Mark Thoma has written a couple of posts about the Journolist story. I have to say that very few of the comments that I have seen, pro or con, have dealt with the issues that concern me.

When people on the right talk among ourselves about people on the left, we sometimes say that people on the left take an “ends-justify-the-means” approach to ethical questions. We tell ourselves that people on the right are obsessive about principles, but people on the left are so convinced that they are good and their opponents are bad that they think they don’t need no stinkin’ principles. It is in that context that the Journolist story strikes a nerve.

I think in terms of ethical boundaries. Here are some examples of where I come down.

1. I think it is acceptable to express hatred, including death wishes. I tend to think that the hater demeans himself but does not commit an ethical violation. My guess is that if I were on a list serv where people did that, it would not make me quit the list serv, but it would not make me feel good about being on that list serv.

2. I think that a journalist is entitled to say something like, “I think we are spending too much time covering story X, because in my opinion it is not really such an important story.”

3. On the other hand, I feel uncomfortable with a journalist saying something along the lines of, “I think we need to suppress story X, or put out story Y to distract people from story X, because story X hurts candidate A.” In that case, you are attempting to design/execute a PR strategy for candidate A. Traditionally, that would not have been ethical for a journalist or newspaper columnist. I think an old-time journalist would have felt out of place on a list serv if these sorts of discussions started taking place.

4. If you say, “we really need to discredit person X or cast aspersions on X,” I think that crosses a line, also. Again, that is what sleazy PR firms do all the time, but it is not what journalism is about, in my perhaps old-fashioned and certainly not-professional opinion. If somebody has committed an offense that has not been exposed, then expose the offense. But if you find someone offensive, that does not by itself justify smearing the person. Even less does it justify conspiring to smear the person.

Those examples convey some idea of how I would draw ethical boundaries. I would be curious as to how Journolisters would go about articulating their ethical boundaries. They may look at it totally differently, not finding my distinctions helpful at all. That’s fine.

Listservs come and go. Ethical boundaries are more important in the long run.