It’s been three days since David Weigel, the reporter and blogger best known for his coverage of the conservative movement, resigned from The Washington Post after intemperate remarks he’d made on a private e-mail list about some of his subjects were made public. In that time many smart things have been written and said about a reporter’s responsibilities—and the relationship between reporting, opinion, and analysis—in the modern media environment.
Some not-very-smart things have also been said. Unfortunately, several of the
latter have emanated from the precincts of Weigel’s erstwhile employer, which seems to understand it has to find a way to incorporate into its pages the intelligence and energy that is flourishing in some quarters of online political journalism—witness the hiring of Weigel, Ezra Klein, and Greg Sargent—but also to be determined to protect the sacraments of newspaper reporting as they are traditionally understood, for better and, unfortunately, for worse. Consider these thoughts from several anonymous Post staffers which were relayed Friday in a blog post by The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg:
“This is not just sour grapes about the sudden rise of these untrained kids, though I have to think that some people in the building resent them for bypassing the usual way people rise here. This is really about the serial stupidity of allowing these bloggers to trade on the name of the Washington Post.”
“It makes me crazy when I see these guys referred to as reporters. They’re anything but. And they hurt the newspaper when they claim to be reporters.”
“Ezra Klein is a talented guy, but he’s just an absolute partisan. If this is where journalism has to go, so be it, but I don’t want to go there.”
“The lack of toilet-training is right. Everyone makes mistakes, but you can mitigate the number of mistakes through seasoning. Some people here are still put through seasoning, but others aren’t. It shows, and it’s embarrassing.”
It is pretty clear those comments reflect not just a response to the current controversy, but a generalized dislike of the new crop of online journalists, one that’s not necessarily informed by a close reading of their output. (Other than founding the e-mail list from which Weigel’s remarks were leaked, and recommending Weigel to the Post, Klein had nothing to do with the recent episode. Meanwhile, though his stint at the Post may not represent his best work, Weigel is
clearly a talented reporter. He grabbed the story of a resurgent conservative movement sooner than almost anyone else, followed it to places many reporters didn’t know existed, and in both his straight reporting and analysis he brought fair-mindedness and a commitment to accuracy to the job.)
So what are the revanchists at the Post objecting to? A lot of things, probably, not least the professional threat posed by the relentlessly prolific Web-native crew. But I think the fault being found with folks like Weigel and Klein here is not only that they blur the lines between opinion, analysis, and reporting, or that they are too obvious about
what’s presumed to be the latent liberalism of the national press (a charge that’s incoherent as applied to Weigel, whose own politics are hardly those of a standard-issue liberal). It’s that they have cultivated a journalistic persona—an individual voice, a body of experience shared with readers, and a lens through which they view the world—that colors everything they do, from writing for the Post to writing on personal blogs to sending messages over Twitter, and that is not thoroughly subordinated to the institutional imperatives of the Post.
In other words, they’ve built their own brands, which put their selves at
the center of their work—as Maureen Tkacik writes in the cover story of the May/June issue of CJR, “one’s humanity is inescapable when one commits to blogging all day for a living.” It’s easy to see the economic advantages to them in doing so, and to see the advantages to the Post in acquiring those brands. It’s also easy to see why some Post staffers would object for reasons beyond self-interest: when one’s humanity is always on display, there are going to be some embarrassing moments, no matter how much “toilet-training” has been
provided, and those moments will reflect poorly on the institution.