We don't oppose the surge because the right is proposing it. We oppose the surge because it is a really horrible idea." Again, this is a non sequitur. Of course they have substantive reasons for their positions. Stoller, as I noted, has called Grover Norquist his political hero. Norquist, too, has substantive ideological goals. My point is that there's a technique they use in common: Once the movement has settled on a position, it will not tolerate members who side with the opposition. I'm not saying that the position itself is unprincipled. I'm describing a tactic they use to advance it. The inability of Bowers and Stoller to distinguish between the morality of their ends and the morality of their means is a good example of the phenomenon I'm describing.

 

As for Klein, he makes one very good point: I did not discuss the Iraq war at great length. There were a lot of salient issues I had to leave out. I left out much discussion of the issue of how the netroots is changing the Democratic Party as well, and Iraq is in some ways a subset of that issue. Despite the length of the article, I simply didn't have room to address every issue. I think the most important effect of the netroots is the creation of a liberal movement to counteract the conservative movement, so that's what I made my focus.

After that, Klein's argument goes downhill. He tries to defend the netroots' treatment of internal enemies, like TNR or the DLC, by arguing that the Iraq war trumps all else. I don't really buy his case--after all, he and many other liberals originally supported the war--but it is a valid opinion to hold. The problem is, that's not the argument the netroots make. Or, at least, it may be the argument that they make in their heads, but it's not the argument they make in public. Having decided that TNR and the DLC are enemies, they go on to accuse their enemies of being monolithic institutions, of being tools of the right, and so on.

I understand the reasoning. They have decided that their foes are more hindrance than harm. But, from there, they proceed to banish all cognitive dissonance: They wildly inflate the sins and studiously omit any mention of the countervailing evidence. Once you have become an unperson to the netroots, you can do no good. Admitting any countervailing evidence would just complicate their Manichean argument. Klein wants to defend their means by changing the subject to their ends.

Let me make one more point about TNR. The magazine has editorially opposed Social Security privatization, and it has published numerous articles criticizing the notion, dating back to a time when opposing privatization outright was considered irresponsibly liberal. Klein cites the fact that we published one pro-privatization article as evidence that we're less correct than the lefty blogosphere. I think the fact that we published a case for privatization by a former Bush economist and esteemed academic along with my own rebuttal (which I humbly deem to have been far more persuasive) was an intellectually useful exercise. I'm guessing John Stuart Mill would agree.

 

Obviously, the most controversial aspect of my article was the point about the netroots' disdain for dispassionate intellectual inquiry. Kevin Drum wrote:

Chait makes an obvious point: netroots bloggers are advocates. Their goal isn't to tell both sides of the story or to engage in dispassionate inquiry. Contrarianism isn't seen as a virtue for its own sake. They have a point of view, and their goal is to marshal the best arguments they can come up with to advocate for that point of view. Political calculation is part of the game. This is unremarkable. In fact, it's so unremarkable that Chait could have simply said this in a paragraph or two and then moved on. It's not as if anyone would argue the point. But instead of doing that, he spins this idea out to nearly 3,000 words using language that seems deliberately designed to be as loaded as possible.

Drum complained that I made such a big deal about an obviously true point. Klein, on the other hand, insists it's untrue. Moreover, he says repeatedly that I provided no examples. This is just weird. I wrote about the hysterical treatment of liberal heretics, the propagandistic use of the epithet "chickenhawk" to dismiss any and all critics, and the attack on Salon for reporting fairly on the Edwards blogger fiasco. I didn't provide even more examples because, like Drum, I thought the point was simply obvious.

The stronger evidence is that liberal bloggers themselves say that their role is to effect positive change rather than describe the world exactly as they see it regardless of the consequences. A couple years ago, one moderate liberal blogger mentioned to me in passing that he didn't like my column on Cindy Sheehan, in which I argued that the politics of personal authority were essentially illiberal (among other things, troops and their families are disproportionately conservative). I asked him what he didn't like about my argument. He replied that the argument was perfectly sound, but Sheehan was causing trouble for Bush and he didn't think I should hinder that dynamic. Then, last year, Matthew Yglesias wrote:

With what I consider a great deal of justification, I tried to rigorously ignore the story of Sandy Berger poaching documents when it was first being pushed by conservatives who wanted to use it as a lever to continue grossly failed foreign and domestic policies. That said, it's a long way from Election Day and, seriously, a new Inspector General report says he "removed classified documents from the National Archives, hid them under a construction trailer and later tried to find the trash collector to retrieve them, the agency's internal watchdog said Wednesday." Hid them under a trash collector!

