It’s About Idiosyncrasy, Not Ideology

Learning to live with opinions at the Post

Plenty has been written about Dave Weigel’s departure from The Washington Post. But Andrew Alexander, the Post ombudsman, made a small point in his latest column that I can’t just leave alone.

First, full disclosure: I worked occasionally as Weigel’s editor at The Washington Independent (and can vouch for the fact that he’s a real reporter). And I was a member (though usually just a lurker) of JournoList, the private list where Weigel posted some messages that caused him all kinds of trouble.

Writing about readers’ apparent confusion over when Post writers and editors are permitted to express their own opinions, Alexander said:

Where reporters once were encouraged to conceal their opinions, some Post journalists now are hired to express them on the Web site.

As a reader of the paper and the website, it seems to me that there is still a pretty crisp line between those who can and those who can’t, and opinion writing is hardly an innovation in journalism. But Alexander is having trouble with that distinction, and messing it up for the rest of us.

He went on to mention Ezra Klein and his “opinionated blog” on economic and domestic policy issues. Alexander was hung up on whether readers who read Klein’s Sunday column in the business section of the newspaper should be told that he’s a “well-established liberal,” as evidenced online.

But I want to quibble with that other bit—about journalists hired to express their opinions on the Web site—because it misses an important point.

What’s exciting and interesting about the Post’s strong online voices isn’t that they were hired to express their opinions. It’s that they’re free of the old constraints of the MSM, and free of the notion that people who write for it aren’t allowed to have their own opinions, in life, much less in print.

At the Post, that was most sharply illustrated by Leonard Downie Jr., the former editor who declared that he didn’t vote in order to preserve his objectivity.

When he left the paper in 2008, Downie said he still wasn’t going to vote in that year’s election, telling Washington City Paper:

I’m not voting in November because I’ve kept my mind open about the candidates and issues during two years or so of having ultimate responsibility for our campaign coverage, so I just don’t feel ready to vote in this election. I’ll have a clean slate after that.”

That doesn’t make much sense to me. He was paying too much attention to vote?

In any case, it’s not a claim that I’d expect Klein, or Weigel, to make, and that’s a good thing. Instead, as Klein wrote in response to Alexander, after mentioning some of the positions he’s taken on health-care reform and financial regulation:

The point here isn’t to show that I’ve been at odds with some liberals on some things. Rather, it’s to show that like most people, I have my own, slightly idiosyncratic, take on matters. That’s why my Sunday column isn’t identified as liberal or conservative, and neither is this blog. Both are identified by my name and my face. And in my view, that’s proper. These aren’t liberal conclusions and they’re not conservative conclusions. These are my conclusions, and my job is to explain how, and why, I’ve reached them. People will find plenty to disagree with in those conclusions, but then, they find plenty to disagree with in reported articles, too, a fact I imagine Alexander knows better than most.

Well said.

There’s just on other thing. Thinking about Downie’s non-voting policy made me curious about where his successor, Marcus Brauchli, stands on the question. I found this, at Portfolio:

“I don’t belong to a political party but do vote. Len’s philosophy makes great sense, and I respect it, but I also believe that journalists should be able to make choices in all aspects of their private lives without those choices affecting the balance and fairness of their work.”

Whoa. That’s pretty interesting— especially given something that the Post’s managing editor, Raju Narisetti, told Alexander in a recent blog post. Weigel “was vetted in the same way that other prospective Post journalists are screened,” 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.

Hmm. As my CJR colleague Greg Marx put it,

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.

I think Greg got it right. And I hope that, as the Post moves forward with its online experiment, Brauchli remembers what he said about voting, and lets his reporters, and potential reporters, go on with their private lives.

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Holly Yeager is CJR's Peterson Fellow, covering fiscal and economic policy. She is based in Washington and reachable at