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July 25, 2013 3:59 PM The Right-Wing JournoList

By Ed Kilgore

For some richly ironic reading, check out David Corn’s piece at MoJo on the conservative message coordination organization Groundswell, which has sought to build media “narratives” combatting not only progressive arguments and story-lines, but those of the sell-our RINOs of the Republican Establishment.

Like the famed JournoList (of which I was a pretty active member), a virtual watering hole for progressive journalists, social scientists and policy experts that was folded by its founder, Ezra Klein, in 2010, after the Daily Caller started publishing leaked and heavily expurgated passages from its off-the-record content, Groundswell utilizes a Google Group. Unlike JournoList, Groundswell’s contributors don’t seem interested in the chatter over sports and books and social science data that consumed a lot of the time spent on JournoList. From Corn’s account, it sounds like Groundswell is all about political warfare and laying down an ideological line, 24-7. (This is a rebuttable presumption which participants should quickly, and if they wish, anonymously, swat down if they actually convene March Madness pools and discuss research topics).

Also unlike JournoList, Groundswell holds actual meetings, timed to directly conflict, tellingly, with Grover Norquist’s famed Wednesday Meetings of the GOP Establishment and its various affiliates.

Who are these guys? Corn provides these names:

One of the influential conservatives guiding the group is Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, a columnist for the Daily Caller and a tea party consultant and lobbyist. Other Groundswell members include John Bolton, the former UN ambassador; Frank Gaffney, the president of the Center for Security Policy; Ken Blackwell and Jerry Boykin of the Family Research Council; Tom Fitton, the president of Judicial Watch; Gayle Trotter, a fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum; Catherine Engelbrecht and Anita MonCrief of True the Vote; Allen West, the former GOP House member; Sue Myrick, also a former House GOPer; Diana Banister of the influential Shirley and Banister PR firm; and Max Pappas, a top aide to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).
Among the conveners listed in an invitation to a May 8 meeting of Groundswell were Stephen Bannon, executive chairman of Breitbart News Network; Dan Bongino, a former Secret Service agent who resoundingly lost a Maryland Senate race last year (and is now running for a House seat); Leonard Leo, executive vice president of the Federalist Society; Sandy Rios, a Fox News contributor; Lori Roman, a former executive director of the American Legislative Exchange Council; and Austin Ruse, the head of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute. Conservative journalists and commentators participating in Groundswell have included Breitbart News reporters Matthew Boyle and Mike Flynn, Washington Examiner executive editor Mark Tapscott, and National Review contributor Michael James Barton.

The presence of a Daily Caller columnist and various writers for the Breitbart enterprises is especially ironic, as Corn notes:

The participation of journalists in coordinating messaging with ideological advocates and political partisans raises another set of issues. Conservatives expressed outrage when news broke in 2009 about Journolist, a private email list where several hundred progressive-minded reporters, commentators, and academics exchanged ideas and sometimes bickered. (I was on Journolist, mainly as a lurker.) The late Andrew Breitbart once offered $100,000 for the full Journolist archives and denounced it as “the epitome of progressive and liberal collusion that conservatives, Tea Partiers, moderates and many independents have long suspected and feared exists at the heart of contemporary American political journalism.” The Groundswell documents show conservative journalists, including several with Breitbart News, colluding on high-level messaging with leading partisans of the conservative movement.

So if these people are baldly hypocritical (or engaged in a parody of what they thought JournoList represented), am I a hypocrite as well for writing about this? I don’t think so. I’m not ripping direct quotes wildly out of context to claim a vast conspiracy aimed at manipulating news. And more to the point, I don’t have a particular problem with like-minded people who are involved in or who write about politics talking to each other off-the-record. General message-coordination happens on the Left and Right all the time without this sort of mechanism, simply because like-minded people tend to focus on the same topics and make many of the same arguments. If the Groundswell people share the lamentable delusion that writing the same words in a headline or story (or in source material supplied to journalists) adds immeasurably to their power, let them waste their time doing that. So far as I know, that sort of cicada-like grinding away at a cookie-cutter message never much happened via JournoList, and was very alien to the rowdy and argumentative spirit of the enterprise.

I do think Groundswell is doomed to failure as a direct rival of coordination efforts like Norquist’s, unless there’s some Koch or Super-PAC money in the background. What always made Grover’s Wednesday meetings powerful was the K Street money at the table, along with representatives of actual grassroots conservative organizations. A bunch of gabbers, however loud and repetitive, will have trouble competing with that—or for that matter, with the right-wing funders and activists outside Washington who actually agree with them that America’s going to hell in a handbasket woven by secular-socialists and RINOs.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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