Thursday, July 22, 2010

JournoList, Breitbart, and the Prisoner's Dilemma

JournoList was an e-mail list created by Ezra Klein for liberal opinion setters to have off-the-record conversations. It has been on the fringe of news for a couple of years, but about a month ago, in reaction to some incident, Andrew Breitbart offered $100,000 for the full JournoList archives.

The list had 400 members. None of them would want the list to be made public because in the 25,000 e-mails that make up the archive, there must be numerous things that would be very embarrassing. However, the logic of the prisoner's dilemma suggests that it would be quite likely that someone would move to grab the money. And if you know that others have that incentive, you might was well be the one to collect the $100K

I do not know if someone collected, but the offer has been withdrawn and the Daily Caller has begun to publish articles about what is in the archives. The former JournoListers complain that things are taken out of context, but are unwilling to release the archives so everyone can take a peak. It would seem that if Breitbart got the archives, the articles would be on his BigJournalism site, not on the Daily Caller, but Breitbart is a master of media messaging, and maybe he wants the details to come out elsewhere.

In addition to being a wonderful illustration of a real world prisoner's dilemma situation, there are two other things that I find interesting about this whole incident. The first is that some apparently bright people did not realize that whatever you put out into the Internet (and an e-mail list-serve is part of the Internet) should not be considered private. I am constantly appalled at what young people put on Facebook, but stupidity is part of being young. That supposedly sophisticated journalists would make the same mistake is comic.

The second is a failure to recognize that intentions are not enough. Jonathan Chiat writes, "Let me disabuse everybody by revealing that Journolist was not created for people to work out some party line." What he fails to recognize is that as organizations and interactions continue, they often (usually?) drift into new purposes and new uses. It was almost inevitable that a list like this, with all conservatives kept off (epistemic closure is alive and well on the Left) would at some time be used to work out partisan party lines. Moreover, one of the differences between conservatives and liberals is that conservatives are more likely to be concerned with unintended consequences and actual effects and less interested in the motivations or intentions than are liberals. I think the defense of JournoList will show that tendency--the defense will focus on intentions, not results.

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