(I found this courtesy of Brendan Nyhan). Yglesias straightforwardly says that he went out of his way to avoid commenting on chicanery by a Democrat because it would help the GOP. I keep citing Yglesias here not because he's the biggest hack but because he's one of the few who's honest enough to be straightforward about his motivations. The netroots bloggers are obviously far more partisan than wonkosphere bloggers like Yglesias and Klein, but they exert a strong gravitational pull.

 

Now, here's why this is significant. Klein wants to turn the whole discussion into an argument about which side was "right." Of course, there's no such thing. I am not arguing that there is some single Truth and that honest journalists convey it while netroots activists and their allies do not. Being "right" about Social Security privatization or the Iraq war is a matter of opinion.

What I'm arguing is that there's such a thing as the truth as an individual sees it. The netroots method is to severely discourage any truths that undercut the liberal message. I concede that this is politically effective, even necessary in the face of a right-wing message machine. What I continue to dispute is that this is the only appropriate ethos for conducting political discourse.

The Internet has become a place where true believers go for affirmation of their beliefs. Conservatives and liberals may debate philosophy or tactics, or excoriate politicians for compromising, but when it comes to disputes between Republicans and Democrats they brook no dissent and refuse to acknowledge inconvenient truths. Conservatives won't talk about Paul Wolfowitz because it will help the liberal agenda, while liberals won't talk about Sandy Berger because it will help the conservative agenda.

This may be better than the old world, where conservatives all toed the line while liberals demonstrated independence, but it isn't good. Liberal discourse is increasingly becoming a mirror image of conservative discourse--a Petri dish where the outrages of the other side are endlessly recycled and malfeasance by your own side ignored. Those who "repeat conservative frames" are either dismissed because they're conservatives ("wingnuts") or, if they're not, they're dismissed as "concern trolls" or "wankers."

The netroots consider this state of affairs not just a necessary evil but something to be celebrated. As Atrios wrote earlier this year, "the wingnutosphere [i.e., conservative blogosphere] was always populated by lunatic morons, but back in the old days we actually felt obliged to engage them. Now we just mock them. Much better."

I'm not saying the traditional media ethos is perfect. In fact, I've spent years criticizing fake even-handedness. When you're a priori committed to locating the blame for any problem halfway between the two parties, you've corrupted your ability to describe the world fairly. But when you're a priori committed to always advancing the interests of one side, you're doing the same. The difference is that the problems with the mainstream media are correctable--indeed, they are being corrected, as I'd say coverage has dramatically improved in recent years--because mainstream journalists believe in the goal of objectivity or intellectual fair play.

Klein defends this with a kind of ultra-relativist argument: We all have our biases, none of us is pure, so there's no real way to say who's the propagandist. It's like saying the United States is no more democratic than Egypt. You can point to acts of political repression in the United States (and to the existence of dissent in Egypt) to deny a distinction, but, in the end, it's just sophistry.

In a recent blog post, he takes the argument in his reply to its natural conclusion. His subject is groupthink about free-trade among economists:

This is, in fact, one of the things I found irritating about Jon Chait's article on the blogosphere, which sought to set bloggers apart as some sort of new phenomenon wherein speech is evaluated for impact rather than platonic Truth. Every group operates from an internal consensus that, consciously or unconsciously, it seeks to protect. This goes for activist writers of both stripes, of course, but it also holds true for journalists, who protect certain conceptions of their professions and conventional judgments as to the essential characters of politicians and events, and even for economists, many of whom conceive of themselves as locked in some epic battle against rising tides of protectionism.

Yes, journalists and economists can fall prey to their own biases. But does he really think economists in a university are no more biased than a self-proclaimed political activist? Can he not see the difference between someone who is trying to describe the world as he sees it, regardless of where his argument leads him, and somebody who is trying to create a message that will advance liberal politics?

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