Hugh Hewitt: JournoList members silent on slander 

If JournoLista Spencer Ackerman had proposed a coordinated physical assault on Fred Barnes or Karl Rove instead of just a vicious smear campaign -- Ackerman proposed that the men be branded "racist" as a means of protecting then-candidate Barack Obama from the fallout of the Jeremiah Wright tapes -- would any of the liberal activists masquerading as journalists have stepped forward to object to the plan or to at least tip off Barnes or Rove that they had been targeted for harm by the secret society of Obama's "nonofficial campaign" staffers?

The Daily Caller may yet have even more damning e-mails from the collective of peoples' journalists established by the Washington Post's Ezra Klein, but it will be the Ackerman e-mail inciting a campaign of slander again Barnes or Rove that ought to be taught in every class devoted to "ethics in journalism" over the next few decades.

Weeks and weeks in such classes are given over to the Pentagon Papers case, but that drama involved choices made by a handful of senior news media executives and a similar circumstance is highly unlikely to ever confront even a handful of elite journalists.

The Ackerman question, "What should a journalist do when he or she knows one of his colleagues is set out on an immoral and repulsive abuse of their position?" is by contrast one that will recur again and again in the life of most journalists. It certainly confronted every member of JournoList who read the Ackerman post in question, and, apparently, every single one of them flunked the test it presented.

On March 13, 1964, New Yorker Kitty Genovese was attacked and killed near the entrance to her Queens home. The murder remains a much discussed incident because of the number of ordinary New Yorkers who are thought to have heard her cries for help or in some way to have observed all or part of the assault on her and yet to have done nothing.

The number of people who should have responded but didn't is much debated, but the moral opprobrium that attaches to the idea of the bystander to crime who does nothing to assist the victim isn't debated at all.

Whether the inaction is born of callousness or cowardice doesn't matter much in the minds of most people. The near universal moral judgment about people who could stop harm to victims but don't is that they are guilty of a significant character flaw.

There are three explanations for the inaction of JournoList members to the Ackerman e-mail.

First, many will say they did not notice the post. Ignorance of what was being debated on JournoList in the middle of an extremely intense episode in a presidential campaign is hard to believe if a JournoList member had been anywhere near the message board in the days before or after the specific posting.

We cannot say for certain who did and did not participate in that debate or in the online proceedings before or after, but what is odd is that no JournoList member has stepped forward even now to condemn Ackerman or to assert that he or she was nowhere near the message board during that time.

There have been many posts and many articles about the episode, but none of the commenting journalists or their bosses has yet thought it necessary to say that what Ackerman did was repulsive and ought to have provoked a strong condemning reaction from any real journalist seeing it.

This silence is a damning admission about the craft of the Manhattan-Beltway media elite. It is, for its overwhelmingly liberal members, a guild, and members of the guild will not readily state even obvious things about the failings of their fellow guild members.

They will not do so even when the offense is one directed at a fellow professional reporter such as Fred Barnes, who is widely admired and understood to be among the real gentlemen of the business. It will be simply impossible to listen to lectures on ethics from any of the editors who have said nothing about this episode, any more than it would be possible to take pointers on ethics from Charlie Rangel's accountant or lawyer.

Either you know disgusting abuse of power when you see it and you condemn it, or you don't.

The second and third explanations for the silence of the lefty lambs are the two mentioned about callousness or cowardice.

Some will admit over a drink or two or three that they read the Ackerman post and didn't think it was that big of a deal. Ackerman's a third-tier scribbler without much swing, they will explain, and a known hothead to boot. There was no need to rebuke a bit player.

Others will shrug and admit that they didn't need the grief that would follow if the lefty hive turned on them for daring to point out that Ackerman had suggested the very sort of smear campaign that was a favorite tactic of the old East Bloc nomenklatura about the business of disciplining dissident writers. The Union of Soviet Writers may have officially disbanded, but its spirit lived on in the JournoList.

Keep watching for any big name inside the Manhattan-Beltway media elite to step forward with a focused, thorough and tough assessment of what JournoList generally and Ackerman specifically means for the news business. As in the aftermath of Rathergate in 2004, you will be waiting a long time. There are already efforts to conflate the scandal with the Breitbart-Sherrod story, or to dismiss its significance altogether.

These will not succeed. JournoList began as a club, grew into an ongoing attempt to shape the news that then evolved into an informal political action committee, which changed again into the fourth estate's version of President Nixon's plumbers.

Like the plumbers, the JournoListas got caught. Unlike what followed in the aftermath of exposure of Beltway wrongdoing in the '70s, however, the editors of the Post and the Times are not interested in the details or in assuring it doesn't happen again.

Examiner Columnist Hugh Hewitt is a law professor at Chapman University Law School and a nationally syndicated radio talk show host who blogs daily at HughHewitt.com

About The Author

Hugh Hewitt

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Hugh Hewitt is a law professor at Chapman University Law School and a nationally syndicated radio talk show host who blogs daily at HughHewitt.com.

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