In Defense of “Groundswell,’ the Secret Conservative Messaging Group

David Corn has another scoop.

Photo by Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

David Corn’s latest scoop from the right-wing universe is about “Groundswell,” a group of conservatives that “has been meeting privately since early this year to concoct talking points, coordinate messaging, and hatch plans for ‘a 30 front war seeking to fundamentally transform the nation.’ ” They meet weekly at the offices of Judicial Watch and talk “through a Google group.” Invitees to one meeting included Breitbart.com’s Steve Bannon, Matt Boyle, and Mike Flynn and the Washington Examiner’s Mark Tapscott. Disclosure, even though they probably don’t want to read it: I know all of those guys.

Still, as someone who belonged to a liberal listserv—JournoList—in 2009 and 2010, this intrigued me. (Back in 2010 Tapscott wrote a column titled “First came Climategate, now it’s JournoList; Who’s next for an email scandal?” I guess we know!) Corn’s story goes into detail about what was produced by Groundswell meetings, and finds a good amount of message coordination. One example:

At the March 27 meeting, Groundswell participants discussed one multipurpose theme they had been deploying for weeks to bash the president on a variety of fronts, including immigration reform and the sequester: Obama places “politics over public safety.” In a display of Groundswell’s message-syncing, members of the group repeatedly flogged this phrase in public. Frank Gaffney penned a Washington Times op-ed titled “Putting Politics Over Public Safety.” Tom Fitton headlined a Judicial Watch weekly update “Politics over Public Safety: More Illegal Alien Criminals Released by Obama Administration.” Peter List, editor of LaborUnionReport.com, authored a RedState.com post called “Obama’s Machiavellian Sequestration Pain Game: Putting Politics Over Public Safety.” Matthew Boyle used the phrase in an immigration-related article for Breitbart. And Dan Bongino promoted Boyle’s story on Twitter by tweeting, “Politics over public safety?” In a message to Groundswellers, Ginni Thomas awarded “brownie points” to Fitton, Gaffney, and other members for promoting the “politics over public safety” riff.

The knock on the old JournoList was always that its members were colluding, coordinating, on political messages. The most ironic of the Daily Caller’s JournoList stories was headlined “Journolisters debate making coordination with Obama explicit”—ironic because what actually happened was a writer for Harper’s asking whether the list should “co-ordinate a message of the week,” and Ezra Klein saying “Nope, no message coordination. I’m not even sure that would be legal.” The “debate” ended in a definitive no, and no one covering the listserv years later really took the time to prove that JournoList’s reporters, columnists, and academics ever really coordinated messages.

So: If that offended you in 2010, you really should be offended by Groundswell today. Or should you? One email list does not equal another. When I asked Boyle about Corn’s story, he very politely declined to talk on the record but pointed me to the editorial he wrote when he left the Daily Caller for Breitbart. “Obama is an ideological extremist liberal who’s demonstrated he’s incapable of compromise,” he wrote. “That’s not even to mention the fact the president’s radical past has never been fully examined for the American people.” Boyle was telling his readers that he had a point of view, and that he was in a “war” with the establishment.

I’m inclined to agree with him, but that might be harder for people outraged by JournoList. The obvious difference between something like Groundswell and something like JournoList, allegedly, is that the second group’s members represented more of the mainstream media. But that was always an inflated claim—most of the people quoted in damning JournoList stories were avowedly liberal. The idea of a group of liberals or a group of conservatives meeting in “secret” is actually pretty mundane.

That’s why I don’t see any real scandal with Groundswell. Conservative news outlets talking to conservatives on background? Who didn’t figure that was happening anyway? The one difference worth pointing out, really, is that Groundswell included/includes Max Pappas, a top aide to Sen. Ted Cruz. JournoList had a strict ban on members who joined the government. In July 2010, Volokh.com’s Jim Lindgren thought he spotted a scandal when Jared Bernstein, then chief economist to Joe Biden, was revealed to be a JournoLister. “It would appear that Bernstein’s presence on the list violated Klein’s first rule, since he met the test of working ‘for the government in any capacity,’ ” declared Lindgren.

Unfortunately for him, a source ruined the story. It turned out that Bernstein sent a farewell email to the list three days before his job was announced. “I hope to have a lot more in the next few days,” wrote Lindgren. He never did, probably because Bernstein really did leave the list, and never sent anything to it in the time I spent as a member—again, January 2009 to its termination in 2010. The ban on government employees, employed to prevent coordination, stayed in place.

With that in mind, I introduce the JOURNOLIST CHALLENGE OF 2013. See that graf from Corn’s piece above, with all the repetitions of the stock messaging phrase? Using the information available to you, I will buy a beer (preferably Dogfish Head) for anyone who can find just as many incidences—five—of JournoList members repeating a message after being told to.