But what the complaints don’t recognize is that this approach isn’t only about self-aggrandizement or a license for punditry (which, actually, didn’t appear often on Weigel’s “official” blog). It’s a response to the straitjacket of “traditional” journalism, which presumes that there is only one way to tell a given story, and that all professional journalists will converge on it. It’s a tool to get past false equivalence and he-said/she-said reporting and blandly written, conventional-wisdom-spewing “news analysis” stories, and of saying, “Here is what I, an intelligent, critical observer who has earned your trust (or not) by virtue of my prior work, find to be interesting, newsworthy, and true—and, as important, what I find to be not true.” It is one response to the very real editorial failures of political journalism, which too often result in mummified, sterile accounts that fail to inform readers of what is actually at stake. Here’s Tkacik again:
From a commercial perspective, “branding” has consistently bestowed its greatest rewards on those capable of projecting a kind of elusive authority that turns consumers’ fears, insecurities, aspirations, unarticulated dreams, etc. into healthy profit margins. But a sense of humanity is also a kind of authority. And maybe the best policy for our beaten-down population of journalists just naturally involves letting down the old guard of objectivity and letting go of illusions of unimpeachability. Rather than train journalists to dismiss their own experiences, what if we trained them to use those experiences to help them explain the news to their audience? Allow their humanity to shape their journalism? This isn’t some radically profound notion—it only seems that way in the context of the ridiculous zero-sum debate over the relative merits of “straight” news versus the self-absorbed nature of blogs. Maybe there is a way to combine the best of both.
Of course, the existence of this model does not mean that there are no rules (Weigel was right to apologize for some of his comments, and he’s now offered futher reflections on what he calls his “hubris”), and it does not mean that the journalist is allowed to be complacent and incurious (here,
Amy Sullivan, a frequent critic of media coverage of conservatives, presents an argument against Weigel on these grounds). Nor does it mean that we all must become persona-cultivating, brand-building bloggers in order to live up to our mission as truth-tellers—there are plenty of political journalists, including some at the Post, who pack insight and discernment into the standard forms.
But it does mean that institutions like the Post have both an opportunity and an obligation to take advantage of what this new model offers—to find a way to, as Tkacik writes, “combine the best of both.” Instead, at the first sign of trouble, they cut Weigel loose. And rather than thinking about how it might have made this experiment work—for example, by making clear to readers this was an experiment in a new form, or by providing support from an editor who could help Weigel navigate the shifting terrain—the Post seems determined to draw the wrong conclusions. A point-missing blog post by the paper’s ombudsman, Andy Alexander, contained this passage:
“I don’t think you need to be a conservative to cover the conservative movement,” [managing editor Raju] Narisetti told me late today. “But you do need to be impartial… in your views.”
He said that when Weigel was hired, he was vetted in the same way that other prospective Post journalists are screened. He interviewed with a variety of top editors, his writings were reviewed and his references were checked, Narisetti said.
“But we’re living in an era when maybe we need to add a level” of inquiry, he said. “It may be in our interests to ask potential reporters: ‘In private… have you expressed any opinions that would make it difficult for you to do your job.”
Who knows what that remark about being “impartial… in your views” is supposed to mean, or whether it would make any more sense without the ellipses; focus instead on that last line. If there is any reporter anywhere who has not expressed views in private, or on a bar stool, that might make it difficult for him to do his job were they made public—and I doubt that there is—he is barely a sentient human being, let alone a good journalist.