Fear Not That the Walls Have Ears; Fear That They Have Tongues! (Jim Fallows Fears His Email Edition)
Jim Fallows is scared of his email. I think he is wrong.
Check out Josh Green's memo haul: [I]t is very much worth reading my colleague Joshua Green's new story about what went wrong with Hillary Clinton's campaign, and the trove of memos he collected while reporting the story.... The magnum opus among the memos, based on what I've seen, is this one from Mark Penn, which is sure to be parsed and reflected-upon for months and years.
Related thought that comes to my mind while reading through these documents: I make my living writing things down, but even I have reached the point where I am not willing to put any sentiment whatsoever into reproducible form -- in an email that could be forwarded, in a document that could be cut-and-pasted -- without thinking about how it would look if it got into unintended hands.
That is, the perfection of the technology for spreading and sharing written material has made writing weirdly less useful for conveying private thought. It's risky as a way to share thoughts about running a political campaign; it's reckless as a way to say anything about any other person you might not want him or her to hear. The evolution of technology may return us to the era when the no-tech face-to-face meeting, or the hard-to-copy handwritten note, is the most secure means of communication. And when written statements, even in the "privacy" of email, are necessarily blanded-down by pre-knowledge that they could turn up somewhere unexpected months or years or decades later.
Two thoughts. First, Jim Fallows has clearly not yet figured out how small and how good tape recorders are: meetings are no protection. Second, for most of us the big problem has never been that people will repeat what we say, but rather that they will repeat what we did not say--or take what we say out of context.
I think the solution has four parts:
- Say what you mean.
- Be polite and charitable about those with whom you disagree--or at least adopt the manners of a gentleman, who is someone who never says anything that might give offense unintentionally.
- Memorialize your conversations.
- Insist that everything remain in its proper context.
And this is where people like Dana Milbank and organizations like the Washington Post are absolutely poisonous. We remember how Milbank took Barack Obama's:
It has become increasingly clear in my travel, the campaign, that the crowds, the enthusiasm, 200,000 people in Berlin, is not about me at all. It's about America. I have just become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions...
And turned it into:
President Obama Continues Hectic Victory Tour: Barack Obama has long been his party's presumptive nominee. Now he's becoming its presumptuous nominee. Fresh from his presidential-style world tour... Obama settled down to some presidential-style business in Washington.... The 5:20 TBA turned out to be his adoration session with lawmakers in the Cannon Caucus Room.... Inside, according to a witness, he told the House members, "This is the moment... that the world is waiting for," adding: "I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions"...
In such a world as this one in which we live in, email and other means of communication that automatically create a record that can be used to push back against distortions is a blessing.
Here, for the record, is Mark Penn's email: http://www.j-bradford-delong.net/2008_pdf/20080812_Penn_Memo.pdf